When Something Goes Wrong

When Something Goes Wrong

Inevitably, there will come a time in your preaching when something will go very wrong,  either in the worship service or in your message.  What do you do then?  For many years I’ve had a practice of asking this question when with a group of preachers: “What’s the funniest thing that has ever happened to you in ministry?”  My original purpose was eventually to edit a book of the stories I heard.  That hasn’t happened, but I did learn how to deal with challenges in ministry with grace, as well as had more than a few good laughs. Over the next few posts I want to look at a couple of things to keep in mind when something goes wrong in your setting.

When You Say the Wrong Thing

when you've said something wrongOne of the stories I heard was from one of my seminary professors.  At the time we were in Manila, at the Lausanne Congress on Worship Evangelization.  Over a bag dinner I asked the question mentioned above.  In order to get the full effect of this event, you have to picture the man.  He was tall, slightly overweight, with a glorious, silver mane of hair, and a ready smile.  The one word that comes to mind when I remember him is “Dignified”.

So what was the funniest thing that ever happened to him?  He told me this story:

He said, “I’m not a very good preacher.  I don’t really like public speaking, and so I’m afraid, in some ways, to preach.  So, I write out a complete manuscript, and then I read my sermon.  This has served me well.  But one day, I was preaching about the pervasiveness of sin.  I was talking about what the Apostle Paul meant when he said that we are either the slaves of Jesus, or we will be the slaves to our sin.

The Image

“As I was preaching, a picture came to mind of an octopus.  It was a powerful image of an octopus reaching out to grab someone. First, he reaches out one tentacle and gets a grip, then another tentacle reaches out and the hold on the person gets stronger.  Then another, and another tentacle reaches out and draws him toward the mouth and toward death.  The image was so strong and powerful that I was sure it was from God.  I stopped reading my manuscript and stepped away from the pulpit because  I wanted the people to get this.  Their attention was focused on me as I leaned forward as I engaged the people directly with this great warning about sin.

How It Went Wrong

“I told them about the image of the octopus reaching out to grab an unsuspecting person.  Unfortunately, I didn’t say that he grabs you with his tentacles.  What I was was that he reaches out and grabs you with his testicles.”

I laughed, and then asked what he did to recover from such a funny mistake.  He laughed and Making a mistakesaid that he went right back to his manuscript and tried to pretend that it never had happened.  Surprisingly, no one called his attention to it after the message.

So What Do You Do When Something Goes Wrong Like This?

Unless you read your manuscript, there will likely come a day when you make a mistake in what you say.  Hopefully, it is not as bad as this distinguished gentleman.  So what do you do then?  That depends a little bit on what your church is like.  The church that this seminary professor was preaching in was extremely conservative, and I suspect a bit horrified about what he said; so horrified that they couldn’t even acknowledge it, so they pretended along with him that it didn’t happen.  If that’s the kind of church that you make a mistake in, pretend it didn’t happen and go on with your sermon.

However, if your church can accept that you are human, that you make mistakes, they are likely to laugh.  If that’s the case, laugh along with them.  There’s nothing so healthy as laughing at yourself.

You may be in a church that is so conservative that they will react by trying to punish you.  When I was in seminary a friend of mine made a similar mistake, though not quite as bad.  The elders of the church met with him to express their discomfort and disgust, and then they contacted the seminary and asked that the young man be disciplined, maybe even thrown out of preparation for ministry.  What do you do if this is the kind of church that your mistake was made in?  The best advice I can think of is to shake the dust off your feet and find somewhere that allows you to be human.

In the next post we’ll look at what to do when something goes wrong, not with your message, but in the rest of the service.


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