6 Sermon Myths We Need to Bust

sermon myths

Preaching is one of the most demanding tasks required of communicators.

You’re not just giving a ‘talk,’ you’re communicating the Word of God—faithfully (you trust). And you do this in front of groups of people who have more communication options and sources than at any point in human history.

Not an easy task.

In addition, when it comes to preaching, everyone has an opinion.

As a result, preachers get more than their share of feedback. Sometimes it’s helpful. Sometimes not so much.

So to wrap up my five part communication series, I thought I’d finish by busting some sermon myths.

The rest of the blog series covers topics like creating sermon series that connect with unchurched people and learning how to speak without using notes:

Part 1: How to Design a Message Series That Engages Unchurched People

Part 2: How to Craft a Killer Bottom Line for Your Next Talk

Part 3: 7 Reasons You Should Speak Without Using Notes

Part 4: A 5 Step Method For Delivering a Talk Without Using Notes

Part 5: 6 Sermon Myths We Need to Bust (This post)

I’ve poured everything I’ve learned about preaching into a brand new course I released with Mark Clark, called The Art of Better Preaching. You can learn more here.

So what sermon myths should we bust? Here are 6.

1. Sermons need to be short because people have tiny attention spans

Now that human beings apparently have a shorter attention span than goldfish (8 seconds), there’s pressure on preachers to be shorter.

Long sermons are almost always seen as a thing of the past.

I think we’ve framed the issue incorrectly.

We think that shorter equals more engaging.

It doesn’t. You can be short and boring. Or you can be longer and highly engaging.

Is there a perfect length for sermons?

No way.

15 minutes of boring is 15 minutes too long. 40 minutes of fascinating is fascinating.

15 minutes of boring is 15 minutes too long. 40 minutes of fascinating is fascinating. Click To Tweet

The average feature film hasn’t gotten any shorter in length. In fact, they’ve actually grown longer. The latest Star Wars installment and the Martian both did just fine at over 2 hours each.

The issue isn’t length. It’s engagement.

Your sermons don’t necessarily have to be shorter. They do need to be engaging.

Your sermons don't necessarily have to be shorter. They do need to be engaging. Click To Tweet

2. Clear preaching is watered-down preaching

Many preachers have worked hard at becoming clearer in their communication.

Personally, I think that’s awesome.

But people mistake ‘clear’ for ‘watered-down’.

Does watered-down preaching exist? Sure it does. But clear preaching is not inherently watered-down preaching. It’s just clear.

But being clear when you preach doesn’t mean you’re gospel-light. Clear preaching is not inherently watered-down preaching. It’s just clear.

Clear preaching is not inherently watered-down preaching. It's just clear. Click To Tweet

More than any of us would care to admit, we’ve sat through a 45-minute message and then, an hour later, found ourselves completely unable to recall a single point that was made.  What we experienced was a rambling message filled with obscure references and void of application to real life.

But because we don’t know what to call that, we too often call that style of preaching ‘deep.’  It’s not deep. It’s confusing.

Don't call confusing preaching 'deep.' Call it confusing. Click To Tweet

As any preacher will tell you, it takes far more skill and hard to work to be clear than it does to be confusing.

Don’t criticize a preacher because he or she is clear.

In a culture in that is increasingly becoming post-Christian, clarity is our friend, not our enemy.

The last thing I want is for someone to walk away from the Gospel because they didn’t ever hear it. So be clear.

It takes far more skill and hard work to be clear as a preacher than it does to be confusing. Click To Tweet

3. Thorough planning eliminates the Holy Spirit

As a church grows, it becomes more structured.

As I outlined in my course, Church Growth Masterclass, and in posts like this one, this is a good thing. You need to structure bigger to grow bigger.

Part of that means preaching preparation happens far earlier than in many cases.

I personally plan our series months in advance and write my messages weeks in advance. It helps our team function far better.

One criticism of advanced planning is that it removes the Holy Spirit from message preparation.

I’m not sure that logic holds up.

That critique implies that the Holy Spirit shows up when you’re panicked and unprepared more than he does when you work ahead. If you take it further, the argument would be that the more panicked and unprepared you are, the more spiritual you are.

