So maybe you’re a preacher, or you listen to preachers (or stopped listening to preachers). Almost everyone has a perspective on what makes or doesn’t make for a great sermon.
I’ve been preaching regularly for over 25 years, so I know a little bit about the head games preachers play with themselves.
What you do before a Sunday morning ever begins, for the most part, determines what happens on a Sunday morning. Chances are you’ve struggled through the mistakes below. I have. And what’s hard for preachers is that we always make our mistakes in public.
How you approach preaching ultimately determines how you preach, which, of course, also determines how your audience interacts with your message and the effectiveness of your message.
Here are 5 preaching mistakes I’ve made from time to time. They’re also mistakes I’ve seen others make far too often.
1. Failing to Get To The Right Kind of Simplicity
Complexity is the enemy of great communication.
Come on, you know what I’m talking about. We’ve all sat through talks where we felt lost, and sadly, we’ve probably given a few of those talks as well.
But complexity is also a natural companion of preachers. Here’s why. You are doing the difficult task of trying to relate God’s word with our world. And both are complex. The Scripture is an ancient text that requires background, nuance, and understanding to communicate it well. And the human condition within you and around is, well, also complex.
A lot of preachers get lost in the complexity. It’s exceptionally difficult to push through the complexity of the text and the complexity of the human condition to get to a great message.
As a result, some preachers never wrestle through the issues sufficiently and just dump their unresolved, complicated ideas in front of a congregation and call it a sermon. Bad idea.
Others fight for greater simplicity. The best communicators make complex issues seem simple. That’s been true for thousands of years, and there are the seeds of genius in it if you can do it consistently.
But here’s the challenge: there’s are two kinds of simplicity: simplicity on the front side of complexity, and simplicity on the other side of complexity.
There’s a world of difference between them. Here’s how to get the right kind of simplicity.
Simplicity on the Front Side of Complexity
Too many preachers settle for simplicity on the front side of complexity. They find a simple line that sounds true but fails to really engage the scripture passage or life particularly well. You see them all the time on Instagram.
Maybe they’re lines like “God loves prayer because he cares” or “God never gives a reason out of season.” What do those things even mean? Sure…they rhyme, but they’re trivial statements that don’t really carry weight.
To me, it’s always a sign that the communicator hasn’t really thoughtfully tackled an issue. Simplistic never weathers the storms of life.
Simplicity on the Other Side of Complexity
But there’s a second kind of simplicity: simplicity on the other side of complexity. Preachers who have wrestled the text, faith, life, God, angels, and demons struggle deeply with complexity. And on the other side, if they stick with it, they bring insight that makes deeply complex matters easier to understand.
Steve Jobs leveraged simplicity on the other side of complexity when he introduced a phone that got rid of all the clutter of every other phone on the marketplace and introduced one screen. Elon Musk is doing it right now as he cuts through all the weirdness of electric and hybrid cars to produce a model that simply, cleanly and now, more affordably, works. These are leaders who worked through exceptionally complicated issues to find simplicity.
Preachers can do the same thing with ideas. It’s just hard work to get there.
I’ve been working on a series on the book of Jonah for a while. It took me months to figure out the main approach to the book, but I came up with a simple sentenced that crystallized the message of the book (and, in some respects, the Gospel) for me:
God doesn’t run away from runaways.
It’s just six words, but it’s the essence of the book (both Jonah and the Ninevites have run away) and in many ways reflects the Gospel itself. It has teeth and carries weight but it’s memorable. And memorable, done right, is portable.
Other examples of bottom lines that for me have crystallized things after wrestling down complex issues include
Live in a way today that will help you thrive tomorrow (the antidote to burnout)
98% of pastoral care is having someone who cares (on what biblical pastoral care truly is)
Fixing your mind on Christ fixes your mind (on how to approach the self-talk that destroys us)
If you want to learn more about how to craft simple statements that convey complex truths, I wrote about the methodology here.
Do you have to have a bottom line for your message? No, of course not. But I agree with Andy Stanley that if you can’t summarize your message in a single sentence, you don’t understand it well enough to preach it.
Before you jump to criticize, remember, simple is not simplistic. Simple is clear, and it’s memorable. Simple allows complex truth to live in the hearts of people in a memorable way.
2. Making the Bottom Line More Important Than the Text
So let’s say you have a bottom line that you think works. Great.
You may be tempted to make the bottom line more important than the biblical text. Don’t.
The goal of preaching is not to have a memorable bottom line, it’s to help people find God’s story in their story. And the text bridges that gap.
The scripture is always more important than what the preacher says about the scripture.
Don’t make the text subservient to your clever bottom line. It’s a trap I can fall into frequently if I’m not careful.
3. Making Your Exposition More Important Than the Text
At this point expository preachers are probably smiling smugly, thinking “Well, we’d never boil down God’s truth to a single sentence. I preach biblically, not topically.”
Great stuff. I’ve preached both ways and both have a role in the Kingdom for sure.
Except it’s also really easy to make your exposition of the text more important than the text.
Second challenge: many preachers haven’t wrestled past complexity to get to simplicity or even clarity.
Every preaching form has its pitfall, including expository preaching. This should surprise no one, since, after all, every preacher is a sin-stained human being.
4. Treating the Text As If It Was More Important Than Jesus
There’s a lot of discussion about scripture these days, but what if the ultimate goal of preaching was not to get people to love the text, but instead to love Jesus?
I think that’s what Jesus was driving at when he talked about scripture not being an end in itself, but rather pointing to him as the source of all life.
I have to remind myself of that all the time. The point is not to have a great bottom line people remember or even a text that comes to life, but to make sure that my preaching points everyone back to Christ (through the scriptures).
The goal of preaching isn’t correct thinking; it’s transformed lives.
The scripture can’t give life. Only Jesus can. And the reason scriptures have life is because of Christ.
5. Trying to Cover Too Much
Most preachers are far too ambitious in what they want to cover in 30-40 minutes. Our ambition plagues us on multiple levels.
First, it’s usually best to keep a single sermon to a single big idea. When you say three different things, you usually end up saying nothing.
If you have three ideas, turn them into three separate messages. Teach a series, rather than trying to cram it all into a single moment.
The same dynamic plagues most of us in a single message. You may have one idea, but too often you try to cram too much content into that single message.
Why does that happen?
I can tell you why that happens to me. Most days, I’m afraid I don’t have enough to say.
Guess what. In a quarter century of preaching and speaking, I’ve never been short of material. In fact, the opposite usually happens. I scramble to fit it all in in the 30-40 minutes allotted. When that happens, the ending (one of the most important parts of your message) suffers most.
So how do you get around this tension? Simple. Be willing to live with the fear that you won’t have enough to say.
You’ll deliver the message better because you won’t be rushed. You’ll have more space for grace and intentional pauses. And content will come to you in the moment that as you deliver your message with a more natural pacing.
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