Years ago, during the America’s Cup competition in Australia, the Italian team went to the outback on their day off to see if they could find a kangaroo in the wild. They had been outfitted by the designer Gucci with jackets, wallets, bags, and luggage. Near the end of their search, much to their surprise, a kangaroo jumped out of the brush and was struck by their Jeep. As the kangaroo lay there, presumably dead, an idea struck them. They put the driver’s jacket on the animal and took a picture of a Gucci-clad kangaroo. As they prepared to snap the picture, the kangaroo—which had only been stunned—jumped up and hopped into the brush wearing the jacket. You can imagine the driver’s regret when he remembered his keys and wallet were in the jacket. Assuming the animal was dead proved to be costly.
It’s the same in the preaching world: False assumptions can be costly. Assuming the wrong thing can at least hinder our communication; at worst, it can cost us our audience. There are five dangerous assumptions in preaching, and the extent of the damage they do may vary, but the fact that they are costly does not.
“People are dying to hear me speak.”
Only one-half of this assumption is true. People are dying! There is no one there, though, who is dying to hear you speak. I’ve rarely met a person who got a speeding ticket on their way to church!
How does avoiding this false assumption impact your preaching? One is in the area of pride—an area where every preacher is vulnerable. Instead of walking into the pulpit amazed with how popular you are, you will walk into the pulpit overwhelmed with how privileged you are. Instead of focusing on how fortunate the people are to have you, you will focus instead on how fortunate you are to have your people. Instead of falling into Satan’s trap of thinking, “I can do anything,” you will heed God’s warning, “Without me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).
The second way avoiding this false assumption impacts you is in preparation. You carefully examine your introduction, making sure it strikes a need and properly orients people toward the text. You are abundant in your use of illustrations to keep people’s attention. You have a healthy sense of humor that makes what you say enjoyable and meaningful.
“People don’t care how long I speak.”
This may have been true years ago, but no longer. Here’s how to verify that: Sit among people listening to a speaker they enjoy and even admire. If he takes too long to say what he needs to say, look around you. You’ll notice people will start looking at their watches.
Two factors have been the cause. One is that people are busy—yes, too busy, but nonetheless busy. Even if it’s a Sunday, there are other things they have to do. It may be something as simple and admirable as spending some quality time with their family after a Sunday afternoon nap.
A second cause is a physical truth. It’s been said by different speakers in different ways, but “the mind cannot enjoy what the seat cannot endure.” It’s only a matter of time until a person gets tired of sitting.
This is why I’m such a proponent of 30-minute messages. People feel restless when you go beyond 30 minutes, and hence what they retain decreases dramatically.
Ask yourself three questions to correct this misconception. First, “Who do you enjoy the most: a speaker who stops before he had to, or one who goes longer than you wish?” Practice being the person you enjoy hearing.
Secondly ask, “What would help you be a better communicator: taking as long as you want, or taking everything you want to say and figuring out how to say it in 30 minutes?” The latter forces you to think carefully through what you have to say and how to say it.
A third question is, “Which encourages people to come back: a speaker who stops before you expected him to, or a speaker who went longer than you wanted him to?” This is particularly important when there are non-Christians in the audience. Most don’t come to Christ the first time they hear the Gospel. They need to hear it—and hear it again. So you want them to come back.
For the sake of the audience and the development of your preaching skills, don’t surrender to the assumption, “People don’t care how long I speak.”
“People think I’m a good communicator.”
People may regard you as a good speaker, but that doesn’t mean they regard you as a good communicator. Good speakers have pleasant voices, enunciate well, and vary their pace and speed. In general, they do well all the things that good speakers do. But speaking is not the same as communicating. Speaking is when the words of my mouth enter the openings of your ears. Communication is when what’s understood in my mind is understood in yours. Some speakers do well in speaking but they don’t communicate.
Recently, I was with a friend who attends a large church in a major city. The pastor is very well-known and is regarded as a good speaker. I gave my friend a study Bible I’ve recommended to many because of how much I value him and his desire to grow spiritually. I asked him how he was enjoying it. His answer was one I didn’t expect: “It’s helping me a lot. I have trouble understanding what my pastor is saying and what he means, so I go home each Sunday, look up the passage from which he spoke, read the notes, and then I understand.” The pastor speaks, but he doesn’t always communicate.
