Finding your own voice, style, and rhythm as a communicator of God’s Word is a journey that takes a lifetime. However, you can get a head start by learning to avoid these common mistakes preachers make.
When I sat down after preaching my first sermon, I felt like I had done a pretty decent job. In reality it was about as smooth as a circle of white guys on the dance floor during happy hour.
Preaching is a high calling and hard work. I started preaching weekly to a group of high-school students when I was just 20 years old. Like me, a huge percentage of preachers learn the ropes and discover their voice while teaching young people in some form of student ministry. And unless you’re some sort of prodigy (you’re probably not), the brutal truth is you will likely look back on your first couple hundred sermons as something comparable to the earnest delusion of most American Idol auditions.
If you are still in your first five years as a preacher, don’t give up! God has this wonderful way of drawing straight lines with crooked sticks. Fortunately he not only works through us, but in spite of us.
I am of little use in the pulpit if I am proclaiming the gospel without relying on it.
I know we are addicted to instant results and naturally gravitate toward the easy path of least resistance. I know the temptation to settle for mimicking your favorite preacher that online podcasting has provided us. But finding your own voice, style, and rhythm as a communicator of God’s Word is a journey that takes a lifetime. And it’s better to know one thing up front: there are no shortcuts.
As we have pioneered student ministry at Mars Hill Church over the past year, I have been preaching on average 4–5 times a week and have enjoyed the opportunity to talk to lots of young preachers like myself. What follows are five of the most common ways I’ve personally bombed a sermon to students (or seen others in youth ministry do likewise), along with some helpful instruction from some of the greatest preachers of all time.
Fail #1: Give Good Advice Instead of Good News
By far the most common mistake I see early on in preachers is telling your students what they ought to do, without showing them again and again what Jesus has done. Any sermon that does not connect the commands of God to the cross of Christ is a damnable moralism that is devoid of the power of the gospel. Your good advice might temporarily change your students’ behavior and raise the moral standard in your church, but it comes with the side-effects of moral superiority or despair.
Only the sin-destroying, affection-transforming message of Christ’s finished work on the cross can transform our young people’s hearts. When we preach the Bible in such a way that we become the hero of our story instead of Jesus, we actually disempower the very obedience we desire to see. It’s the equivalent of trying to turn your TV on by throwing rocks at it, instead of plugging it into a power source.
Fail #2: Make Someone Other Than Jesus the Hero
This fail usually goes hand-in-hand with preaching good advice instead of Good News. When speaking to a group of young pastors, the prince of preachers Charles Spurgeon said, “No Christ in your sermon, sir? Then go home, and never preach again until you have something worth preaching!”
We need to show our young people that the Bible isn’t a disjointed book of heroes and villains with a moral punch-line to each story, but is one book with one hero: Jesus. The Old Testament shadows, foretells, and anticipates him. The New Testament reveals him and continually points God’s people back to him. Every time we open the Bible, our goal must be to show our students that while the Bible is for them, it’s not about them. It’s about Jesus.
Only the sin-destroying, affection-transforming message of Christ’s finished work on the cross can transform our young people’s hearts.
To practice this or to see how this works out practically, sit down and read The Jesus Storybook Bible by Sally Lloyd-Jones. One of my greatest joys as a daddy is having my three kids pile onto my lap each night before bed and reading a story together. They know that no matter what part of the Bible we are reading, we are going to get to hear about Jesus.
Young preacher: whatever the text, whatever the topic, get to the cross and preach Jesus as the hero.
Fail #3: Judge Your Sermon by Laughter Instead of Conviction
I love preachers who can make me laugh. Humor is a powerful tool in the preacher’s armory when used well. Laughing helps break down resistance and builds rapport with your listeners. Spurgeon writes, “I sometimes tickle my oyster until he opens his shell, and then I slip the knife in. He would not have opened for my knife, but he did for something else; and that is the way to do for people.”
While I enjoy a good laugh, and it feels great when the joke lands, I need to be reminded that I have wandered into dangerous territory when those things define whether or not I preached a good sermon. Laughter is a helpful tool, but a dangerous metric when used to evaluate our effectiveness as a preacher.
A good sermon is not one where our young people slap their knees in hysterics, but bend them in repentance.
Preaching that exchanges proclamation for entertainment is about as helpful as giving the passengers on the Titanic laughing gas instead of lifeboats. Everyone might be giggling, but it doesn’t change the outcome. A good sermon is not one where our young people slap their knees in hysterics, but bend them in repentance.
One day, you and I will stand before King Jesus, and his response to us will not be based on how funny our stories were, but how faithful we were to speak on his behalf.
Young preacher: you are not an entertainer but a messenger. Preach the word!
Fail #4: Prepare the Message, but Not the Messenger
The more I preach, the more I am aware of how powerless I am to produce anything of eternal significance apart from the power of the Holy Spirit. For me, the temptation is often to walk into the pulpit with a well-prepared message delivered through an ill-prepared messenger. I am of little use in the pulpit if I am proclaiming the gospel without relying on it, or preaching repentance without walking in it.
On top of this, busyness, problems, meetings, conflict, emails, and social media all line up to compete for my attention before I stand up to speak on behalf of God. A well-prepared message is important, but a well-prepared messenger is essential.
In the words of the Scottish preacher Robert Murray McCheyne, “A holy minister is an awful weapon in the hand of God. A word spoken by you when your conscience is clear, and your heart full of God’s Spirit, is worth ten thousand words spoken in unbelief and sin.”
Every preacher will prepare differently, but there are some practices that are indispensable. The following phases of preaching preparation can be traced back to a pastor named Leith Samuel and have been a particularly helpful tool for me:
a. Think yourself empty.
b. Study yourself full.
c. Write yourself clear.
d. Pray yourself hot.
e. Let yourself go.
Fail #5: Attach God's Love to Your Eloquence for Him
I have written on this previously, but it’s worth mentioning again. One of the most deadly errors you can make is attaching your giftedness as a speaker to your acceptance from the Father. But you need to know that your good sermons don’t impress him more, and your bad sermons don’t cause him to love you less. A heart that is rising or falling with your level of eloquence reveals a misplaced identity in your imperfect work for Jesus, instead of his perfect work for you.
The more I preach, the more I am aware of how powerless I am to produce anything of eternal significance apart from the power of the Holy Spirit.
When we allow the gospel to shape not only our preaching but also our own hearts as preachers, we begin to experience a far greater measure of freedom and boldness when we stand before our young people. The immaturity of wanting to be the greatest preacher is replaced with the joy of pointing again and again to the greatness of God.
I’ll leave you with Paul’s words to his young protégé Timothy, which ought to echo in the ears of every preacher of God’s Word:
I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry. (2 Tim. 4:1–5)