Too many preachers say they’re relying on the Holy Spirit when in reality, they didn’t prepare.

The Holy Spirit can and will show up a month in advance of your message like he will the night before your message.

In fact, you may have more time to listen to him a month before than you do during your Saturday night scramble.

Does advance preparation mean you can never make last minute changes? Of course not.

But your team will thank you and ultimately your congregation will thank you if you show up studied, prepared and rested.

Too many preachers say they're relying on the Holy Spirit when in reality, they didn't prepare. Click To Tweet

4. You should judge your message based on how well you did

So I’m a recovering performance addict.

In my early years of preaching, I was obsessed with ‘how well I did.’

Too often, that became a defining characteristic of my evaluation. It led me to ask questions like

Did people like me?

Did they think I was funny?

Did they think I was a great communicator…or just a good one?

Insecurity and narcissism are close cousins, you know.

Here’s an imperfect but better set of questions:

Did the message faithfully communicate the text?

Did it connect with people?

Did they respond to the stories and the humour?

Did it help anyone? How?

How can I grow as a communicator?

The early questions were far too much about me and not nearly enough about the content or the audience.

As someone once told me, stop focusing on how well you’re doing as a preacher and start focusing on your audience. So true.

Take it further as a preacher: focus on Christ and your audience.

When you lose yourself as a communicator, you find yourself.

When you lose yourself as a communicator, you find yourself. Click To Tweet

5. Topical preaching isn’t faithful preaching

Some people argue the only preaching that’s faithful is biblical, expository preaching.

I think expository preaching can be amazing. But by that standard, Jesus was a failure.

Jesus was a more thorough student of the Scriptures than anyone who ever lived. Yet his primary mode of communication wasn’t verse-by-verse exposition of the Old Testament.

He told stories. He engaged people. He addressed issues in their lives.

Topical preaching isn’t the only way to preach, but it’s a helpful way to preach.

Preachers have a responsibility to cover the major issues in the Christian faith and the scriptures in their preaching.

If you’re going to engage truly unchurched people, one very effective way to do it is to frame what people need to know in the context of what people want to know.

So if you want to cover the scriptures’ teaching about love, do it from the angle of relationships, marriage, breakups or the like. That way, you cover what they need to know but engage them based on what they want to know.

That’s not unfaithful. It’s just effective.

Topical preaching may not be the only way to teach, but it’s an important way to teach.

Frame what people need to know in the context of what people want to know. Click To Tweet

6. The listener’s job is to evaluate what they got out of a message

Critics. Got to love ’em.

And we’re all critics.

Too many times I’ve listened at a message rather than to a message.

And that’s because somewhere along the way many of us have bought into the lie that we need to evaluate a church by what we get out of it.

That’s not Christianity. That’s consumerism.

When we evaluate a message by what we get out of it, that's not Christianity. That's consumerism. Click To Tweet

You get out of a message what you put into a message.

Lean in.


Look for God.



If you can’t find anything to apply in a message, it’s because you didn’t put in enough.

Finally, I need to remember that criticism is a form of lazy arrogance.

If all I do is criticize a message, it says “I put in 1/100th of the effort you did, but I could have done better.”

If you could have done that much better, then do it.

Criticism is a form of lazy arrogance. Click To Tweet

Become a Better Preacher Starting Now

art of better preaching

Ready to start preaching better sermons and reach the unchurched without selling out? Then it’s time to start using the right tips, lessons, and strategies to communicating better.

The Art of Better Preaching Course is a 12 session video training with a comprehensive, interactive workbook that will help you create, write, and deliver better sermons. The course contains the lessons Mark Clark (lead pastor of  Village Church, a growing mega-church in post-Christian Vancouver) and I have learned, taught, and used over decades of being professional communicators.

This is the complete course you need to start preaching better sermons, including:

  • 7 preaching myths it’s time to bust forever
  • The 5 keys to preaching sermons to unchurched people (that will keep them coming back)
  • How to discover the power in the text (and use it to drive your sermon)
  • The specific characteristics of sermons that reach people in today’s world
  • Why you need to ditch your sermon notes (and how to do it far more easily than you think.)
  • How to keep your heart and mind fresh over the long run

And far more! Plus you get an interactive workbook and some bonus resources that will help you write amazing messages week after week.

