I once heard an older wise man say, “I’ve wanted to write a book on marriage for so many years, but the reason that I’ve been prevented is based on the reality that I’ve never felt that I’ve reached the status of marriage-expert.” While I love to preach the Bible and enjoy reading and studying about the work of faithful preaching—writing about it can often come across as arrogant. While I have some opinions to share about preaching, I have not in any way arrived as the expert on biblical preaching.
What I will share below will serve as examples on some of the popular errors that preachers should avoid when preaching God’s Word. Some of these errors I’ve witnessed while others I’ve been guilty of committing. I hope this article will serve as far more of an encouragement than a rebuke.
Avoid Topical Preaching
Walt Kaiser has stated, “Preach a topical sermon only once every five years—and then immediately repent!”  It has been often repeated that all true biblical preaching is expository preaching. I actually agree with the statement, but I do leave room for what we may call topical exposition and the occasional necessary topical sermon. However, for biblical discipleship to take place—biblical preaching must be at the center of the equation. It is unlikely that a church will have a real serious culture of discipleship without robust preaching.
Expository preaching begins with the text and tracks with the text through the sermon. The points of the expository sermon emerge from the text of Scripture and serve as markers of clarity and movement within the text rather than distractions. As the exposition is unfolded before the congregation, the single meaning of the text is put on display for everyone. This allows the people to learn and worship at the same time. Far too often people have a more serious approach to reading and interpreting the Constitution of the United States than God’s Word.
Avoid the Hero Persona
We have all been in the congregation when the preacher told several stories as illustrations in his sermon where it seemed that he was the hero at every turn. When preaching, there must be only one hero—and he is God. In fact, Jesus will be at the center of the redemptive story, but we must not forget that the work of redemption is a Trinitarian work—one that stretches from eternity past to eternity future. As the preacher proclaims the Word—he must not be a distraction to the flow of the text nor should he place the emphasis upon himself.
Avoid Technological Potholes
Preaching does not require technology. If a preacher decides to use tools of technology such as an iPad to preach from, screens and projectors for notes, and lights on the pulpit—that’s perfectly acceptable, but the use of such technology must not become a distraction from the proclamation of the Scriptures. It must also be stated, to insert movie clips or video clips into a sermon is a massive distraction from the sermon itself. In fact, when videos are being played there is no preaching. Be cautious in how you employ the tools that are so readily accessible. Just because technology has advanced doesn’t mean that it has to be incorporated into the delivery of the sermon. I’m quite sure that a man could attempt to preach from his Apple Watch, but it wouldn’t be a good idea.
Avoid Disasters in Illustrations
When using illustrations to drive home a point during a sermon, avoid disasters that can discredit the truth contained in the sermon. For instance, suppose you were preaching from the Old Testament text found in Joshua 10 where Joshua prayed to God to help the Israelites by making the sun to stand still. In the sermon, you point out the obvious miraculous and then in order to drive home the truth of that miracle, you incorporate the illustration you discovered on the Internet where a NASA scientist and his team were measuring the orbits of the planets in relation to the sun and moon and charting out their satellite orbits. As the story goes, suddenly the computer showed an error and the men couldn’t determine what was wrong. Then, one of the men on the team who was a Christian figured it out. The problem was the missing day from Joshua 10, and after opening his Bible, he could validate that this was the problem with the computer measurements.
The only problem with such a story is that it’s false. It never happened. It first appeared in a book by Harry Rimmer, titled The Harmony of Science and Scripture in 1936 and has continued to circulate in various forms on the Internet. I can recall hearing a preacher use this story in relation to a personal conversation that he had with a NASA scientist friend and the preacher retold the story as if it was his personal friend who made the discovery. Avoid such miserable disasters in the pulpit by using valid, real, and non-distracting illustrations that will aid you in the delivery of truth.
Avoid Boring People to Tears
I once heard Steven Lawson make the following remark to a room full of preachers, “If you’re going to bore people to tears, do it with Shakespeare—not the Word of God.” How true it is that many preachers stand in the pulpit each week and treat the Word of God as if it’s a religious textbook and lecture people to sleep with a lack of genuine passion. We must remember, there is a reason why the New Testament uses several different words for preaching and teaching in order to distinguish the difference in the two. Preaching without passion and without a call to obey is not preaching at all. Those of us who preach must ask ourselves why the commentators on ESPN have more passion for college football on Saturday morning than we do for the gospel on Sunday morning?
Avoid Preaching Long-Winded Sermons
A sermon is not better simply because it’s longer. If you’re preaching longer than people can listen—you’re wasting your words and their time. If you happen to be the regular preacher for your church, don’t burden your people to the point that they dread coming into the room and taking their seat because they feel that your preaching is like the plane that circled the runway countless times and then when it finally landed it did so very awkwardly.