To find out how well you’re communicating, here’s a helpful exercise: Choose two people who represent where a lot of people in your church are spiritually. On a given Sunday, ask each of them to explain back to you what you explained to them in your message. Assure them you want their honesty; in fact, accompany the request with questions such as, “Where could I have explained something better? Did I confuse you with anything I said?”
Caution! Be sure you ask the right people. Your elders and deacons are often not representative of your people. In fact, biblically they ought to be more mature. You need to ask the “average” Christian. My friend and mentor, Haddon Robinson, once said to me, “Too many pastors preach to their elders.” Just because you communicate with your elders doesn’t mean you communicate with your people.
Don’t surrender to the assumption that you’re communicating well enough; find out how good you really are. You may be saddened—but helped—to find out you’re doing more speaking than communicating.
“People never have trouble following my train of thought.”
No one wants to be regarded as “Christopher Columbus” in speaking. When Columbus started out, he did not know where he was going. When he got there, he didn’t know where he was. And when he came back, he didn’t know where he had been! More may regard you as a Christopher Columbus than you might think.
One reason many feel this way but do not mention it is because they’re accustomed to listening to confusing speakers, so they tend to think their confusion is normal. It’s also why, when they hear one that’s easy to follow, they talk about him for days. He or she stood out.
When people see you as difficult to follow, it’s largely because of two reasons. One is that your thoughts seem disjointed. As I was helping a man prepare a message, I asked him to explain one of his connections between one sentence and another, because I didn’t see it. His response was, “I’m not sure.” I assured him that if it was confusing in his mind, it would be confusing in the mind of the audience.
Preachers can also be difficult to follow when they lose people in their transitions. They move on, but they don’t take the audience with them. I’ve found that it takes three sentences to make a transition: “Having made his first point, Paul the Apostle has a second thing to explain. There’s a second point he wants to make. The second point he makes is… .” In doing so, I’m saying, “Hey, I’m moving on—pay attention! We’re leaving where we’ve been.”
To avoid this misconception, once again, talk to someone who will be honest with you. But once more, be specific with your questions: “Did you have any trouble following me?” doesn’t do it. Instead, ask questions such as, “What was my main thought? How did you see me developing my message? Was there any point in the message where I lost you?” You may discover that you are more difficult to follow than you think. But if you accept this fact with a broken spirit, you become a better preacher by improving in an area where you’re weaker than you thought.
“People have a pretty good understanding of the Bible.”
I wish this were true; unfortunately, it’s not. In fact, it’s gotten worse. There’s a dearth of Bible knowledge in the Church today. I’ve learned this first-hand as a lecturer in Bible colleges. I have to be more cautious than I used to be. I cannot assume everyone knows who Nicodemus, Zacchaeus, the Samaritan woman, doubting Thomas, and a list of other Bible characters are.
In my experience, the older the preacher, the more he explains his terms and speaks simply, because he’s discovered over time that people are never where we think they are in their Bible knowledge. Those preachers fresh out of seminary often preach over the heads of their people.
Nowhere is this problem more critical than when you speak to an audience of people whom you suspect have never met the Savior. If you tell them to “put their faith in Christ,” for many it means to depend on Christ for everything in life: groceries, health, the job, etc. But what you actually mean is, “Trust in Christ alone to save you.” Similarly, “Christ died for you” might mean to them that He died to show them how to live: putting others first. What the Bible means is “He died in your place.” By not falling victim to this dangerous assumption, you will use terms people understand and explain ones they might not. It also enhances your communication skills—can you explain propitiation, redemption, reconciliation, and justification in a way people can grasp and hang onto? Can they explain those terms back to you? Could a twelve-year-old understand you?
How do you overcome this assumption? Interact with your people. In a non-threatening way, take the time to find out how much of the Bible they know. Many will feel honored if you ask them, because it indicates a real interest in them as individuals. Secondly, when you speak, err on the side of explaining too much about what your listeners need to know. Do not assume they already know it.
Assumptions can be costly. Avoiding dangerous assumptions can be rewarding. Only when you know what the assumptions are and how to avoid them is communication enhanced. I can assure you that, had the Italian team at the America’s Cup competition in Australia been told how to make sure a kangaroo is dead, they would have been greatly helped. Not only would they have saved themselves embarrassment, but it would not have cost the driver his wallet and keys. Avoiding dangerous assumptions in speaking can help you not to lose your audience, and that’s far more important than keys or a wallet any day. Keys and a wallet are only temporal; communication about spiritual matters has to do with the eternal. Don’t let our impact on people be hindered through false assumptions in our preaching.