I’m not the best preacher, but after 18 years of preaching, I’ve learned some from my own mistakes. To spare you, I’ve listed some of the biggest ones here:
Not believing in Preaching Itself
I would hope we all believe in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Believe it, and always preach it. If not, you shouldn’t be preaching at all. But we also need to believe in preaching. If we don’t also believe that the Sunday sermon is a God-ordained way of proclaiming the Gospel, then we won’t be effective as preachers. Here is an interesting passage from First Peter: “If anyone speaks, they should do so as one who speaks the very words of God.” Wow.
It makes sense. If you are a teacher, but you don’t believe that teaching makes any difference, or that a robot or a podcast could replace you, you won’t be very energetic and invested. As preachers, we need to re-focus, from time to time, on the uniqueness that is preaching.
There have been times in my ministry when I lost a sense of how powerfully God uses preaching, and was distracted by other things. Sometimes my sermons became more like lectures, or I wasn’t well prepared each week because the sermon seemed less important than sundry other tasks. Or I tried to get cute with hallmark illustrations or tell jokes, or be pretend cool, or anything but just preaching. My preaching always suffered, and therefore so did the people who listened to me.
Including All of My Research
Research is fun. At least for some of us. Greek, Hebrew, commentaries, history, theology. Most priests and pastors enjoy it, and wish we had more time for it. I enjoy it myself, but too often have included it in my sermon just because I hated to see it “go to waste.”
However, the place for us to display our research abilities and knowledge of greek verbs is not the pulpit. Preaching is not an exercise in wowing people, or perhaps compensating for low self-esteem (Just keeping it real, sorry).
Instead our research into Holy Scripture, theology, and the world in which we live should be a foundation for our sermon rather than the subject of it. If some point of language or history needs to be referred to in order to preach, then go for it. Otherwise, leave it in the study or take it to the Greek Language Lovers group meeting.
Telling People What to Feel
I am often tempted to tell people how to feel instead of proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ. But our posture of attitude and our focus should be on showing Jesus to people. Like John the Baptist, we are always pointing to Jesus: “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”
If we are always in a mode of telling people what to feel, then we might be unintentionally obscuring Jesus. We need to be pointing to him, telling stories about him, listening to him, saying his words, trusting the Gospel to do its work.
We use stories from the Bible and from our own life and the lives of others to point to him. There is often a lot of emotion in those stories, and within us. That’s good. But we trust that to impact people, rather than trying to control their responses.
Telling people how to feel never works in real life. Have you ever felt more genuinely excited when a preacher said: “Get excited!” ? Can a person make himself feel happy suddenly? Can a depressed person suddenly will herself to feel upbeat? Even if so, is that healthy? No. The gospel is not based on brief, quick emotional responses. The preacher might like that, because it feels reassuring to us. But the Gospel is for our whole lives, our whole person, around all of the ups and downs of our moods and feelings.
What I can do is focus on pointing to Jesus and the Gospel, and trust that no matter the emotional reactions of people, the Holy Spirit is at work.
Having More than One Main Point
Other people will disagree with me on this, and yet I see this as a mistake.
I’ve often tried to have three points, which somehow build on one another and transition and have supporting points, each with a relevant analogy or illustration based on an outline with an intro and a conclusion that summarizes…zzzzz. Sorry, I fell asleep at the keyboard just then.
Boring. Confusing. Distracting.
Yes, I’ve personally bored, confused and distracted people from the pulpit by trying to talk about 2-3 things instead of one main thing. I’m still working on this one and its tough to change.
Just talk about one thing, and tell stories and analogies that help people understand that one main point in various ways.
Each text will have many different aspects to it. You don’t have to cover all of them. Just one of them. And this One Main Point should aways be about the One Main Point of the whole thing: The Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Preaching At People
People are people, and you are a person too. The preacher is not on a higher spiritual plane. We don’t have God’s viewpoint personally. We aren’t preaching at people, we are preaching as a person among people.
Maybe that sounds like semantics to you. But reflect on it. When I’m preparing a sermon, I have to remind myself of this every few minutes. Something about standing up in a robe in a pulpit, while people (pretend to) listen can stroke our egos. And sometimes we get frustrated at people and we preach at them in order to take out that frustration.
Been there, done that. To quote the words of the great Bono: “I like the sound of my own voice. I didn’t give anyone else a choice, an intellectual tortoise, racing with your bullet train.” (“All Because of You” from How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb).
But Jesus walked among us, as one of us. We have a job to do as preachers. We have a high calling. We have a reverend office. Yes. But we never cease to be sinners, saved by grace. We know some things, but so does everyone in our congregation. We might have some specialized knowledge of ministry, but that doesn’t mean we know more about sacrifice than the couple that cares for their elderly grandparents. It doesn’t mean we know more about trauma than the woman who has been abused. It doesn’t mean we know as much about theology as Alistair McGrath, or about the Bible as N.T. Wright.
Its okay for us to be human. In fact, its our only real choice anyway. So we can just be that and move away from lecturing people as if we are on a mountaintop of piety.
Bow your heads and close your eyes. Wait, no.
In conclusion, preach the Gospel as a sinner, saved by grace, through one main point that is simple but founded on your study of the Bible and told through stories of human life and trust the results to God.