In the Art of Better Preaching, Mark and I share everything we’ve learned about communicating in a way that will help your church grow without compromising biblical integrity. We cover detailed training on everything from interacting with the biblical text to delivering a talk without using notes, to writing killer bottom lines that people will remember for years.

Don’t miss out! Check it out today and gain instant access.

Any other myths?

Got a myth you want to bust?

Scroll down and leave a comment.

6 Sermon Myths We Need to Bust


  1. Mary Lamb on August 24, 2021 at 4:56 pm

    Sermons rarely address practical issues going on within the church. I have never heard a practical sermon that addresses a particular issue such as domestic violence. My husband never did, so he verbally abused me for decades while being drunk everyday. He did this all the time while he was listening to useless sermons. “Expository preaching” won’t change anyone. We’ve got to address very specific issues, very practical issues, issues that Christians deal with everyday.

  2. dan smith on April 19, 2021 at 3:11 pm

    Not saying that preaching is not important because it is, but the retention rate for public speaking is around 10 percent. It’s even more important that you take it seriously. You could include demonstrations and visuals to move the retention rate higher. I love a good sermon but most of my growth has come through relationship and the Word of God. That’s why we truly need small groups and people willing to mentor others and spend time with individuals as Jesus did.

  3. Mary Selden on April 17, 2021 at 7:34 am

    I am taking a preaching homiletics class, and I really like your posts for preaching, I’ve even passed this along to my classmates. You cover things our professor isn’t covering. Thanks again!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on April 17, 2021 at 10:33 am

      So glad to help!

  4. mike on April 16, 2021 at 8:21 am

    Good stuff Carey,
    It takes me and my untrained highly distracted brain about 20 hours to write a 40 min talk.
    It’s more wrestling than writing. I’m still stuck on my notes after 4 years of preaching every week.
    I was a cocaine addict that had an encounter with Jesus 23 years ago. I find myself pastoring a church with no pedigree or seminary training. So I am the least of the saints indeed.
    On #3 I would just push back gently and say that there is no indication that any of Peter or Pauls sermons that are recorded in the the Book of Acts were prepared at all.
    But I always go back to this text.
    1 Corinthians 2:3-5 New International Version (NIV)
    3 I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. 4 My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, 5 so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.

    We are living in a time of unprecedented brokenness, polarization.. the love of many has waxed cold.
    We need tears, we need fasting, we need prayer.
    We need men and women clothed with power from on high. We need a demonstration of The Spirit’s Power. We need revival.
    Praying for all Pastors and Leaders stumbling forward by God’s Grace in these last days.

  5. Marcel Townsel on December 13, 2020 at 10:12 am

    Is it true that a 30-minute sermon is equivalent to an 8 hour workday?
    Are there scientific studies or statistical data to support this?

  6. Josiah Marshall on November 30, 2019 at 3:49 am

    The one verse I have yet to read in any sermon length article is Ecclesiastes 6:11 “The more the words, the less the meaning, and how does that profit anyone.”
    I’ve been in formal ministry on and off for 20 years. In all that time and in all the denominations I’ve worked in and attended there are four things I’ve found. Persons with the gift of preaching when focused on Jesus preach no more than 15 minutes in keeping believers eyes on Jesus. Second, the churches that have such a preacher have teachers in Sunday school/small groups effectively applying their gift by giving longer bible studies for discipleship. The members of these churches are engaging and healthy members of both the church and local community through responsible conduct and character as a believer. Finally, listener engagement is far more responsive when the Holy Spirit is given the floor and not some tag in or nod of acknowledgment.
    Get out of the pulpit, replace pews with chairs and make the congregation the focus of meeting not a sermon. The persons in formal positions are servants; thus leaders by example. Remove the notion that one pastor runs the show and move back to the biblical outline. Jesus runs the show. We each take turns in fulfilling our roles as his servants who have stepped down and behind the congregation to serve and support. Sunday is not about you pastor. Until members can attend and no longer see themselves as sinners in need of Gods grace, our true identities as saints saved by grace will remain hidden to us by fear, unforgiveness and selfishness.

