Preaching is hard work.
To those sitting in the pews, preaching can look relatively effortless–especially when it is done well. But do not be fooled. Preaching exhausts the body and the soul in ways that are incommensurate with its duration. I could work in the yard all day in 90 degrees of heat and (somehow) feel less exhausted than preaching two services.
But, it is not just the physical/spiritual toll that preaching takes. What makes it hard is the complexity of the task. Just standing up and talking for 30 minutes (and making any sense at all) is tough enough for most folks. But, on top of this, preachers have to navigate a complicated passage, balance sensitive doctrines, weave together a coherent message, apply the message to people’s lives, and do all of this in a manner that is compelling, engaging, winsome and never boring or dull.
No wonder James said, “Not many of you should become teachers” (Jas 3:1)!
Indeed, because of the complexities of preaching there are a number of pitfalls that all preachers (especially aspiring ones) risk falling into. I thought it might be helpful to highlight some of these possible pitfalls that I have noticed over the years:
Pitfall #1: Confusing “expository” preaching with offering a running commentary.
Somewhere along the way, some pastors have become convinced that the “expository” part of preaching means that a sermon must sound like a commentary. In other words it must be a strictly chronological, running list of observations about the text.
However, such a move unfortunately confuses two different genres. While preaching should certainly be about the text, it differs from a commentary in meaningful ways. Primarily, sermons have an exhortational component to them that commentaries often lack.
Sermons speak not just to the mind (though they do speak to the mind), but also to the heart. They are concerned not just with truth, but with pressing that truth into the lives of the listeners.
Pitfall #2: Thinking that more illustrations are always better.
There is little doubt that illustrations are a critical part of an effective sermon. In fact, we often remember the illustrations more than the sermon itself. But, that doesn’t mean (as some often think) that the more illustrations the better. Sometimes less is more.
C.H. Spurgeon, the master illustrator, said that a sermon without illustrations is like a house without windows. But, he adds, you don’t want a house that is only windows!
To read more on this point, see my prior article here.
Pitfall #3: Assuming that preaching Christ means preaching justification.
There is little doubt that justification is one of the most precious doctrines we believe. It was at the center of the Reformation. And it is central to our understanding of salvation.
But–and this is a key point–preaching justification is not the only way to preach Christ. Preaching justification is one way to preach Christ; it highlights his salvific sacrifice. In other words, it highlights his priestly office.
But, Christ has other offices: prophet and king. A preacher can preach aspects of those offices and still preach Christ.
If one fails to grasp this point, then every sermon is bent back around to justification no matter what the text says. And this creates a situation where every sermon ends up sounding the same.
Pitfall: #4: Refusing to cut good things from your sermon.
A major pitfall for new preachers is what I call the lack of “scraps on the cutting room floor.” They are so excited about every point they have discovered, that they decide to leave them all in.
Unfortunately, this creates a bloated, clunky, not to mention overly long, sermon.
It is the equivalent of a movie director insisting on keeping every scene that he shoots. If he did this, the movie would be 12 hours long! He has to cut–even good scenes–in order to make room for the essential scenes.
So, it should be with preachers. When your sermon prep is over, there should be a (big) pile of good material you have left behind. That is when a sermon moves from good to great.
Pitfall #5: Thinking that using the original languages means parsing verbs in your sermon.
Every seminary students wants to demonstrate how seriously he takes the languages–even in a sermon. And that is a good thing.
However, I have sat through one too many cringe-worthy moments where a student preacher pauses to parse Greek or Hebrew verbs in the sermon itself.
Aside from whether the congregation needs to understand the nature of third hey Hebrew verbs, this sort of move confuses using the original languages in sermon preparation (which is a must) with using original languages in the sermon delivery (which is not a must).
On rare occasions, the latter might be helpful. But, the main issue is whether the preacher has done the hard work in the study, regardless of whether the congregation ever realizes it.
It is similar to a chef who prepares a great meal. The patron doesn’t need to know which master culinary techniques the chef performed in the kitchen in order to enjoy the final product in the dining room.
Pitfall #6: Making application too soon–before you’ve developed a point to apply.
Since preachers are eager to apply their text to their listeners, sometimes it is easy to jump the gun. They will hurry over the exegetical details to get right to discussions about practical implications.
However, there is a real danger here. Hurrying too fast to application leaves you with no real point to apply. Indeed, sermons like this end up becoming almost all application–just one “practical” application after another with no real, deeper understanding of the text.
Thus, this pitfall is really the opposite of #1 above. While some never get to application, others never develop their textual point.
Pitfall #7: Believing that preaching from a manuscript makes you a better communicator.
When a person is nervous about preaching, there is nothing more reassuring than a full, word-for-word manuscript to bring some comfort and security. However, I am not convinced it helps more than hurts.
Yes, it allows a person to say their point exactly as they wish, with carefully chosen words. But, does that actually improve communication? Only if the congregation is engaged and listening.
And this precisely the problem with preaching from a full manuscript. It creates what I call “bubble preaching,” where the sermon is delivered in a bubble of sorts, cut off from the congregation as the preacher works through his manuscript word for word.
You can read more on this point in a prior blog post here.
In the end, addressing these seven pitfalls won’t automatically make preaching easy. It is still hard. Very hard. But, hopefully addressing these seven pitfalls can make it just a little bit easier.