It’s been many years since I filled the pulpit on a weekly basis as a local church pastor. When I first stepped away, preaching was one of the things I missed the most. For several months I found it terribly difficult to attend worship and sit under the preaching of others because, to be honest, I often compared their preaching to what I would have said and reckoned I could have done a better job. Like 90 percent of pastors, I thought I was an above average preacher.
I suppose time away from the pulpit humbled me; in the past few years my attitude has shifted from “I could do better” to something closer to “Oh, that’s how it’s done.” And even when I sense that something is not working well in a sermon, I can recognize the same mistakes were very present in the preaching I did. Being on the receiving end of much good and some not-so-good preaching has led me to conclude there are four common mistakes preachers (including me) make. Here’s my list.
- Stories about me. As a preacher, I assumed people wanted to hear good stories that were well told – stories that would set up, reinforce, or somehow bridge to the proclaimed message for the day. The problem is that too many of my stories were about me and my life. I was too lazy to find great stories from elsewhere, and it never dawned on me how me-centered my stories made the preaching moment. The grand story is not about me, it’s about God and the work done through Jesus Christ. Worshippers don’t want to bask in the light of the preacher; they need to hear truth of the One who is the Light of the world. It’s not that preachers should always avoid telling personal stories, but I would say it’s a mistake to do so on a regular basis and that unless the story very clearly ties to the text and topic that it’s best to tell your stories at the dinner table.
- Therapeutic preaching. Another mistake I frequently made and sometimes hear from others is preaching that aims to help people feel better or to solve their problems. Therapeutic preaching starts with the assumption that God exists primarily as a sort of free therapist who wants to help people face their challenges, overcome their hang-ups and/or deal with life more successfully. Taken to an extreme, this kind of preaching focuses narrowly on helping Christian consumers find their best life (now). In more subtle forms, this kind of preaching presents a personal problem (depression, financial woes, anxiety, spousal relationships, etc.), turns up the heat in order that worshippers get clear what the problem is and how it’s a problem they have, then brings in some Bible verses to show how God solves the problem (or how you can solve the problem if you obey God). Sometimes this kind of preaching is nothing more than a group advice-giving session. When I fell into this mistake, it never dawned on me how therapeutic preaching is mostly just a glorified self-help strategy that bears little resemblance to gospel-centered transformative preaching. After years out of the pulpit and in the pew, I’ve come to recognize and appreciate sound preaching that avoids sharing strategies for helping me get (more of) what I want and instead aims to change me and what I want through the person and work of Jesus Christ.
- Swinging for the fences every week. Therapeutic preaching aims too low, but you can also aim too high. The gospel is transformative and preaching should be gospel-centered, however, not every single sermon should aim to induce radical and large-scale personal transformation. I recall seasons during which I preached for transformative change every single week. I probably did this with good intentions, but for poor results. The problem is that while radical change is needed, it must be fleshed out in real life. Like a marriage made strong by romantic getaways and doing the dishes, we are sanctified by mountaintop encounters and moment-by-moment obedience. Done too often, calls for radical devotion can become nothing more than emotion-laden love fests that intoxicate worshipers for a few moments but leave their lives largely unchanged.
- Preaching as an echo chamber. How can it be that so many people worship every week but there is so little evidence of Christ-likeness in terms of mindset, habits, disciplines and fruit? I think one contributing factor is preaching that reinforces what everybody listening already thinks. I know how alluring it is to hear people say, “Great sermon today” as folks exit the worship service. Too often these words are a short-hand euphemism for, “I liked the sermon and totally agree with what you said because what you said aligned with what I think already and therefore I was comforted by hearing my own thoughts spoken to be by someone in authority.” We humans like to get authoritative evidence for our own views, and preaching can serve this need very well. But preaching should stretch more than satisfy, challenge as much as comfort, and reveal God instead of mirroring our own selves back to us.
I’m no expert on the art and practice of preaching, but I do believe the Church would be much stronger if we avoided these mistakes.
What about you? What mistakes do you see? What mistakes have you made? What mistakes are you still making? What shifts do you think would improve your preaching?