  7. Adam Desmond on December 30, 2018 at 9:31 am

    Lots of good stuff here, I really appreciate your heart for the church and her shepherds.

    On expository preaching, I think it’s important to remember Jesus’ primary audience differed greatly from the average churchgoer today. Most of his listeners were steeped in the scriptures. They studied and many memorized huge chunks of the Torah. They lacked the ability to apply it correctly, so that’s what Jesus focused on. Today most people in a church service have never read the entire Bible. They need a Biblical foundation and the ability to see a verse in the original context the author intended. I’m not saying topical sermons have no spiritual value today, but most people need clear preaching on a single passage. As you say, clear isn’t watered down. Pick a passage and dig in. In my experience there’s always more than enough meat in a passage to fill a sermon.

  8. Mark Smith on June 25, 2018 at 1:04 pm

    I’ve always been curious about the “Expository preaching is the best and most faithful preaching” myth. First of all, a topical sermon can (and should be) expository, from the standpoint that the scriptures should make the points, as opposed to forcing the text to conform to my points. But secondly, if expository preaching is the only preaching that God endorses, then why don’t “expository preachers” confine themselves to preaching verse-by-verse through the entire Bible, taking the books of the Bible in order? If God is only honored when I preach all the way through a book of the Bible, verse-by-verse, then God certainly is only happy with me if I preach the books in order, from Genesis to Revelation.

  9. Brian on June 23, 2018 at 1:09 pm

    I struggle with the “better questions” list of #4 (I recognize that you also title it ‘imperfect’) because answering these questions requires honest, objective feedback from other people. I can’t answer honestly “Did I connect with people?” etc. Tell me if this is mis-guided, but the best way I’ve been able to evaluate myself on the drive home is asking, “did I make it through the sermon without looking at my notes?” “Did I put out my best enthusiasm?” “Was there any feedback in the moment that people were connecting?” (there’s certain people with certain expressions in my church that tell me something’s clicking with them). I take what I get from this reflection and get ready to go at it again the following week!

  10. Jody Hooven on September 12, 2017 at 10:08 am

    Carey, your words are life-giving. Many pressures (many self-imposed) can keep us from communicating effectively. Your points help alleviate unhealthy pressures on communicators and release them to more powerfully share God’s Word with those listening. Thank you for your encouragement!

  11. Robb Webster on September 10, 2017 at 8:35 am

    I try to do all you have said in this blog. As a young pastor I has an excellent Sr. Pastor that taught me much of what you wrote. In seminary I had a preaching professor that did the same. Over the years I have run into a lot of ego preaching pastors. But my question is how would lectionary preaching fall into this? I’m a series preacher personally.

    • Brian M on April 16, 2021 at 8:11 am

      Lectionary preaching only defines which passages you preach from, not how you approach the particular passage. You can approach most passages from just about any angle (topical, expository, etc). Admittedly, some passages lean toward one angle over another, but following the lectionary won’t limit that. Blessings on your work!

  12. Dion Blundell on September 10, 2017 at 3:56 am

    Great food for thought. Thanks for taking the time to share

  13. Mel Bladek on September 9, 2017 at 11:46 am

    I loved this! I’ve heard a couple of messages recently from different pastors on the topic of expository biblical preaching being the only faithful way to do it. They basically said that topical preaching is just watered down, empty, unfaithful ridiculousness. 😣 I have to say I totally agree with you. I really really love the balance that you strike. I find your sermons are absolutely faithful to Scripture, but what you said is exactly right, when the title or tagline speaks to a felt need, it doesn’t have to compromise the content at all, but it makes it 100% easier to invite your neighbours or unchurched friends. Thanks for doing what you do!

  14. Mark on September 8, 2017 at 5:33 pm

    When people come up to me after the sermon and tell me good message I change the focus from me by asking what they heard God saying to them during the talk. I can help them process the conversation the Holy Spirit had with their heart.

