My brother bats left-handed. For those uninitiated to baseball, a left-handed batter is one who swings from the left side of home plate. If that still means nothing to you, just skip down two paragraphs. As for my brother, it’s the strangest thing, since he does everything else – writes, throws, waves, swipes his credit card – with his right hand.
Once I asked him to explain the whole anomaly of his left-handed batting habit. “It’s simple”, he began. “I just started wrong and stuck with it.”
That got me thinking about preachers and preaching. Specifically, new preachers — the rookies forging early pulpit habits. I’m thinking about the seminary-minted dudes filling new pulpits, or the guys sharpening their tools on the steel of church planting. Maybe that was once you. The undaunted preparers; the aspiring expositors; the legion of ‘I-must-say-everything-I-know-about-this-passage!’.
Maybe that’s you right now.
If so, then take a lesson from my brother’s swing. When it comes to preaching, don’t start wrong. And if you do, for mercy-sakes, don’t stick with it!
Over three decades of ministry, I’ve heard some preaching in need of a restart. Sadly, much of it has spilled from my own lips. Like my brother, I started wrong in a number of areas until my swinging was arrested by either bad fruit or good counsel. Most guys who have been preaching more than 5 years would say the same thing.
Some of my mistakes were common to early preachers. There were other rookie errors that, thankfully, I avoided. Over the next couple of posts, I’m going to explore some of the more familiar ones. If you’re in the first few innings of a preaching ministry, perhaps this list will help you to start right, swing straight, and stick with it!
Here are 7 common mistakes new preachers make...
1) Redundant Introductions
A good introduction has 2 simple goals: Grab the listener’s curiosity and escort them deliberately down the path to either the proposition or the passage. Unless you’re John Piper, you need one. The key word here is “one”. Many newbies will tell several stories, ramble about current events, cobble together some clever comments, or repeatedly circle the text forgetting about the landing strip. Don’t do it. Answer the question, “Why should this passage fascinate you?”, and then get to the Bible.
Oh, and mix up your introductions a bit. Even good stories can get tiresome if they are simply the predictable opening of each week’s message. Redundant intros — whether in the same message or in the delivery routine — can be wearisome. Mix it up. Start with a quote, ask a question, recreate the context — think hard about how to make your intro interesting, diverse, and brief!
2) Lazy Illustrations
Good illustrations convince the listener that the Bible has legs; God’s truth walks deftly in the real world. But good illustrations take work. This means cultivating an eye for illustrations, developing a system for retaining and retrieving them, and dedicating time in your sermon prep to skillfully deliver and apply the illustration.
You could sum up that paragraph in two words — hard work. Good illustrations are hard work!
Illustrations become lazy when they become predictable. The preacher drops the bucket too often in the shallow well of one variety — sports, movies, politics, or — and this one’s gonna hurt — his family! In the orchard of illustrations, family stories can easily become the low-hanging fruit that’s quickly plucked and swiftly spoiled.
But there’s something else. Brothers, the path to celebrity is paved by a thousand personal illustrations. In the world of church, preachers gain distinction through the currency of home. Family affairs can build people not into God’s promises but into God’s preacher. “While accounts of personal experiences usually carry the most powerful audience identification characteristics,” Bryan Chapell adds, “such illustrations must be balanced with material from other sources to avoid accusations of personal preoccupation”.
Sometimes it’s calculated; more often though, young preachers just don’t allow their imagination to circle out beyond the home to nature, church history, a broader set of cultural authorities, and most importantly, the Bible. Illustrating points through God’s word double-loops the impact of the word and creates a more biblically-conversant congregation.(1)
Honestly, even as I write these words I feel a stab of conviction. As a newer preacher, my illustration orbit was too tight, too predictable. My imagination didn’t reach beyond my little world nearly as often as it should. Thankfully, God’s grace is greater than our mistakes and is lavished upon emerging preachers!
While we’re on lazy illustrations, one other thing: Preachers, the ladies don’t always get all of your sports references. Enough said.
This is about how young preachers use the word “gospel”. A strange or seemingly petty critique, you may think, but please hear me out. The liberal use of the word “gospel” in a sermon does not make it gospel-centered anymore than the liberal use of the word “‘Merica” makes one an American. Being American is about a constitution, a history, spacious skies and amber waves of grain, the Rockies, the Grand Canyon, Vegas and shared values, Google and McDonalds, a birthplace, and the people among whom one feels most at-home. Like the gospel, being an “American” includes certain basic, non-negotiable things. But there are hundreds of ways to describe what it means to be “American” apart from just repeating the word.
