5 Mistakes Most Preachers Make

preachers

So maybe you’re a preacher, or you listen to preachers (or stopped listening to preachers). Almost everyone has a perspective on what makes or doesn’t make for a great sermon.

I’ve been preaching regularly for over 25 years, so I know a little bit about the head games preachers play with themselves.

What you do before a Sunday morning ever begins, for the most part, determines what happens on a Sunday morning. Chances are you’ve struggled through the mistakes below. I have. And what’s hard for preachers is that we always make our mistakes in public.

How you approach preaching ultimately determines how you preach, which, of course, also determines how your audience interacts with your message and the effectiveness of your message.

Here are 5 preaching mistakes I’ve made from time to time. They’re also mistakes I’ve seen others make far too often.

1. Failing to Get To The Right Kind of Simplicity

Complexity is the enemy of great communication.

Come on, you know what I’m talking about. We’ve all sat through talks where we felt lost, and sadly, we’ve probably given a few of those talks as well.

But complexity is also a natural companion of preachers. Here’s why. You are doing the difficult task of trying to relate God’s word with our world. And both are complex. The Scripture is an ancient text that requires background, nuance, and understanding to communicate it well. And the human condition within you and around is, well, also complex.

A lot of preachers get lost in the complexity. It’s exceptionally difficult to push through the complexity of the text and the complexity of the human condition to get to a great message.

As a result, some preachers never wrestle through the issues sufficiently and just dump their unresolved, complicated ideas in front of a congregation and call it a sermon. Bad idea.

Others fight for greater simplicity. The best communicators make complex issues seem simple. That’s been true for thousands of years, and there are the seeds of genius in it if you can do it consistently.

But here’s the challenge: there’s are two kinds of simplicity: simplicity on the front side of complexity, and simplicity on the other side of complexity.

There’s a world of difference between them. Here’s how to get the right kind of simplicity.

Simplicity on the Front Side of Complexity

Too many preachers settle for simplicity on the front side of complexity. They find a simple line that sounds true but fails to really engage the scripture passage or life particularly well. You see them all the time on Instagram.

Maybe they’re lines like “God loves prayer because he cares” or “God never gives a reason out of season.” What do those things even mean? Sure…they rhyme, but they’re trivial statements that don’t really carry weight.

To me, it’s always a sign that the communicator hasn’t really thoughtfully tackled an issue. Simplistic never weathers the storms of life.

Simplicity on the Other Side of Complexity

But there’s a second kind of simplicity: simplicity on the other side of complexity. Preachers who have wrestled the text, faith, life, God, angels, and demons struggle deeply with complexity. And on the other side, if they stick with it, they bring insight that makes deeply complex matters easier to understand.

Steve Jobs leveraged simplicity on the other side of complexity when he introduced a phone that got rid of all the clutter of every other phone on the marketplace and introduced one screen. Elon Musk is doing it right now as he cuts through all the weirdness of electric and hybrid cars to produce a model that simply, cleanly and now, more affordably, works.  These are leaders who worked through exceptionally complicated issues to find simplicity.

Preachers can do the same thing with ideas. It’s just hard work to get there.

I’ve been working on a series on the book of Jonah for a while. It took me months to figure out the main approach to the book, but  I came up with a simple sentenced that crystallized the message of the book (and, in some respects, the Gospel) for me:

God doesn’t run away from runaways.

It’s just six words, but it’s the essence of the book (both Jonah and the Ninevites have run away) and in many ways reflects the Gospel itself. It has teeth and carries weight but it’s memorable. And memorable, done right,  is portable.

Other examples of bottom lines that for me have crystallized things after wrestling down complex issues include

Live in a way today that will help you thrive tomorrow (the antidote to burnout)

98% of pastoral care is having someone who cares (on what biblical pastoral care truly is)

Fixing your mind on Christ fixes your mind (on how to approach the self-talk that destroys us)

If you want to learn more about how to craft simple statements that convey complex truths, I wrote about the methodology here.

Do you have to have a bottom line for your message? No, of course not. But I agree with Andy Stanley that if you can’t summarize your message in a single sentence, you don’t understand it well enough to preach it.

Before you jump to criticize, remember, simple is not simplistic. Simple is clear, and it’s memorable. Simple allows complex truth to live in the hearts of people in a memorable way.

2. Making the Bottom Line More Important Than the Text

So let’s say you have a bottom line that you think works. Great.

You may be tempted to make the bottom line more important than the biblical text. Don’t.

The goal of preaching is not to have a memorable bottom line, it’s to help people find God’s story in their story. And the text bridges that gap.

The scripture is always more important than what the preacher says about the scripture.

Don’t make the text subservient to your clever bottom line. It’s a trap I can fall into frequently if I’m not careful.

3. Making Your Exposition More Important Than the Text

At this point expository preachers are probably smiling smugly, thinking “Well, we’d never boil down God’s truth to a single sentence. I preach biblically, not topically.”

Great stuff. I’ve preached both ways and both have a role in the Kingdom for sure.

Except it’s also really easy to make your exposition of the text more important than the text.

Second challenge: many preachers haven’t wrestled past complexity to get to simplicity or even clarity.

Every preaching form has its pitfall, including expository preaching. This should surprise no one, since, after all, every preacher is a sin-stained human being.

4. Treating the Text As If It Was More Important Than Jesus

There’s a lot of discussion about scripture these days, but what if the ultimate goal of preaching was not to get people to love the text, but instead to love Jesus?

I think that’s what Jesus was driving at when he talked about scripture not being an end in itself, but rather pointing to him as the source of all life.

I have to remind myself of that all the time. The point is not to have a great bottom line people remember or even a text that comes to life, but to make sure that my preaching points everyone back to Christ (through the scriptures).

