My brother bats left-handed. For those uninitiated to baseball, a left-handed batter is one who swings from the left side of home plate. If that still means nothing to you, just skip down two paragraphs. As for my brother, it’s the strangest thing, since he does everything else – writes, throws, waves, swipes his credit card – with his right hand.
Once I asked him to explain the whole anomaly of his left-handed batting habit. “It’s simple”, he began. “I just started wrong and stuck with it.”
That got me thinking about preachers and preaching. Specifically, new preachers — the rookies forging early pulpit habits. I’m thinking about the seminary-minted dudes filling new pulpits, or the guys sharpening their tools on the steel of church planting. Maybe that was once you. The undaunted preparers; the aspiring expositors; the legion of ‘I-must-say-everything-I-know-about-this-passage!’.
Maybe that’s you right now.
If so, then take a lesson from my brother’s swing. When it comes to preaching, don’t start wrong. And if you do, for mercy-sakes, don’t stick with it!
Over three decades of ministry, I’ve heard some preaching in need of a restart. Sadly, much of it has spilled from my own lips. Like my brother, I started wrong in a number of areas until my swinging was arrested by either bad fruit or good counsel. Most guys who have been preaching more than 5 years would say the same thing.
Some of my mistakes were common to early preachers. There were other rookie errors that, thankfully, I avoided. Over the next couple of posts, I’m going to explore some of the more familiar ones. If you’re in the first few innings of a preaching ministry, perhaps this list will help you to start right, swing straight, and stick with it!
A good introduction has 2 simple goals: Grab the listener’s curiosity and escort them deliberately down the path to either the proposition or the passage. Unless you’re John Piper, you need one. The key word here is “one”. Many newbies will tell several stories, ramble about current events, cobble together some clever comments, or repeatedly circle the text forgetting about the landing strip. Don’t do it. Answer the question, “Why should this passage fascinate you?”, and then get to the Bible.
Oh, and mix up your introductions a bit. Even good stories can get tiresome if they are simply the predictable opening of each week’s message. Redundant intros — whether in the same message or in the delivery routine — can be wearisome. Mix it up. Start with a quote, ask a question, recreate the context — think hard about how to make your intro interesting, diverse, and brief!
2) Lazy Illustrations
Good illustrations convince the listener that the Bible has legs; God’s truth walks deftly in the real world. But good illustrations take work. This means cultivating an eye for illustrations, developing a system for retaining and retrieving them, and dedicating time in your sermon prep to skillfully deliver and apply the illustration.
You could sum up that paragraph in two words — hard work. Good illustrations are hard work!
Illustrations become lazy when they become predictable. The preacher drops the bucket too often in the shallow well of one variety — sports, movies, politics, or — and this one’s gonna hurt — his family! In the orchard of illustrations, family stories can easily become the low-hanging fruit that’s quickly plucked and swiftly spoiled.
But there’s something else. Brothers, the path to celebrity is paved by a thousand personal illustrations. In the world of church, preachers gain distinction through the currency of home. Family affairs can build people not into God’s promises but into God’s preacher. “While accounts of personal experiences usually carry the most powerful audience identification characteristics,” Bryan Chapell adds, “such illustrations must be balanced with material from other sources to avoid accusations of personal preoccupation”.
Sometimes it’s calculated; more often though, young preachers just don’t allow their imagination to circle out beyond the home to nature, church history, a broader set of cultural authorities, and most importantly, the Bible. Illustrating points through God’s word double-loops the impact of the word and creates a more biblically-conversant congregation.
Honestly, even as I write these words I feel a stab of conviction. As a newer preacher, my illustration orbit was too tight, too predictable. My imagination didn’t reach beyond my little world nearly as often as it should. Thankfully, God’s grace is greater than our mistakes and is lavished upon emerging preachers!
While we’re on lazy illustrations, one other thing: Preachers, the ladies don’t always get all of your sports references. Enough said.
This is about how young preachers use the word “gospel”. A strange or seemingly petty critique, you may think, but please hear me out. The liberal use of the word “gospel” in a sermon does not make it gospel-centered anymore than the liberal use of the word “‘Merica” makes one an American. Being American is about a constitution, a history, spacious skies and amber waves of grain, the Rockies, the Grand Canyon, Vegas and shared values, Google and McDonalds, a birthplace, and the people among whom one feels most at-home. Like the gospel, being an “American” includes certain basic, non-negotiable things. But there are hundreds of ways to describe what it means to be “American” apart from just repeating the word.
Truly gospel-centered sermons spring from gospel-loving and gospel-applying preachers. Sprinkling the sermon with the term “gospel” may indicate that we know our tribe and which flag to wave, but not the founders constitution that unites and mobilizes us.
You’re going to get tired of me saying this but…I know, because I was a gospel-dropper.
Years ago a kind-hearted and biblically astute lay leader in our church suggested that my preaching might improve if I could think of other ways to celebrate gospel-centeredness apart from just using the word “gospel”. At first I had a hard time understanding the point, which made me wonder whether he really understood my preaching.
Little did I know, he understood it all too well.
This faithful man wasn’t suggesting alternative synonyms for gospel; he was suggesting that there are hundreds of ways to explain and exalt in the extraordinary news of a love-besotted Savior who sacrificed himself to save sinners. He figured I needed to learn a few more.
He was right.
Let’s stop there for the moment. There’s more to say, and our next post will cover several other common mistakes. But don’t let that discourage you. If you’re making these mistakes, you are joining an old tradition of new preachers finding the best ways to herald a great gospel. God humbles the man to sharpen his methods.
So take some simple steps.
Tell some friends what you are beginning to see. Create some growth goals and invite others to evaluate your progress. And don’t forget, plug into our next post with a hope-sparked confidence that God reveals our weakness to impart his power.