In an article I wrote a while back, I discussed my personal goals of preaching shorter sermons and why I believe it’s necessary to guard against being known as the long-winded preacher. In that article, I stated suggested a series of questions that should be asked for those who preach long sermons:
- Is my congregation accustomed to listening and following a longer sermon? Enduring and following are two different things.
- Is my long sermon necessary or am I merely attempting to imitate the pattern of the Puritans? Longer sermons are not more holy.
- Could I remove some unnecessary phrases and repetitions in order to tighten up the sermon for a more efficient delivery?
- Have I considered the value of my congregation’s time?
- If the people stop listening at 45 minutes each week, what value is there in going another 15 minutes? If the people aren’t receiving the information, I’m not really making disciples.
Kevin DeYoung, in a recent article titled, “Why Pastors Should Consider Preaching (At Least) 5 Minutes Shorter” stated the following:
When I look back at old sermons I’m almost always amazed by how much I tried to cram into the sermon. That’s always been a weakness of mine. I try to give people the whole elephant. It’s not necessary. The good thing about preaching for many years to the same people is that eventually you’ll get to say the important things that need to be said. There’s no need to make a single sermon touch on anger and membership and the regulative principle and the glory of God and the atonement, even if the passage fairly applies to all those areas.
Avoid Using Too Many Quotes
I recall having a difficult conversation with a person in our church where he criticized my preaching as containing too many quotes. At the time, I didn’t really think it was true, but as I surveyed my sermons that year—I was packing in lots of really good meaty quotes from good authors. However, it was becoming a distraction to this man (and potentially others).
For the good of that man’s heart, I cut back on the number of quotes that I would incorporate into a single sermon. The goal of the quote is to be a help rather than a hurt for the sermon, but too much of a good thing can still be too much! The reason I didn’t cut out all quotes was because I believe that sometimes other people can address a point with clarity and word choice that hits the nail on the head with precision. Furthermore, I would like for the church to come into contact with good authors and potentially take that quote and go and read the entire source for themselves. This can aid in discipleship.
Avoid Being Too Casual
There is nothing casual about preaching. John Knox famously stated, “I have never once feared the devil, but I tremble every time I enter the pulpit.” When the trembling stops, the preacher is walking on thin ice. To approach the sacred desk as if it’s not sacred is a dangerous thing. To dare to open the Bible without a firm understanding of the responsibility of the herald of the most high King is to play fast and loose with the office of a pastor.
Let’s be clear, most preachers who are preaching on a regular basis after ten years will have less problems with nerves than they did during their very first sermon. John Knox wasn’t referencing nerves for public speaking. He was pointing to the reality of his responsibility as a herald of the King of kings and the Lord of lords. There isn’t anything casual about delivering a message from the King of glory.
Avoid the Comedy Routine
The preacher who spends more time crafting his opening joke than he does in the exposition of God’s Word needs to rethink what biblical preaching is intended to communicate. However, let’s be completely honest. There are really gifted communicators who can incorporate humor into their sermons without being a distraction or the central emphasis of their preaching. For some, humor comes more naturally and it’s not the canned joke approach. Each preacher has a distinct personality and preaching flows through that personality. Preaching involves the faithful delivery of the truth, and we desperately want people to leave remembering the truth rather than the joke.
Avoid the Fear of Man Trap
We enjoy reading about John the Baptist who had his head served up on a platter for a biblical view of marriage, but we often find ourselves reevaluating our words and reconsidering our ministry strategy before we make a firm stand for the truth. This is perhaps one of the most deadly sins of a preacher. It’s one of those nasty private sins. It cripples the preacher like Kryptonite in the presence of Superman. It’s often one of those sins that preachers hide from everyone else as they smile in the church foyer and then weep in the privacy of their office. The fear of man is one of those nasty little sins that Satan uses to muzzle good preachers and to veil God’s truth.
The writer to the Hebrews said these words in Hebrews 13:5, “I will never leave you nor forsake you,” and then went on to quote directly from Psalm 118:6, where the Psalmist declared, “The LORD is on my side; I will not fear. What can man do to me?” Yet, time and time again, good preachers crumble under pressure. We find this truth in Proverbs 29:25, “The fear of man lays a snare, but whoever trusts in the LORD is safe.” The same God who rules the entire Universe has the power to free you from the fear of man and uphold you in his sovereign grace.
- Walt Kaiser Jr., Toward an Exegetical Theology – Biblical Exegesis for Preaching & Teaching, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006), 19.