The goal of preaching isn’t correct thinking; it’s transformed lives.

The scripture can’t give life. Only Jesus can. And the reason scriptures have life is because of Christ.

5. Trying to Cover Too Much

Most preachers are far too ambitious in what they want to cover in 30-40 minutes. Our ambition plagues us on multiple levels.

First, it’s usually best to keep a single sermon to a single big idea. When you say three different things, you usually end up saying nothing.

If you have three ideas, turn them into three separate messages. Teach a series, rather than trying to cram it all into a single moment.

The same dynamic plagues most of us in a single message. You may have one idea, but too often you try to cram too much content into that single message.

Why does that happen?

I can tell you why that happens to me. Most days, I’m afraid I don’t have enough to say.

Guess what. In a quarter century of preaching and speaking, I’ve never been short of material. In fact, the opposite usually happens. I scramble to fit it all in in the 30-40 minutes allotted. When that happens, the ending (one of the most important parts of your message) suffers most.

So how do you get around this tension? Simple. Be willing to live with the fear that you won’t have enough to say.

You’ll deliver the message better because you won’t be rushed. You’ll have more space for grace and intentional pauses. And content will come to you in the moment that as you deliver your message with a more natural pacing.

My Brand New Preaching Resource

better preaching

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In the course, Mark and I cover:

  • The Why and How of Preaching
  • How to Preach to the Unchurched
  • How to Give a Talk Without Using Notes
  • How to Craft a Killer Bottom Line
  • How to Stay Fresh over the Long Haul

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What Do You See?

Those are five snares I’m constantly mindful of in my own preaching.

How about you? What do you struggle with? What do you see around you?

Scroll down and leave a comment!

10 Comments

  1. teodoro matira on June 11, 2018 at 12:29 pm

    My concern is not about making the scripture relevant to the needs of the people and to the world but the other way around.

  2. Maie on June 11, 2018 at 7:50 am

    Thanks Pas. Carey. Am learning a lot. I have to review them though, because each point that you gave must be understood well so that I can apply them too. Thanks for this free article. I pray that God will bless you more with His wisdom. So thankful that am one of your subscribers. Stay blessed Pas.Carey. -from Philippines…

  3. Marcus W McClain on June 10, 2018 at 9:54 am

    Carey, I have been preaching for over 40 years and I still strive to communicate correctly, relevantly and passionately. I am a second gen preacher and my Dad schooled me on the value of improving my craft. That said, thank you for your insights and I look forward to the Art of Better Preaching because a 60 + preacher, I desperately want to be an effective communicator to the gen’s that follow.

  4. asfaw zeray on April 16, 2018 at 3:46 am

    thank you for sharing your experience in preaching as I am serving the Lord as per time preacher, it is important to me to have such chances to correction common mistakes.

  5. lyall phillips, Port Vincent, South Australia 5581 on April 15, 2018 at 11:26 pm

    On Sunday past, (yesterday) I spoke to a small congregation of a church celebrating 140th Anniversary.
    The organiser asked me for an “address” In all conscience I wanted to do more but I was allocated limited time. I gave the first half as history (it was my childhood church) and the balance on a fairly direct gospel and Great Commission message on engagement with the local community rather than attendance counting’ which is one of your themes. It was accepted but the point is that I could only present a single thought. The congregation seemed satisfied but I felt that I should have presented more.
    Thanks for your article which calmed my nerves Lyall Phillips – Australia

  6. JOHN STONE on April 15, 2018 at 2:48 pm

    Wow, great article, and after 30 plus years of preaching and teaching, I take teaching in a classroom to be much easier. Students get to ask questions-students get to fire back-then I know if I’m being clear or not. Leaning, not worship necessarily, happens. There’s a difference. Preaching-well, I am writing a book on preaching, too. Guess what, somehow you stole all my ideas. 🙂 Maybe it’s something we both see-I have failed so many times to go for simplicity-my sermons are like fruit basket turnover. Just now, I am figuring out something closer to Haddon Robinson’s BIG IDEA and application-I love the two great apps: The text should lead to worshipping Jesus (rings of Keller there) and simplicity after complexity-how many times did I just give up and get complex and leave everyone stunned into a kind of pastoral stupor- (sleep). Thank you, it’s almost too late for me-and I am still learning-hope the younger whipper snappers take your advice-it’s excellent. My goal this week: Make 1 Samuel 20 into a simplicity after complexity leading to Jesus –this is going to require prayer and study for sure.

    • JOHN STONE on April 15, 2018 at 2:49 pm

      Learning, not leaning. oops.

  7. Mark on July 15, 2017 at 4:14 pm

    Ttying to make three points in a sermon frequently leads to the first two being forgotten. Just make one point well. My other recommendation is to pay attention to your audience. What would someone doubting think about it? Would a younger person and think the pastor and the powerful wanted him or her gone? Or would they find something in it that they could relate to?

  8. Rick on July 15, 2017 at 5:59 am

    Thanks – I am glad you hit on number 4 and 5. On #4, text is important, as you have said, it gives depth to Christ but the overriding story should always bring it back ‘home’ to the reason we are Christians. On #5 – everytime I write a sermon I go back and ask of each sentence, is this about the message I am supposed to bring today, if it isn’t I usually chop it out. I always think of poetry over prose, poetry sums up emotions in the fewest words possible. Look at the beauty in Psalms, not very wordy. You scramble to fit it all n in 30-40 minutes? If I get 15 minutes it’s a long message!

  9. Jody on July 11, 2017 at 1:21 pm

    “Be willing to live with the fear that you won’t have enough to say.” May we all walk in the freedom of this.

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