Failures, Flubs, Fumbles, & Foibles: What’s Missing in Our Messages?

Blog series:  “Lost in Translation”Using Paul’s engagement with the Athenians in Acts 17 as a backdrop, we are reflecting on the many gaps, disconnections, and misalignments we see across the landscape of ministry, along with some hopeful and constructive suggestions for how to respond faithfully.

My wife and youngest daughter love to watch those music competition shows like American Idol, Sunday’s Best, or The Voice. I’ve been roped into watching more than one of these because democracy rules the remote in the Mixon home.

One of the reasons why I dislike these shows is because I can’t stand watching people embarrass themselves and then be made to endure the harsh critiques of some pretty awful judges on national television. These are an empath’s nightmare. It’s terrible. I’ve left the room on more than one occasion because it was unbearable. It wasn’t funny. It was humiliating. And, for whatever reason, I identified with the shame and embarrassment that these contestants encountered. All I could think was, “this is someone’s child.”

In full transparency, I admit that I’ve felt these shameful feelings more than once at church, during worship, and often even as I stood behind the sacred desk or watched someone else’s attempt at preaching God’s word to God’s people. Failures, flubs, fumbles, and foibles – I’ve seen and felt them all. In most cases, it’s not the content, and it’s not the character of the one speaking that is most cringy. But it is the failure to connect with those who’ve committed their time to listen to us with some hope that we will say something that meets them where they are!

More than once have I sat in a service with my head bowed praying for the preacher to tune into Spirit and to really connect with the people. More than once have I internally groaned as I watched a colleague labor to deliver the wrong message, at the wrong time, to the wrong audience. More than once, have I jettisoned my notes when I discerned that my carefully crafted sermon was missing wide and to the right! Even now, I can hear one of the mothers of the church praying loudly, “Help him, Lord!

This failure to connect can happen in even the most theologically sound, well-prepared, and well delivered sermons. It’s the message itself that is a miss. I know it’s a bitter pill to swallow – a painful confession to make. And yet, some of us continue to blame the disconnect on the ones to whom we are delivering it. And yes, sometimes this is the case.


 “Folks can be so easily distracted.

Their attention span is not very long.

They are lacking spiritual curiosity.

They aren’t serious about their faith.

They’re just going through the motions.”


These are some of the excuses we make when our well planned, well delivered, thoughtful messages miss! But I want to suggest to us that something else may also be afoot.


 Are we distracted from them?

Are we paying attention?

Are we curious about what’s going on in their lives?

Do we take the power and work of the Spirit seriously?

Are we just going through the motions?


In Craig Barnes’ book, The Pastor as Minor Poet, one of the most salient points is that the energy and effort the preacher takes in mastering a text (as if that is even possible), must at least extend to and be matched by the commitment to listen carefully to the subtext of people’s lives. We need to learn to exegete our audiences and then strive to connect with them on the things that matter – the things that are of substance to them.

In short, we have to stop having conversations about things that no one cares about!

Now, this doesn’t mean that the messages we feel are important are not important, but it does mean that we need to do the hard work of understanding the subtext of people’s lives so that we can speak in ways that they understand and that in some ways ‘meet them where they are.’

The Apostle Paul models an excellent approach for us when we read Acts 17. He spends time out where the people are – where they eat, where they shop, where their daily lives are happening, and he validates what matters to them. Then, he attempts to meet them where they are by speaking in ways that they may understand. We would all do well to do the same!


“For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship,

I found also an altar with this inscription: ‘To the unknown god.’“

(Acts 17:23a ESV)


While we are passing along let’s listen well – observe what has captured the attention, affections, and stirred the anxieties – raised questions in the hearts and minds of those we long to reach! Let’s not dismiss the cares and concerns of those we are called to serve as mundane or insignificant. Oftentimes, what means little to us means the world to another!

The failures, flubs, fumbles, and foibles will come, for sure – after all, this is the ‘foolishness’ of preaching. But with a bit of sensitivity to Spirit and to the subtext of people’s lives – we can speak across the gap to those wrestling daily with isolation, hopelessness, and despair – we can deliver the hopeful message of the Gospel that connects us to GOD and one another while dispelling some of the very real and present darkness that is seething beneath the surface of most of our lives.

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