Preaching week after week, year after year, is extremely challenging. Doing so with any degree of consistency and excellence is even more challenging.
No preacher is at his or her best every weekend. Personal matters and church issues can hurt preparation time. Sometimes, the well just seems dry. There’s no freshness, no zip on the old fastball.
Other times, we might sense there’s another gear out there somewhere — we just can’t find it. Below are five common preaching mistakes we make and some help in fixing them. There are obviously more than five, but here’s a sampling. I suffer them all at one time or another. Add to this list or comment on any of these in the comments section.
1) Putting too much or little of oneself in the message. Finding the right balance here is difficult and is more art than science. Generally, I limit myself to one personal story, but at least one. It might be funny, or it might be dead serious. But, it’s important for the church to know the preacher is a real person — and get to know that real person. In the stories, don’t always be the hero, and don’t always be the goat. The truth is that you’re an imperfect person who struggles with the same things they do. Don’t be afraid to let that show some — but always keep the spotlight on Jesus. One of the best ways to do this is to avoid…
2) Illustrations that have nothing to do with the point at hand. If you tell a personal story, have a point that matches the message or stash it for later. If you take them on a potentially boring log ride through the catacombs of exegesis, have a point. If you tell a joke, have a point. In all things — have a point. At the end of each point or movement of the sermon, ask, “So what?” or “What truth am I trying to illustrate here, specifically?”
3) Preaching in Saul’s armor. This comes in primarily two forms: trying to preach like your favorite preacher, and trying to preach like your professors and books say you should. You’re not Saul; you’re David. You’re not Long, Craddock, Buttrick, Billy Graham, Greg Laurie, Erwin McManus or Rick Warren. No, you’re not Jaroslav Pelikan, N.T. Wright, Wolfhart Pannenberg or Walter Brueggmann, either. You are you. God made you, and His Spirit has gifted you “as He chose.” So, let your own personality and insights from the text come through. Obviously, learn from others rigorously. But, be yourself.
4) Underestimating the listeners. People come to an assembly to encounter Christ and the Bible first. They expect you to use the Bible. They want to understand what it says and why it matters. They don’t need you to bring your sermon to the level of a coloring book, though you should explain churchy words if need be.
In yesterday’s sermon, I knew I would use the term “theology” several times for a particular reason. I just said early on, “Theology is simply studying or thinking about God.” No harm, no foul. But, very helpful to those who didn’t know what theology was.
People are much smarter than we sometimes think — and they appreciate us not leaving things on the surface. If someone bothers to come to church, they come expecting the Bible, teaching that helps them understand God and life better. If they wanted a TED talk, they know where to find one. They need a sermon. This is good news. Don’t be afraid to communicate nuanced ideas or make people feel things. Have regard for the listener — who is smarter and more prepared to hear a strong, biblical sermon than we often give them credit for. However, we shouldn’t succumb to…
5) Giving “in theory” sermons. These are sermons that in no way answer the questions, “What does the text want us to know/feel/do?” “In theory” sermons tend to use lofty language straight from seminary that leaves people wondering what in the world those terms mean — not because the terms are over their heads intellectually, but because the preacher doesn’t know how to use those terms / ideas. We often think the problem is the “shallowness” of the church when the confused look on their faces has far more to do with our own homiletical malpractice. When preaching, one can go to extreme depths, as long as one explains it CLEARLY. Two things will help with this: paying deeper attention to one’s use of language (clarity), and one’s aim (know / feel / do).
There are many more — preaching to a non-existent enemy, hypergeneralizations, and lethargy in the preparation process, just to name a few. But…
What else might you add? Which of these are you most vulnerable to? For me, it’s numero cinco.
Note: This post revised and expanded from a previous post.
Tim Spivey is lead planter of New Vintage Church in San Diego, CA. Tim is also an adjunct professor of religion at Pepperdine University and purveyor of New Vintage Leadership, a blog offering cutting-edge insights on leadership and theology. He is the author of numerous articles and the book Jesus, the Powerful Servant.