It’s one of my privileges to hear many beginning preachers preach their first sermon. Sometimes, it’s stunning how God has gifted a person and you hope Seminary doesn’t spoil them! Usually, however, first sermons confirm the need for much further training. As I’ve listened over the years to students begin to preach, I’ve noticed the same mistakes arising again and again, the same mistakes that we all fall into from time to time. The ten most common are:

1. Cramming: Squeezing all you have ever studied about the Bible over the years into 30 minutes.

2. Skimming: Taking too many verses and simply skimming over the surface of the text, teaching nothing that someone with average intelligence would not have derived from the text themselves.

3. Floating: The preacher says many things that relate to the text, floating or hovering above the text, but fails to show how they are anchored in the text.

4. Proof-texting: Including lots and lots of texts from all over the Bible, and sometimes diverting hearers by expounding the proof texts as much as the sermon text.

5. Quoting: Too many quotes from commentators, theologians, and other preachers from the past and the present.

6. Lecturing: It’s difficult to define the difference between preaching and lecturing, but you know it when you see it/hear it. It’s about passion, eye-contact, persuasion, urgency, etc.

7. Assuming: Our own over-familiarity with the text results in us assuming that our hearers know the background of the text, the meaning of basic key words and concepts, etc. May also result in Mach 7 preaching speeds. And don’t assume your hearers are all converted either.

8. Confusing: Hearers are left confused usually because of a lack of structure or too complicated a structure (main points, sub-points, etc.); or sometimes there is a good structure, but it’s not sufficiently highlighted and emphasized so that hearers know where they’ve been, where they are, and where they are going.

9. Spraying: Lots and lots of data, but no single dominant thought; it’s the difference between a shotgun and a rifle.

10. Complicating: Instead of explaining the text, a preacher can actually make it more obscure. Usually involves words too big, sentences too long, concepts too abstract, language too philosophical/theological.

Maybe Monday morning is not the best time to post this, as many of us preachers are already immersed in our own sermon “post-mortems.” On the other hand, maybe it will help us figure out where we went wrong (again).

  • Stan

    Yeah, that about sums it up! made all those mistakes, hopefully not all in one sermon though!!!

    • Paul Mayhan

      The “lecturing” error seems to pop up during difficult times in ministry. The sermon becomes an effort to show how much we know (maybe so people will follow us) instead of sharing what we’ve discovered for the benefit of the listeners.

    • scott price

      All ten of these “preaching laws” can be summed up by two:

      1. Preparing your sermon without a crisis like need for the presence and illumination of the Spirit.

      2. Preaching apart from the power of the Spirit.

    • Franklin H. Dewey IV

      Thank you from one crying in the wilderness. I just gave my first sermon and made every mistake on your page. My heart is torn in two, but with only one and one-half hours preparation I rose to the occasion. Thank God that illness had kept most of the congregation at home. Only eight people were there and one fell asleep. John the Baptist, please forgive me, your life was so exciting and I feel that I did you a dis-service in my delivery. All in all I pray that I get another chance, but until then I will just continue to cut the grass.

  • http://www.franklyput.me Frank Taylor

    Great reminders. I pretty much nail at least one a week. Maybe some day….

    A question:

    “Maybe Monday morning is not the best time to post this, as many of us preachers are already immersed in our own sermon ‘post-mortems.’”

    So, how do you deal with the post-mortems as a pastor? Mine tend to come on Sunday afternoon, the would’ve, could’ve and should’ves.

    • http://closetcalvinist.com CC_

      Not a pastor, just a mere Sunday school teacher, but I deal with it best by trying to learn from what I did right and wrong, asking forgiveness and for the grace to do better next time.

      A double-venti sized iced chai latte helps too.

      • Tony P.

        CC_you’re never “just a mere Sunday school teacher.” If you have been entrusted with the task of teaching God’s word to His people in any variety, you are engaged in the spiritual care of souls. May God continue to bless you as you continue to uncover the riches of the gospel of Christ with those whom you teach. And yes, by all means keep chuggin’ those chai lattes.

    • scott price

      Also perhaps relevant, here is another noteworthy preacher’s list of commendations for preaching:

      2Cr 6:6
      by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, the Holy Spirit, genuine love;
      2Cr 6:7 by truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left;

  • Andy Murray

    Very helpful David. I think the definition of good preaching is quite alusive. My father talks about a hammer driving nails into the hearers heart with blow after blow from the preacher. I think a huge amount of what passes for preaching is actually lecturing with preachers jumping from hobby horse to horse. I often ask myself after listening to preaching, ‘do I really know anything more about that text or subject than I did before I came in?’ Occassional preachers like myself suffer from cramming as we try to cram months of reading into a sermon. The other category that springs to mind is ‘antiquarian’. I heard a young preacher recently trying to sound like a Puritan which didn’t work well!!

  • SomeGuy

    Interesting list. I’d add: Pacing. I’ve heard preachers spend 30 minutes on point 1, and 10 minutes on point 2 and 3 in a breathless whirlwind.

  • http://www.grace2grow.blogspot.com/ Leah P.

    Found this helpful, even though I’m not a pastor/preacher – I have found many of these same kinds of things creep into teaching/leading Bible studies of most kinds, also. This is a helpful list, thank you! And thank you, Lord, for your grace in overlooking the “brokenness” of the vessels you use to communicate your perfect Word!

