A few weeks ago I taught the story of the centurion to my campus ministry. For two weeks prior, I’ve been thinking about this lesson. I read commentaries and old sermons. I read and reread the passage. I prayed. I took several page of brainstorming notes. I developed the main focus of my lesson. I worked through a couple different application grids. Then I wrote the lesson.
I thought it was going to be a great lesson.
But the lesson bombed.
It might be the worst lesson I’ve taught in over a year.
Why? Several reasons. I was tired. My food hadn’t settled well. My contact lens went berserk, and I could barely see my notes or the Scriptures.
What you do after you teach a bad lesson? Or preach a bad sermon? (I’m a college minister, so I rarely preach.) Every minister, no matter how talented, teaches the occasional bad lesson. It’s inevitable. So it’s helpful to know how to deal with it.
Dealing With a Bad Lesson
1. Remember that God is in control. When I put so much time and thought into my lesson, it is easy to think that the success of the lesson depends upon how well the lesson is. But the Bible promises that God works through the teaching and preaching of His Word. Of course, that doesn’t absolve me from the responsibility of preparation and effort. I just don’t understand how some ministers can bring themselves to teach if they don’t believe that God is at work.
Some of the lessons that I thought were terrible were among the most used by God. While the lessons that I thought were amazing – a few more like this, I think then, and I’ll have to start turning down job offers from other churches – hardly get a response from those listening.
God is at work when I faithfully teach His Word. That is great comfort after a bad lesson.
2. Pray. This follows from the last point, but when I have a bad lesson I am moved to pray more for my ministry and my future lessons. And the prayers help reinforce that God is in control of my ministry. This, in turn, helps me have peace about my failed lesson. And this is needed, because after a failed lesson I begin to think I’m a terrible minister who is hurting his ministry with crappy lessons. I begin to imagine my ministry collapsing over the next few months as people seek for better teaching. Prayer helps me collect my runaway thoughts and focus again on God and His work.
3. Analyze the failure. Whenever I teach a bad lesson, I try to identify what went wrong. Did I have too much content? Was the lesson too academic or impractical for the listeners? Did I prepare properly? Did I work hard on it? I try to pinpoint the things that made the lesson so bad. In fact, if you record your lessons, why not listen to your lesson? That can give you a better sense of your lesson’s problems than your memory will. I know it is difficult to criticize your own lesson, but it can be a huge source of improvement. It’s worth the pain!
4. Read around in books on preaching. I have a few books on sermons preparation. Whenever I teach a bad lesson, I will often spend an hour at home reading some of the sections in these books. Did my lesson fail because of its structure? Then I’ll read sections on sermon structure. Did my lesson fail because of my illustrations? Then I’ll read the sections on the use of illustrations in teaching and preaching.
It is usually best to read these books after you’ve analyzed your lesson or sermon to identify the weak areas of your lesson.
5. Check your pride and selfish ambitions. Sometimes my reaction to my failed lesson is not motivated by a concern for teaching God’s Word faithfully. I want people to view me as a great minister. I want the compliments. I’m interested to increase my reputation so that I can eventually get a well-paying, high-profile preaching job. But these selfish ambitions corrupts a lesson. Lessons motivated by these types of concerns are not likely to be fruitful in a ministry for long.
You can’t avoid bad lessons and sermons. Failure is part of being human. How are you going to deal with the failure? You could lose your motivation. Or you could work to improve your next lesson. I hope you choose the latter.