  15. Jeff on September 6, 2017 at 9:25 am

    Great post Carey – thank you! Since you asked, here’s a personal sermon myth that’s been busted again and again for me:
    The church’s outward response during a message is NOT a direct indicator of the level of work God is doing in their hearts. I used to believe the level of clapping & vocal feedback was a hallmark of God speaking through the message. I’ve learned some of the “quietest” days can be some of the best days. There will be moments that people aren’t eager to clap/respond because they’re processing something deep in their heart. Silence does not always equal disengagement. Often times, when we’re talking about God, who He is and what He does for us, the feedback is strong. Yet, when we’re talking about our own personal response to God and calling to be like Jesus, the room changes and the silence can speak volumes.

  16. Stephen J. Bedard on October 19, 2016 at 1:25 pm

    Another myth is that biblical illiteracy means that we shouldn’t talk about the Bible.

  17. Erin Jackman on September 28, 2016 at 10:04 am

    Thanks, Carey, for this blog series on being a better communicator. I appreciate it as I am discovering my “preaching voice”. My goal is to be able to preach from an outline. I am still manuscript, but after reading this series I am pretty sure it is because I don’t give enough time for the thoughts to percolate as I start a few days before. Something I am working on. I only preach about every 5 weeks as the associate pastor so I have incorporated a block of time each week to work on sermon writing. Thanks for the encouragement and guidance in all of this.

    I understand we are talking about sermons here, but do you think that the last point could be said about the whole church service, not just the sermon? I hear too often “I don’t get anything out of going to church.” You get out of church what you put into being at church. I think that we should lean in, listen, look for God, confess, and apply not only during the sermon time but throughout the entire service.

  18. Bob Bevan on March 2, 2016 at 9:26 am

    Good stuff, Carey. I have always found it interesting that Bible experts could completely ignore Jesus “sermons” when when arguing for expository teaching, although I believe it has its place and is part of a balanced diet on the whole.

  19. T Chil on February 28, 2016 at 12:17 pm

    Well, enjoy your long sermons. I cannot agree.

  20. Time well spent? | kevinglenn.net on February 27, 2016 at 6:36 pm

    […] Another friend published his own post on preaching myths that need to be busted. Sermon length was on the list, as well as the idea that boring=deep and that clear=shallow. Read that one as well, but come back! […]

  21. T Chil on February 27, 2016 at 12:04 pm

    I disagree with the comments concerning length of sermons. “Less is More” is now being taught by Harvard Business School. I wonder what it would be like to interview people leaving church and ask them about the sermon and what they learned. Not much I would suppose. Spurgeon taught length does matter, and the blowhards like to hear themselves talk.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on February 27, 2016 at 2:07 pm

      I think we might agree more than you think. If you interviewed people and they said the sermon was boring, they might cite length. But if the sermon was fascinating and engaging, no one would complain about length. It’s quality, not quantity that drives engagement.

    • mishael53 on February 28, 2016 at 7:52 am

      I agree with Carey. The church I’m attending has 1 hour long sermon. One pastor does this and it is never boring – he’s engaging, thought-provoking, and challenging (albeit I believe 45 min sometimes would make his sermons tighter and succinct). The associate pastors also preach this length but are not as strong a speaker and it is difficult to sit through their sermons (including one of them who fills a one hour sermon with Christian bumper sticker statements!!). Content not length is important.

    • Jason on September 9, 2017 at 10:35 pm

      Paul the Apostle was known for preaching long; so was he just a “blowhard” who enjoyed hearing himself talk?

  22. Jack Skett on February 25, 2016 at 6:21 am

    Thanks for these posts Carey. I found your steps for eliminating notes really helpful, and I’m starting to phase notes out as I preach. I probably preach away from my notes more than in front of them, so they’ve been like a safety blanket for me.
    I love what you say in this post about evaluation. I definitely ask myself the first set of questions after I preach, so I’ll try to focus on the more helpful second set from now on.

  23. […] Part 1: How to Design a Message Series That Engages Unchurched People […]

  24. […] Part 5: 6 Sermon Myths We Need to Bust […]

    • Tiago on April 16, 2021 at 10:21 am

      Great job on the insights and thanks for reusing this previous article. The principles and best practices go beyond just preaching; I plan to apply them in leading ex. my team will thank me when I show up studied, prepared, and rested; when I focus more on engaging more those I lead and less on my performance as a leader then I can lead more for God instead of me. Thanks Carey!

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