Truly gospel-centered sermons spring from gospel-loving and gospel-applying preachers. Sprinkling the sermon with the term “gospel” may indicate that we know our tribe and which flag to wave, but not the founders constitution that unites and mobilizes us.(2)
You’re going to get tired of me saying this but…I know, because I was a gospel-dropper.
Years ago a kind-hearted and biblically astute lay leader in our church suggested that my preaching might improve if I could think of other ways to celebrate gospel-centeredness apart from just using the word “gospel”. At first I had a hard time understanding the point, which made me wonder whether he really understood my preaching.
Little did I know, he understood it all too well.
This faithful man wasn’t suggesting alternative synonyms for gospel; he was suggesting that there are hundreds of ways to explain and exalt in the extraordinary news of a love-besotted Savior who sacrificed himself to save sinners. He figured I needed to learn a few more.
He was right.
4) Rudderless Exposition
We’ve all seen it. Even worse, many of us have done it. Open the Bible, read the text, offer a couple of ceremonial comments on the passage, and then leave the textual orbit for planets My-Burden, My-Ideas, and Interesting-Things-I’ve-Thought-About-This-Topic.
True exposition uses the text as the sermon’s rudder. The text guides the sermon out of the dock into the open seas of original audience, exegesis, and contextualization. It determines the direction, the organization, and even how the message is applied.
A preacher uncoupled from the text is a rudderless ship; a vessel desperately searching for both direction and destination.
Here’s an observation about preachers: The smarter you are, the more tempted you are to go rudderless. In other words, minds that are more fertile and absorbent often have more ideas competing with the text during preparation and delivery. It’s how I explain Spurgeon, whose sermons, while being text-based, Christ-centered, and courageously-delivered, were not necessarily a great example of expository preaching.
But he’s the Prince of Preachers and I’m not. You’re not either. So grab your rudder and don’t let go until you’re done with the sermon.
5) The Hero-Factor
Let me ask you a question. When you tell stories about yourself, or maybe about your church, who is the hero? Is it God? Is it the remarkable power of the unstoppable gospel? Or are your stories Trojan horses that smuggle ‘self’ into your sermon?
Who is the hero?
The church pulpit is a steering wheel for the church. Each week the pastor stands behind it to take the church in the direction of someone. Thankfully many pastors drive toward the Person(s) of God the Father, Jesus the Savior, and the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit. They are the destination; God is the hero.
But sometimes our message moves towards the mountain of ME. It can happen in either phrase or fragrance, but the effect is always the same. The people walk away thinking as much about the preacher as the passage. It’s a subtle slide — the sanitizing of the illustration so you sound better; the frequency with which we speak of ourselves; the careful stack of success stories from your ministry and family exploits; the pulpit punch towards a critic; the vocabulary selected more for cleverness than for clarity. But the intent of the heart is always the same: Boost our esteem in the eyes of the people.
If that’s you, let me encourage you by confiding that I’ve done it too. But here’s some ways to make and keep God the hero when you preach.
Meditate on the incommunicable attributes of God. Pondering the ways that God is splendidly transcendent has a right-sizing effect upon our soul.
When you preach, portray your weakness rather than your strength. Tell some stories of where you got it wrong; where you were embarrassed or maybe did something stupid. You’ll be utterly astonished by the impact it can have on folks. Try it.
Confess a sin or two. After all, everyone knows you’re a sinner. Eliminate the speculation over how you sin — just tell them. It’s freeing for people to hear their pastor is a sinner who is navigating his own sanctification, just as they are.
When you go to tell an encouraging personal story, make someone else the hero. Give greater honor to less public people (1 Corinthians 12: 23-24). Honor the lay leaders for their sacrificial service. Talk about how they embody certain gospel values. Make it clear to others that you see their service and sacrifice and you consider them the heroes, not you.
Most importantly, leave people thinking about the real Hero of the Bible. There’s a story about a man who wanted to visit the churches of two famous preachers on the same day — the celebrated Dr. Jones, & a far less-educated chap named Charles Spurgeon. It was a memorable Sunday. When describing the two preachers for his wife, he wrote, “Dr. Jones is certainly a great preacher, but Mr. Spurgeon has a great Savior.”
The best preaching makes Jesus the hero.
