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preaching article Seven Secrets of Poor Preaching

Seven Secrets of Poor Preaching

based on 10 ratings
Aug 30, 2012

Here are a few tips for making your sermons truly lousy, eminently forgettable, and completely ineffective.

1. Quote too many scriptures or scholars

Everyone already knows that you are an expert; that’s why they are listening attentively. There is no need for you to prove yourself. A whirlwind tour through scriptures and scholars, quoting them seemingly at random and for diverse or trivial purposes, is necessarily superficial, since time prevents you from examining them properly. Scriptural gymnastics confuse younger Christians since they are not equipped to follow, and it feeds the pride of older Christians, which causes them to sin. The purpose of the sermon is to edify the congregation in their faith, not to convince them that you swallowed a chain reference Bible or a seminary rolodex.

Scriptures and scholars are different. If you quote a lot of scriptures that are thematically related and you use them to corroborate your argumentation, you can use as many as you like. In fact, it is a big plus. If you quote too many scholars, however, it will backfire on you, no matter how adroitly you use them. People will think you don’t have any personal convictions or that you are insecure, because they instinctively know that whoever invokes authority generally has none of their own.

This mistake is most often made by new ministers who are fresh from the seminary. It takes them a while to adjust to the fact that they are preaching to a congregation, not to a professor. You are preaching to edify the congregation’s faith, not to enhance your reputation.

2. Use illustrations that only part of your congregation can understand

The purpose of the sermon is to include all listeners into the gospel. Most sermons are delivered to mixed audiences. In his letters, Paul balanced every Jewish illustration with a Greek equivalent. He knew that an illustration that only a portion of the congregation (however large) can appreciate would exclude, lose, or alienate the rest.

For example, suppose the preacher is a new father and he innocently tries to draw a lesson from his toddler’s antics. Teenagers cannot relate; they tune out the whole sermon. Older parents chuckle at Papa’s inexperience, missing his point. Oldsters wax wistful, and their minds wander non-constructively. The infertile wish they had stayed home. Only a select few get the point.

If you have an illustration that only appeals to one part of your congregation, try to think of parallel illustrations that cover the other parts of your congregation, then use them together.

3. Use irrelevant illustrations

Sometimes, preachers get nervous in the pulpit because they have forgotten their material, lost their chain of thought, their audience, or their confidence, or they feel the Spirit has temporarily forsaken them. So they tell an irrelevant joke whose real purpose is to ask the congregation for approval. This happens to all preachers at one time or another. If it happens to you, don’t panic, but you should pray about it afterward. The problem may have been poor sermon planning, or perhaps you were forgivably distracted by some unexpected event. It may also be the Holy Spirit demonstrating His powerful, essential, and inspiring presence in your ministry by withholding it temporarily. Do not fail the test and lose heart!

4. Go for the laughs

Humor is good, necessary, and appropriate for sermons. After all, many incidents in scripture are funny, such as the story of the woman at the well who rather dimwittedly saw Jesus’ living water as a way to get out of work, hilariously missing his point! You should not hesitate to use topical humor.

However, resist the temptation to become a stand-up comic. The purpose of pulpit humor is to relieve the dramatic tension, to hold the congregation’s attention, or to drive a point home. The purpose of irrelevant jokes is to seek approval from the congregation. You are to seek the approval of God. If you find yourself on a roll, and it isn’t announcement time, watch out! It has a quick reward, but from the wrong party.

5. Deliver an academic lecture

A sermon is an exposition of the gospel of Jesus Christ to a general audience. It is Good News, because that is what Jesus commissioned. It should draw people inexorably to His love and forgiveness through a recounting of His life and deeds and inestimable love. Sermons appeal to the heart and soul and draw all, so that anyone can be saved through it.

Lectures appeal to the intellect and thus (but not improperly) exclude some people. Not everyone in the congregation is equipped to follow a seminary-level sermon. Classroom-style lectures are a valid format that you should neither neglect nor confuse with sermons. There is a time and a place for all things.

Preaching and teaching are two separate gifts: Teaching helps people believe what they can understand, while preaching helps people trust what is beyond their understanding.

6. Ramble aimlessly

Your sermon, whether it is prewritten or extemporaneous, should be well organized. Don’t make your sermons into longhorn steers—a point here and a point there, and you know what’s in the middle. To the congregation, a five-minute ramble is subjectively twice as long as a fifteen-minute, well-organized sermon.

7. Preach too long

I’m not going to tell you how long a sermon should be in minutes. Some sermons are too long before they even start. Others are so engrossing and so inspired you regret when they end. Sometimes a sermon has to be short because the service that day is long and involved. You don’t need to put your watch on the pulpit to see if your sermon is too long—just watch the congregation. How many people are looking at their watches? How many are staring out the window? How many are passing notes? How many are fidgeting and restless? If you’ve lost your audience, you might as well cut your losses, close up shop, and try again next week. You won’t recover by talking more.

Ken Collins is an ordained minister in the Christian Church, which is a member denomination of the Churches Uniting in Christ and Christian Churches Together in the USA. He's the pastor of Garfield Memorial Christian Church in McLean, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, DC.

