I am on Sabbatical this summer so I’ve had the opportunity to be a guest worshipper in several other churches. I’ve heard some great preaching and some not-so-great preaching. I’ve had the opportunity to hear a lot of different preachers from rookies to seasoned veterans and across the line I’ve witnessed these common mistakes that many preachers make.
Do you make any of these common preaching faux pas?
1. Telling people how much you know
This is probably the most-common mistake across the board. We’re ministers of the Gospel. We love Jesus. We love God’s Word. We love our people and we want them to know how amazing Scripture truly is. I get it. I really do. Because I am prone to making this mistake too.
That’s why I have a post-it on my computer monitor that reads:
“Don’t tell people how much you know. Take them by the hand and show them what to do.”
This reminds me that all of the Greek, Hebrew, theology, geography, archaeology, and doctrine in the Bible don’t matter if people don’t know what to do with it. Honestly, people don’t care how much I know. You know who does? We do. We spend all of this time in study. We’re excited about what we learned and we assume others will be excited, too. And they could be. If we organize the information in a way that’s digestible, relevant, and creative. And then show them what to do with this new-found knowledge.
Here are four simple questions I put at the top of every sermon I write:
- What do I want people to know?
- Why do they need to know it?
- What do I want people to do?
- Why do they need to do it?
These four simple questions help me figure out what people really need to know and do. If any information I’ve studied doesn’t align with the answers to these questions, it goes. It may be great information. It may be quite interesting or even powerful. Save it for another day. More information usually dilutes the point rather than enhancing it.
2. Assuming how much listeners know
Being a visitor to churches this summer, I have been especially sensitive to this one. Often times, I’ve felt alienated and excluded because I didn’t get an inside joke, understand a reference, know a particular word or term – and I’m a seminary trained minister with 20 years of church experience! I can only imagine how other visitors, and even some regulars, must have felt.
Here are two cardinal rules I follow when communicating anywhere:
- Know your audience
- Assume nothing
These two communication rules remind me to be careful in how I choose my words and references. As a general rule, I try to craft all of my language so that a 6th grade first-time visitor can understand it. Don’t assume that your listeners watch that TV show, read that article, know who that Bible character is, or have heard that Bible story. “As you know…” is one of the most alienating things you can ever say. The chances are high that some people in your audience don’t know and you just alienated them and made them feel stupid for not knowing.
If you’re going to assume anything, assume that your audience is made up of irreligious 6th grade boys who know nothing. Speak to them.
3. Not landing the plane
I don’t care for flying that much. I don’t hate it, but by the time the plane is beginning its descent, I am more than ready to get off. So every time the captain utters those words, “We are now beginning our descent,” I mentally start preparing my exit strategy.
Several years ago I was flying into Boston. The captain had already made the announcement and I had already packed up my things, chomping at the bit to deplane. Then the captain came back on: “Ladies and gentlemen, we are going to be circling for awhile to allow Air Force 1 to land.” And for the next 45 minutes we flew around in circles after we had already been told we were landing. I thought I was going to die! It was absolutely miserable and I hoped I would never have to go through that experience again.
But I did again this summer. Except this time it wasn’t on a plane, but in a church.
The preacher had announced, “This is my 3rd and final point before I close” and then he proceeded to talk for 25 more minutes! I felt just like I did on that fateful flight to Boston. I was fidgeting in my seat. My skin crawling. I had to pee really bad! And he just kept droning on and on. I know I wasn’t alone in my “mental departure.” Many people in the audience grew noticeably impatient with each additional Bible verse.
Here’s the thing. The rest of the message was actually quite good. But all I remember is the landing. It was tragic. A long and bumpy landing completely negated an otherwise smooth ride. As communicators, we have to understand that when the plane starts descending everyone is preparing to get off. If you circle and circle and circle the destination without landing the plane, people get impatient and lose focus. Unfortunately, what people will remember isn’t the great story, poignant points, or key theological insights. It’s the looooooong landing.
Once you begin your descent, you should land the plane within 5 minutes.
I’m not trying to pick on preachers here. I have, and still do make all of these mistakes. Communicating the Word of God is an honor and a privilege we don’t take lightly. We can make our message more clear, concise, and compelling just by being conscious of avoiding these common mistakes.
What other mistakes have you made as a preacher or hear others make? Please share in the comments.