Over the years I’ve coached dozens of novice preachers. It usually takes years of development and practice to become a really good preacher. Along the way, there are numerous mistakes to overcome. The following is a list of the top ten mistakes that, in my observation, are the most common. If you’re struggling with any of these, take heart! Nearly all preachers have had to overcome such difficulties along the way. You will, too. Let this list be an alert to help you.
Trying to do too much in one sermon
In their eagerness, novice preachers often end up trying to preach too many ideas with several main points all in one sermon-with the result that the sermon is confused or too long or missing application. Ask yourself of each sermon, “What is the main thing the person listening to this sermon should take home?” Then work on supporting that one main point.
Failing to plan ahead
In my early years I thought I had hear from God each week about what was to be preached the following Sunday. For some reason, God didn’t seem to “speak” until Saturday night, which meant there wasn’t time for good preparation and study. I often found that enormous amounts of time were expended trying to decide what to preach-to the expense of actual preparation of the sermon. At some point I realized that God could speak months in advance just as easily as minutes in advance. I now pray and plan my sermon series six months ahead. Our schedule usually includes the preacher assigned (we have team preaching) and the text or title of the series. We typically preach 4-6 week series, and thus actually cover about 10 different series a year. Not only has this helped my sanity, but it has done wonders for preparation. I can gather material for a particular series months in advance, as well as do much more in-depth study and preparation.
Failing to actually preach from the Bible
It is far too easy to use a line or verse from the Bible as a springboard into what we want to say rather than taking the Bible seriously and wrestling with its implications. In recent years it has become popular to string together a series of disconnected verses to fit into a preacher constructed message about a “better way to live.” While on occasion this may be appropriate, I don’t think this is good as a steady diet for those who want to grow in Christ. Our preaching should also be teaching our people a respect for the Word of God and giving them an idea about how to actually interact with it. They need to learn about the flow of scripture, the characters and stories and arguments of scripture. They need to hear us preach the difficult passages as well as the ones we like. Even though my preaching team tends to do series with a topical subject, we almost always insist that any given sermon be from one passage of scripture, and that the points of the sermon be taken from the scripture text itself. Otherwise we could be in danger of becoming preachers of the latest pop theories rather than preachers of the Word of God.
Slipping into too much negativity
We all know that, whether we’re talking to children or the family dog, the tone of voice can communicate more than the actual words. But we often forget that this is true of adults and congregations as well. People may end up “taking home” our attitude as much as anything we actually say. After a few years of cleaning up people’s sins and problems and encountering various disappointments, it’s easy for a pastor to become overly negative, or to shift into constantly challenging people to do more, more, and still more. The result can be demoralizing for a congregation that feels it’s being “whipped” every Sunday, or that nothing is ever enough for this pastor. So, watch your tone. Give people hope. Preach about what God has done … and not only about what people need to do.
Have you ever noticed how most TV shows begin by an initial segment that grabs your attention even before the opening credits roll? Sermons likewise need to grab people’s attention quickly. Otherwise many people will tune out before you’ve even begun. Introductions need to give people a beginning answer to the question “So what?” Begin with a story that illustrates the problem you plan to address, or the point you are trying to make. There are many creative ways to do introductions … but don’t fail to make it interesting and compelling.
Not taking the actual lives and situations of the congregation into account
The novice preacher can fall into the trap of directing the bulk of his comments, illustrations, and applications to only one segment of his congregation and leaving the rest out. And he can run the risk of preaching the ideals without taking into account the difficulties and complexities of actually living the life of the average person in the pew. Remember that in most groups you have single mothers, students, people with jobs demanding 60-80 hours a week, people who’ve been divorced, people who are grieving, people under stress and financial difficulty. Don’t fail to take their actual lives into account as you are preaching.
This is the error of turning “some” into “all,” and “sometimes” into “always.” If you over generalize about any situation or group, there are always going to people who feel that the generalization is not true and who-on that one point-invalidate the whole sermon.
Too few illustrations and stories
These are the “windows” of the sermon. A sermon that goes on too long without these
becomes a lecture which few people will be moved by. It gets stale, like a house without
windows. So unless the whole sermon is in essence “a story,” be sure to add some regularly throughout the sermon.
I’ve seen many novice pastors with a great point who fail to “take it home” because it lacks application. Ask yourself, “What do I want people to do with this message?” You want people to evaluate themselves, to consider their lives, to rethink choices, to view the world differently. And the applications need to be such that people can easily visualize what it is you are talking about.
Too little creativity in conveying the message
Irrelevancy and boredom are two of the greatest factors leading people out of church. We need to be careful that this is not the case with our preaching. Good preaching should have people on the edge of their seats, or sinking down with conviction, or laughing with joy-but never yawning because it’s boring and predictable. That takes a lot of work. But it’s worth it.
About the Author
Steve Nicholson is the long-time senior pastor of the Evanston Vineyard outside of Chicago, IL, and has served the Vineyard movement for 40 years training church leaders and church planters across the globe.