Talk about it...

David Buffaloe avatar
David Buffaloe
0 days ago
Too many Scriptures? Hmmmmmmm ...
David Nuhfer avatar
David Nuhfer
0 days ago
So, how do you stay focused if you are busy looking around to see who is passing notes and fidgeting? How many need to be fidgeting before I "cut my losses" (how one could ever consider just ending sharing the gospel as "cutting a loss" when someone else might be deeply engaged is beyond me)? If I decided to end a service because some people were looking at their watches, there are weeks that I would need to do it during the opening music.
Jimmie Tempano avatar
Jimmie Tempano
0 days ago
Thank you Sermon Central for allowing me to be part of your activities. I will be unsubscribing soon for two basic reasons. The first reason is that I am a pastor but not a preacher. The Lord lead me in the direction of pastoral counseling and prayer ministry. Our ministry is a parachurch organization. The Lord uses my wife and I to minister to hurting and wounded Christians many of whom were wounded by the church and those in its leadership. The second reason I am unsubscribing is because of the direction the comments have taken. It seems like there are those who comment frequently on this site and they seem to know it all. They have THE truth and they castigate in odorous terms those who do not hold the same understanding they do. I think some of them would be inclined to instruct Jesus when He returns. I think this is sad because I believe this site offers a valuable resource and, though I do not preach and most of my teaching is one on one, I have gained some valuable insights from some of the articles and some have blessed me tremendously. Please let me know if you know of any similar sites for those in parachurch organizations. My email is jimmietemp@live.com. Thank you and blessings. Jimmie
Nigel Black avatar
Nigel Black
0 days ago
Jimmie, why let the comments bother you? If you like the articles then simply look at them. Why allow other people to determine your actions?
Victor Ramlall avatar
Victor Ramlall
0 days ago
Hey Jimmie, What Nigel said is good advice. However it seems to me as though you are, in an inverted way, doing the same thing you are accusing others of. That doesn't make it better. Hmmm...this is the first time I have ever commented...
Dr. Raymond Grabert avatar
Dr. Raymond Grabert
0 days ago
Nigel, I agree with you. We read these articles for insight to become better ministers. I read some of the comments, but do not take them to heart. Some, and you know who you are, would not be happy regardless of the topic or point of view of the writer. Therefore, look for what speaks to your heart. Find the golden nugget of truth which enhances you. Leave the rest to their own opinions.
Chet Gladkowski avatar
Chet Gladkowski
0 days ago
Preach it Ken! If I may add a few that I unfortunately have personally practiced;(1) be arrogant, (2) use language/lingo/jargon that <5 understand, (3) promote moral superiority of Christians over everyone else and not our humble service
Eric Thompson avatar
Eric Thompson
0 days ago
David... absolutely you can use too many Scriptures. And it is not just those fresh out of seminary. I once read a sermon from a very well know minister that used over 20 Scriptures. Use too many Scripture and your people will walk out having no idea where you preached from or what was said. This is a very common practice from many pastors.
David Buffaloe avatar
David Buffaloe
0 days ago
I disagree, Eric. The purpose of the preacher is to minister the Word, not give human opinion. As the author wrote "If you quote a lot of scriptures that are thematically related and you use them to corroborate your argumentation, you can use as many as you like. In fact, it is a big plus. " I concur, use as many supporting Scriptures as possible. I must decrease, but Christ and His Word must increase.
David Buffaloe avatar
David Buffaloe
0 days ago
Jimmie - seems as if you yourself are hurt by the Church and those in its leadership. I'm sorry for that. Having been hurt many times myself (and am now seeking God for a new assignment) I know the pain. Don't let the naysayers hurt you - follow Jesus, study His Word, and be what He has called you to be, a King and Priest unto God.
Joel Rutherford avatar
Joel Rutherford
0 days ago
David Buffaloe, Did you read the part that said "Scriptures and scholars are different. If you quote a lot of scriptures that are thematically related and you use them to corroborate your argumentation, you can use as many as you like. In fact, it is a big plus." I think this point is well taken. One could stand up and read scripture for an hour and a half, and then sit down. One would have used a lot of scripture, but it could not rightly be called a sermon. With every sermon, we all make decisions - hopefully spirit led - on how much scripture and what scripture to include. Ive heard both sermons and teachings in which the speaker basically says, "turn to this passage" and reads it, then does the same thing over and over again. I'd rather that speaker help me understand and apply a few verses than touch on 100. If you're trying to convince someone to forgive, are they going to forgive if we read 30 passages on forgiveness vs one or two? IMO, it would be helpful to share a the historical background of why the Biblical audience would have thought it was a religious or legal right to not forgive, and perhaps a testimony from a Corrie Ten Boom or ones own life about how it was very difficul to forgive along with the results of faithful obedience.
David Buffaloe avatar
David Buffaloe
0 days ago
I agree, Joel Rutherford, that to read Scriptures for 1.5 hours is not preaching. Not what I said. Scriptures should support the text preached. Sorry if you disagree - but I still say we minister God's Word not our opinion.
Eric Thompson avatar
Eric Thompson
0 days ago
