Three blogs on the common mistakes of young preachers may seem excessive to you, like I’m the brute kicking the new pup as he stands on wobbly legs to take his first steps. But to the sensitive soul who may be struggling, remember, most of this material comes from raiding the overstocked storehouse of my own preaching mistakes. It’s not pretty, but I pray it will convince you that I know what it’s like to stumble forward as a new pup.
But there’s something else. Over the last 3 decades, I’ve heard a ton of preaching and evaluated a lot of preachers. I’ve logged a lot of hours evaluating the preaching of church planters and rookie preachers. It’s actually been unexpectedly encouraging to discover that my early mistakes were common to other preachers too. The ground upon which the pulpit rests is pretty level.
The good news is that we have only two more mistakes to discuss. Let’s plow forward knowing that God has a way of surprising preachers with grace, particularly as we seek to humbly examine the areas where He is inviting us to grow.
A humor-grab is a random comical comment that appears out of context, out of character, or out of bounds. It happens when our attempts to be clever or witty become a distraction. We sacrifice sober-mindedness to reach for a laugh. We prepare sermons assuming it needs the enhancements of our wit. “Laughter”, observes John Piper, “seems to have replaced repentance as the goal of many preachers”.
Make no mistake, it’s a dangerous habit — one in which new preachers are particularly vulnerable.
Often a rookie preacher selects a preaching Jedi — a preacher made popular by conference, church size, or history — and seeks to imitate his style. While this is a common phase for most emerging preachers, it’s important that he lives self-conscious of the imprint and aware that, when imitating the humor style, it’s likely to sound pretty canned. Few things discredit a preacher quicker than the impression he is not himself. Comedic imitation smells like insincerity.
This is not to say there is no place for humor in a message. On the contrary, I think there are preachers whose messages might be humanized a bit through a dose of comic imagination. When used skillfully, humor can create rapport with the lost, disarm defenses, and make hard truths more digestible. I’ve got memories of messages where I was laughing rumbustiously only to be surgically opened by the convicting comments that followed. When done wisely and well, humor is a gift to the congregation.
If you’re wondering whether it’s YOUR gift for the congregation, start with the following questions:
- Am I funny in private? (One’s public humor should not be an entertainment persona; it should appear consistent with one’s private personality.)
- Does anyone apart from me, my wife, and my mom think I’m funny in private?
- Does my style and delivery of humor enhance the message or distract from it?
- Does my humor make me larger to people, or make the message content more accessible?
- Does my use of wit betray my age or undermine my stature?
The last question is an important one, particularly if you trend towards cynicism. Cynicism may occasionally appear like intelligent critique, but it never appears mature. Most folks intuitively sense that cynical humor is nothing more than whining masquerading as insight.
The bottom line? Cynicism and humor-grabs steal stature. By trivializing the moment, they erode the gravitas of the leader, even though listeners can’t necessarily articulate why they take the preacher less seriously. These grabs can also discourage serious minded people (e.g. future leaders, older saints) from being drawn to our preaching.
If you’re going to use humor, make sure it passes the test of actual, congregational edification. And if you ever find yourself lamenting that you don’t possess that coveted humor gene, take solace in the fact that neither did most preachers throughout Church history.
If the 3 keys to real estate development are ‘Location, location, location’, the 3 keys to preaching growth are “Assess, assess, assess!” Yet it’s perplexing how often new preachers are reluctant to establish feedback loops for improving their sermon and delivery.
Maybe it’s not perplexing. I mean, who wants to be told that those 12 – 20 hours; those words you labored to select; those ideas that consumed your heart and soul were, in their delivery, neither inspired nor inspiring. Most of us just want to assume we did fine and move on to binge-watching Netflix.
Evaluation can be painful.
But it’s good pain; the kind one feels the day after we start exercising again. The pain tells us our muscles are undeveloped and those areas need work. Plus, let’s be honest: The main reason sermon evaluation is painful is because we’re proud. Outside perspective calls into question our own, dare I say, exaggerated self-assessment. Hearing we have areas in need of improvement are a market adjustment downward from the high opinion we have of our own abilities.
Truth to tell, few things will help you grow quicker as a preacher than selecting a small group of qualified folks (staff or lay-folk) to provide honest feedback. Don’t fear it, face it.
Oh, and one last thing. An important area for evaluation should be sermon length. Don’t start with how long your particular tradition accords you (“I’m charismatic and we preach for an hour!”). Start with your experience and your gifting, as defined by the plurality of elders. If you’re like most guys, you may find their time allotment for your sermons is shorter than what you want. Go with it. The wise preacher leaves people wanting more and sleeping less.
Do you remember my brother from the first post? His left-handed batting habit came from starting wrong and sticking with it. If these posts have revealed areas for improvement, now is the time to step to the other side of the plate; now is the time to start swinging differently.
Don’t be discouraged. These mistakes are all common to emerging preachers and many gifted expositors have stumbled through them. God is faithful, and devoted to help those who earnestly desire to herald the gospel. Preaching, after all, is God’s idea (1 Corinthians 1: 21). Calling you, with all of your strengths and weaknesses, was his idea too.
Trust Him. The One who called you to preach will supply all you need to do it effectively, through His power, by His Word, and for His glory.