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 in 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 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 before 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.