You are taking what I said out of context. Who said anything about giving human opinion? I am talking about taking one Scripture or one passage of Scripture and expanding on it. Teaching one text and how to apply it to your life is not teaching one's opinion. Increase does not mean just reading more Scripture. Good points Joel.
Chris Surber avatar
Chris Surber
0 days ago
... hmmmm... "Use illustrations that only part of your congregation can understand..." Maybe, but people relate to stories and if they are told well and the transition to your theological point is well made, a young father can tell his story in such a way that everybody gets the point. There is a tension in how we choose illustrations. I get it. But that's a bit dogmatic of a way to state it, which may not have been the author's intent as we have to state something in order to say anything.
Dale Bowman avatar
Dale Bowman
0 days ago
I disagree. Your premise is that a story about a father or from a father would be heard. I knew of a camp counsellor at a camp with a leaning toward abused and "problem" children. The history was so bad that the use of "father", "mother", or "brother" would cause her to bolt from the services and hate to attend them. One day, while the counsellor was not in the cabin, she saw the counsellor's Bible open; she loved the counsellor. The Bible was open to the Gospel of John where she read the word counsellor for God. Prior to that, there was not much dialogue. But that started the discussion. When we assume that everyone can appreciate a story, no matter who told, I think we run amiss. Bless you in your ministry; but I thought I would share this.
Jimmie Tempano avatar
Jimmie Tempano
0 days ago
Nigel, thanks for your comment. I appreciate your encouragement. I am prioritizing what I do and filtering what I take in. I am choosing to find a site where people can disagree without tearing another person apart. Victor, I have read comments on this site where one person questions another person's faith because they have a different understanding of a portion of the scripture. In my opinion, that is very dangerous ground. Regardless of whether it is dangerous ground, it is not spoken in love. Maybe that is OK with you. It is not with me and I stand by my comments. I don't want to be part of a site where people intentionally misinterpret other people and rip and tear. Do you really think this is what the scripture is talking about when it says we are to build one another up? No wonder the church struggles, so many churches pulling in different directions and having a doctrine they demand is THE truth. Some churches even disfellowship a member if he understands a scripture different than the posted doctrine. Most of the commenters on this site are preachers in their churches. Some of the vicious comments are from some of those preachers, those leaders of their churches. Years ago I attended a church that was denominational and closed to any other way of believing. I have to tell you that I have since experienced some things that convince me they were absolutely wrong on some things and they still hold by them. Some of the scripture is very clear and absolute. Some is not so clear and we try to study to show ourselves approved but some declare it must be understood a certain way and your salvation may be at risk if you believe a different way or even if you are undecided on it. This site is not my main focus and it will not be a big deal for me to unsubscribe.
Jimmie Tempano avatar
Jimmie Tempano
0 days ago
While I am at it, let me say that a lot of preachers are very arrogant. Oh, they can seem humble enough until you scratch the surface. They claim that all the gifts listed in scripture are of the same value but let's see how the person who has the gift of helps and cleans the toilet is compared with the person who stands on the stage and proclaims the word of God. And yet, what would a visitor , or even a member, think about a church that has filthy toilets. Hmmmm. And some of the preachers think this is their church more than anyone else's. You know it's true. You have met them. And I am not talking about the preacher at a small church who also has to clean the toilets and do a miriad of other task, almost everything to keep the church going. If you are in that category, bless you brother, I am with you.
Victor Ramlall avatar
Victor Ramlall
0 days ago
So they read in the book in the law of God distinctly, and gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading. Nehemiah 8:8
Awolusi, Tim Oludare avatar
Awolusi, Tim Oludare
0 days ago
Thank God for this challenging piece. Some of us, we are struggling to be able to disengage from other activities so that we can have enough time for the study! What an irony of life. May God help us!
Victor Ramlall avatar
Victor Ramlall
0 days ago
Like I said before Jimmie, what Nigel gave you was good advice. Furthermore I never mentioned or even hinted that I condoned the tone and nature of the many vicious comments and as you put it "odorous terms" I've read here. I also never said your comment(s) were insccurate. All I did was make a simple observation. Maybe my understanding of why you would 'publicly' declare your reasons for leaving (rather than just quietly leave), is flawed but at the time it sure sounded a little self righteous to me. Sorry Jimmie! Bless you. 'Nuff said! :-)
Jimmie Tempano avatar
Jimmie Tempano
0 days ago
Flawed understanding? Apparently in a big way. Bye
Pastor Sandy . avatar
Pastor Sandy .
0 days ago
#17 - While at a previous church, we were doing outreach, and actually went into the business section of our small town, and voluntarily went into the restrooms of small businesses and cleaned their toilets. When folks learned these were pastors of a local church, they were amazed at our lack of arrogance in coming into their business and cleaning their toilets. A great lesson in humility for all!
Dale Bowman avatar
Dale Bowman
0 days ago
Awesome

So, what did you think?


Thank you.