A humor-grab is a random comical comment that appears out of context, out of character, or out of bounds. It happens when our attempts to be clever or witty become a distraction. We sacrifice sober-mindedness to reach for a laugh. We prepare sermons assuming it needs the enhancements of our wit. “Laughter”, observes John Piper, “seems to have replaced repentance as the goal of many preachers”.
Make no mistake, it’s a dangerous habit — one in which new preachers are particularly vulnerable.
Often a rookie preacher selects a preaching Jedi — a preacher made popular by conference, church size, or history — and seeks to imitate his style. While this is a common phase for most emerging preachers, it’s important that he lives self-conscious of the imprint and aware that, when imitating the humor style, it’s likely to sound pretty canned. Few things discredit a preacher quicker than the impression he is not himself. Comedic imitation smells like insincerity.
This is not to say there is no place for humor in a message. On the contrary, I think there are preachers whose messages might be humanized a bit through a dose of comic imagination. When used skillfully, humor can create rapport with the lost, disarm defenses, and make hard truths more digestible. I’ve got memories of messages where I was laughing rumbustiously only to be surgically opened by the convicting comments that followed. When done wisely and well, humor is a gift to the congregation.
If you’re wondering whether it’s YOUR gift for the congregation, start with the following questions:
- Am I funny in private? (One’s public humor should not be an entertainment persona; it should appear consistent with one’s private personality.)
- Does anyone apart from me, my wife, and my mom think I’m funny in private?
- Does my style and delivery of humor enhance the message or distract from it?
- Does my humor make me larger to people, or make the message content more accessible?
- Does my use of wit betray my age or undermine my stature?
The last question is an important one, particularly if you trend towards cynicism. Cynicism may occasionally appear like intelligent critique, but it never appears mature. Most folks intuitively sense that cynical humor is nothing more than whining masquerading as insight.
The bottom line? Cynicism and humor-grabs steal stature. By trivializing the moment, they erode the gravitas of the leader, even though listeners can’t necessarily articulate why they take the preacher less seriously. These grabs can also discourage serious minded people (e.g. future leaders, older saints) from being drawn to our preaching.
If you’re going to use humor, make sure it passes the test of actual, congregational edification. And if you ever find yourself lamenting that you don’t possess that coveted humor gene, take solace in the fact that neither did most preachers throughout Church history.
If the 3 keys to real estate development are ‘Location, location, location’, the 3 keys to preaching growth are “Assess, assess, assess!” Yet it’s perplexing how often new preachers are reluctant to establish feedback loops for improving their sermon and delivery.
Maybe it’s not perplexing. I mean, who wants to be told that those 12 – 20 hours; those words you labored to select; those ideas that consumed your heart and soul were, in their delivery, neither inspired nor inspiring. Most of us just want to assume we did fine and move on to binge-watching Netflix.
Evaluation can be painful.
But it’s good pain; the kind one feels the day after we start exercising again. The pain tells us our muscles are undeveloped and those areas need work. Plus, let’s be honest: The main reason sermon evaluation is painful is because we’re proud. Outside perspective calls into question our own, dare I say, exaggerated self-assessment. Hearing we have areas in need of improvement are a market adjustment downward from the high opinion we have of our own abilities.
Truth to tell, few things will help you grow quicker as a preacher than selecting a small group of qualified folks (staff or lay-folk) to provide honest feedback. Don’t fear it, face it.
Oh, and one last thing. An important area for evaluation should be sermon length. Don’t start with how long your particular tradition accords you (“I’m charismatic and we preach for an hour!”). Start with your experience and your gifting, as defined by the plurality of elders. If you’re like most guys, you may find their time allotment for your sermons is shorter than what you want. Go with it. The wise preacher leaves people wanting more and sleeping less.
Do you remember my brother from the first post? His left-handed batting habit came from starting wrong and sticking with it. If these posts have revealed areas for improvement, now is the time to step to the other side of the plate; now is the time to start swinging differently.
Don’t be discouraged. These mistakes are all common to emerging preachers and many gifted expositors have stumbled through them. God is faithful, and devoted to help those who earnestly desire to herald the gospel. Preaching, after all, is God’s idea (1 Corinthians 1: 21). Calling you, with all of your strengths and weaknesses, was his idea too.
Trust Him. The One who called you to preach will supply all you need to do it effectively, through His power, by His Word, and for His glory.
(1) For additional study on other components of an effective sermon, see Daniel Montgomery’s preaching grid.
(2) For additional study on how to know if you are really preaching the gospel, click here.