This article was originally published on The Gospel Coalition.
My brother bats left-handed. It’s the strangest thing, because he does everything else—writes, throws, waves, swipes cards—with his right hand.
I once asked him to explain the 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. Specifically, new preachers—the rookies forging early pulpit habits, seminary-minted dudes filling new pulpits, and the guys sharpening their tools on the steel of church planting. Maybe that was once you, or maybe it’s you right now. If so, then take a lesson from my brother’s swing: Don’t get off on the wrong foot. 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 pulpit swinging was corrected by either bad fruit or good counsel. Some of my mistakes were common to early preachers. Other rookie errors, thankfully, I avoided.
Here are seven 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.
1. Redundant Introductions
A good introduction has two simple goals: (1) Grab the listeners’ curiosity, and (2) escort them down the path to either the proposition or the passage. Unless you’re Matt Chandler, 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. 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. These take hard work. You must cultivate an eye for illustrations, develop a system for retaining and retrieving them, and dedicate time in your sermon prep to skillfully deliver and apply the illustration. 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. Sometimes, young preachers just don’t allow their imagination to circle out beyond their 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 effect of the Word and creates a more biblically conversant congregation.
3. Hero Factor
When you tell stories about yourself, or your church, who is the hero? Is it God? Is it the remarkable power of the unstoppable gospel? Or are your stories Trojan horses that smuggle “self” into your sermons?
The pulpit is a steering wheel for the church. Thankfully, many pastors drive their church toward the triune God. But sometimes our message moves toward the mountain of me.
It can happen through either phrase or fragrance, but the effect is always the same: People walk away thinking as much about the preacher as the passage. Constant talk about your family, a careful stack of success stories from your ministry, a pulpit punch toward a critic, and vocabulary selected more for cleverness than clarity can build people into trusting God’s preacher more than God’s promises.
Bryan Chapell writes:
While accounts of personal experiences usually carry the most powerful audience-identification characteristics, such illustrations must be balanced with material from other sources to avoid accusations of personal preoccupation.
Instead of boosting your esteem in the eyes of the people, make God the hero.
Young preachers use the word “gospel” too often. This may seem a strange or petty critique, but please hear me out. Liberal use of the word “gospel” in a sermon does not make it gospel-centered any more than the liberal use of the word ‘Merica makes one an American. There are hundreds of ways to describe what it means to be American apart from repeating the word.
Years ago, a kindhearted 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 using the word “gospel.” At first, I had a hard time understanding the point, which made me wonder whether he really understood my preaching. He understood it all too well. This faithful man wasn’t suggesting synonyms for “gospel”; he was suggesting there are hundreds of ways to explain and exalt in the extraordinary news of a love-besotted Savior who sacrificed himself to save sinners.
5. Rudderless Exposition
We’ve all seen it. Open the Bible, read the text, offer a couple of ceremonial comments on the passage, and then leave the textual orbit for planets “My Burden,” “My Ideas,” and “Interesting Things I’ve Thought about This Topic.”
True exposition makes the text the sermon’s rudder. The text guides the sermon out of the dock into the open seas of original audience, exegesis, and contextualization. It determines the direction, the organization, even how the message is applied. A preacher uncoupled from the text is a rudderless ship, a vessel desperately searching for both direction and destination.
Here’s an observation about preachers: The smarter you are, the more tempted you are to go rudderless. In other words, minds that are more fertile and absorbent often have more ideas competing with the text during preparation and delivery. It’s how I explain Spurgeon, whose sermons, while being text-based, Christ-centered, and courageously delivered, were not necessarily great examples of expository preaching. But he’s the Prince of Preachers, and I’m not. You’re not either. So grab your rudder and don’t let go until you’re done preaching.
6. Humor Grabs
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,” John Piper observes, “seems to have replaced repentance as the goal of many preachers.” Make no mistake: it’s a dangerous habit—one to which new preachers are particularly vulnerable.
A rookie preacher often selects a preaching Jedi—a preacher made popular by conferences, 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 canned.
Few things discredit a preacher more quickly than the impression he is not being himself. Comedic imitation smells of insincerity. This is not to say there is no place for humor in a message; on the contrary, there are preachers whose messages might be humanized a bit through a dose of comic imagination. I have memories of messages where I was laughing rumbustiously only to be surgically opened by the convicting comments that followed. When deployed wisely and well, humor is a gift to the congregation.
If you’re wondering whether it’s your gift for the congregation, start with these questions: Am I funny in private? Does anyone apart from me, my wife, and my mom think I’m funny? Your public humor should appear consistent with your private personality. Does my style and delivery of humor enhance the message or distract from it? Does my use of wit betray my age or undermine my stature?
7. Feedback Phobia
The key to growth as a preacher is assessment. 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 to 20 hours, those words you labored to select, those ideas that consumed your heart and soul were, in their delivery, neither inspired nor inspiring?
Evaluation can be painful, but it’s good pain—the kind you feels the day after you start exercising again. Few things will help you grow more quickly as a preacher than selecting a small group of qualified folks (staff or lay) to provide honest feedback. Don’t fear it; face it. 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 your church’s leadership. 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.
My brother’s left-handed batting habit came from starting wrong and sticking with it. If this article has 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 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 his gospel. Preaching, after all, is his idea (1 Cor. 1:21). Calling you, with all of your strengths and weaknesses, was his idea too. So trust him. The One who called you to preach is competent enough to make you effective.