In my last blog post, I detailed and explained the concept of “Flunk” in preaching. In this blog, I would like to highlight the lessons that I have learned from “Flunk.” This article is reprinted by permission from The African American Pulpit, Winter 2002–2003.
Flunk likes big occasions
Every preaching assignment is a big occasion, and therefore has the potential for Flunk, but some sermons, lectures, etc. are bigger and more important occasions. For example, when we Flunk at home, redemption is always readily available. Our members love us and they say things like, “Pastor cannot hit a home run every week. Even professional baseball players strike out one out of every three times at bat.” Our members love us and are able to put our preaching in the effective curvature of our entire ministry, and offer us much grace. I have said to many a member who said, “Pastor that was a great sermon,” “That’s only because you love me.” The love of the people for the pastor covers a multitude of homiletical sins. But it is a different matter all together when Flunk meets you “on the road.” There is not as much love and grace. People say things like, “They said that the preacher had so many credentials. With all those awards, titles, and degrees, I thought he (she) was really going to preach. He (she) must have bought all that stuff, because they did not preach their way out of a wet paper bag.”
Some preaching assignments are what we call “major.” The number of people that you are preaching to, or, if it is a “house” that many preachers desire to preach in is not what determines if it is major. Major is decided according to whether the occasion is important to you. Major can be different things to different preachers, but the more that you want to do well, this makes the occasion more major to you, and the more likely the inclination of Flunk to attend.
This is the first rule of Flunk: the bigger the occasion, the more Flunk likes to show up.
Flunk likes lack of prayer preparation
Flunk most frequently occurs when the preacher has not prepared him or herself for the preaching task in prayer. Very often, Flunk is a direct result of a lack of prayer by the preacher. Sometimes the people do not pray, but most likely it is a lack of prayer by the preacher. Sometimes we do not utter one word of prayer until we stand in the pulpit before the people, or when we enter the church to get ready to preach. Usually, it is too late then, though God is sometimes gracious for the sake of the people. Flunk usually occurs when we have not “stood on prayin’ ground” and prayed ourselves to the place in God from which all good preaching flows. At the hotel late at night, I had to be brutally honest with Flunk and admit that I had not “stood on prayin ground.”
Flunk likes lack of sermonic preparation
Right along with a lack of prayer preparation, Flunk most frequently occurs when the preacher has not adequately prepared the sermon. Often, we will preach one of our “war horses” (a sermon that God has moved mightily through before in several settings, so we believe that we can ride it in any setting). Because it is a war horse, we think that we do not need to spend extensive time going over the text or our notes. We do not read the Scripture afresh. We do not ask God for a fresh word in a familiar sermon. We assume that because God blessed through the sermon in the past, that God will bless again. We say to ourselves that we do not have to worry because we have preached this sermon many times.
Flunk likes a non-rested body and pre-occupied mind
Flunk usually occurs when the preacher does not have a rested body and mind. Usually the preacher has not had any rest. The reasons are many and varied as to why the preacher did not get rest. Sometimes when we are out of town we will fellowship with preachers late into the day, and when we get back to the hotel, we do not have time for adequate rest. Sometimes there are problems at the church that we are trying to handle on the road involving many long phone calls. Sometimes there are problems at home, if there is a spouse or children, they are clamoring for our attention. Sometimes we have neglected our physical bodies by abusing them with a lack of exercise and poor diet. Sometimes it is collectively the long hours and arduous demands of ministry that wear us down. Sometimes we are doing too much. We said, “Yes” to one to many engagements. Sometimes we have internal conflicts and situations that are personal to us and no one else. Sometimes planes are delayed and we spend all night in the airport. Sometimes we are sick with the flu, upset stomach, or other ailments. Whatever the reason, the body is not rested and the mind is pre-occupied. Flunk will show up and sit in the back when the preacher is not rested or is pre-occupied.
Flunk likes flawed worship
Flunk usually resides in places where there is flawed worship. Sometimes the people are not worshipping, no one has prayed, the song before you preach does not bless you, the choir is not good and they are long, or you are put up to preach real, real, late and the people are already worn out. Sometimes the preacher spends an inordinate amount of time lifting the offering(s), or the choir director does not show up, or is mad when they arrive, and will not go to the organ when you need them to. Sometimes the microphones are not working, or the lights are dim and you cannot see the manuscript. There are one million details in worship that when left unattended can flaw worship for the preacher. Flunk will come and sit in the front seat of flawed worship.
Flunk likes use of un-spiritual means (gimmicks) to shake Flunk off
Many of us have felt the hands of Flunk around our necks. Many of us will try to shake Flunk off. Flunk has seen many of the measures we use to attempt to shake Flunk off. Flunk likes it when: We go to our favorite material (illustrations) that have nothing to do with the sermon but have always gotten us an “Amen.” We get cute and “showboat” in an attempt to stir the people emotionally and shake Flunk off. We berate the people because they are not “deep” enough to understand where we are coming from. We take an exit ramp, and immediately go to our whoop, trying to throw Flunk off of our trail. We go to our conversion story. We break out into a song. Flunk likes these and other unspiritual means of trying to shake Flunk off. Usually, these unspiritual measures secures Flunk’s tighter grip on our neck.
Flunk hates humility by the preacher
There is only one way to shake Flunk off, humility and dependence on God. Sometimes the sermon cannot be saved by our attempts. When I go to my seat, and I experience the “agony of Flunk”, I have learned to say to God and myself: “Lord, I preached not as I ought, but as I was able.” In other words, I am a human being. I am not a preaching machine. I am dependent upon divine grace and mercy far more than my skill and experience. Also, I have learned it is important to not take myself so seriously and give myself some grace. We will not hit a “home run” or “ring the bell” every night. Preaching is much more about the grace and mercy of Almighty God than we can ever admit or realize. To defeat Flunk, I place myself on the mercy and the grace of Almighty God.
Flunk is a great teacher
Every preacher meets Flunk sooner or later. I have come to believe that God uses Flunk every now and then to teach preachers. Flunk is a great teacher. Flunk will make one not over emphasize the occasion, pray mightily, do more than adequate sermon preparation, get some rest, bring your own praise regardless of the worship of the people, and Flunk will make you humble and dependent on God. Flunk will make you an awesome preacher.
The next time I preached, after having my discussion with Flunk that night at the prestigious seminary, God really blessed and I was the preacher that God would have me be. After Flunk shows up most preachers are awesome at their next preaching engagement. God just might let us Flunk every now and then to keep us humble and remind us who is in charge of the preaching moment.
Frank A. Thomas is the director of the Academy of Preaching and Celebration and the Nettie Sweeney and Hugh Th. Miller Professor of Homiletics at Christian Theological Seminary.
The Academy of Preaching and Celebration at CTS seeks to generate excellence in preaching and worship. To request permission to repost this content, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.