  • http://www.armchair-theology.net Dave

    I filled in for my pastor in the pulpit this weekend and fell prey to #8 in my conclusion. I had two questions with the same answer. Instead of asking one, then the other and then answering them, I bounced back and forth until no one knew what I was talking about.

    Luckily, I recognized how confusing it was so I could make the adjustment before the second service began. I’m going to be extra careful about that in the future.

  • http://www.bloggingtheologically.com Aaron Armstrong

    I am absolutely guilty of numbers 1 and 6. Probably the worst message I’ve preached was one from Colossians. I might have to do it again sometime just to turn down the awful.

  • bill

    Thanks!

  • http://www.newlifefellowship.ie Mark Loughridge

    #11 (or #1.1) – Cramming all you studied about the passage into one sermon

  • http://missionallendale.wordpress.com/ Joey Espinosa

    These are true no matter if you’re preaching, teaching Sunday School, leading family devotions, or what not. Thanks so much!

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  • http://www.foibled.org Foibled

    The science of sociolinguistics says that people use language not just to communicate, but to reach their goals. So “complicating” can be intentional even if subconsciously so. It can actually enhance the prestige of the preacher in the eyes of some. Similarly, using a older or rigid translation and insisting the original languages can be a tactic to keep the hearers dependent on the preacher for the “right” interpretation. In Africa, preachers will sometimes use English instead of a local language even when English complicates and the local language would communicate better because English enhances the status of the preacher. I love what you wrote. I would just change on thing which is little but really big. These are not necessarily “mistakes”.

  • Dean B

    Nehemiah 8:8 “They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.”

    Pastors should tape this verse to the pulpit.

  • valenchine

    Honest feedback…in transparency and vulnerability…open,accessable approachable…clarified in the truth of His word

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  • http://www.robbywinkler.blogspot.com Robby Winkler

    This hit me between the Eyes. point number one cramming, ha ha. This is me I grew up in the church and ran away from the truth for a long time. So when I have an opportunity to speak I tend to preach all of Gods revelation to me. This was great to hear! Not just for the information but to also realize I am NOT ALONE ha ha. Thanks for posting this.

  • http://www.northsidecalvary.com Kellen

    Thanks for this. I made many of these mistakes last Sunday.

  • just some guy

    Two things I’d like to add to the discussion:

    1) Distracting with poor grammar (i.e. re-read number 2 – “have got”?)

    2) Making applications that are irrelevant to your people. They may be appropriate from the text, but not for your people.

    • http://headhearthand.org/blog/ David Murray

      re #1 that’s a difference between American and UK grammar! I’ll change it out of respect for your sensitivity ;-)

  • just some guy

    Three things I’d like to add to the discussion:

    1) Distracting with poor grammar (i.e. re-read number 2 – “have got”?)

    2) Making applications that are irrelevant to your people. They may be appropriate from the text, but not for your people.

    3) Forgetting about Christ.

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  • Shaun

    How do you, or do you, let a pastor know about something like this. For example, if you think (and others too), that your pastor is lecturing instead of preaching, how do you lovingly tell him about it? Or, do you even tell him a all? I mean, he’s the pastor. He’s the one who studied for ages.

    • Scott V

      Great question. I would love to hear someone with experience and wisdom answer it. Also, as a pastor, how do I foster the feeling within the congregation that this is exceptable and even desirable?

      • Church lawn mower.

        Generally when the pastor has failed to teach and admonish me into a new way of thinking and living I don’t comment. (He usually beats himself up on Monday. I don’t need to get my licks in too.)

        If the pastor does well and I think differently now I will tell him at the end of service. Primarily I will remind him in the back that I don’t thank the fork for the meal. I thank him for being the fork. I thank God for the meal.

        Howard Hendricks calls the praise of the pastor after a sermon “the glorification of the worm”.

        So if I want to correct a pastor I visit the pastor during the week. We start the conversation by plesant topics. Then we move to prayer for the discussion. After the prayer I start by telling him I didn’t understand because “——-fill in the blank——” We will discuss, debate and argue about effictivness of methodologies. When my hour is up (never more than an hour) I ask if we can close in prayer and I leave.

        Then I spend the rest of my week in tears. I will get on my knees and ask God to forgive me and ask him to humble me and my pride. Then I will thank God for letting me mow the church lawn.

  • http://www.thejbomb.blogspot.net CMA

    You forgot one other common error – TRAVELING. This is where the preacher reads the text; comments on it (usually in the “skimming” style); then uses this as a jump off point for a distracting story or illustration that adds nothing to the exegesis and attempts to apply the text before it has been taught.

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  • http://pauljpark.wordpress.com Paul

    Number one is so hard not to do…..

  • Bobbie Frega

    I think this should be listed as Number One. Keeping Christ at the center. Christ-centered. It’s all useless man-centered exercise without the news of His life, death and resurrection at the center…

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  • http://www.evedyahu.wordpress.com Cristian Rata

    I find these rules very well formulated and very useful. Thanks a lot. I am planning to print them and post them in my office!

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  • Jeremiah

    Great post. I would add number 11: Imitating. This is where the preacher adopts the style or vocal qualities of a preacher he admires. Young preachers are often so insecure that they think being themselves will not be nearly as compelling as some well-known expositor or evangelist. This can be unintentional sometimes, but if God uniquely gifts each one of us, then our individual way of preaching may be almost as valuable as our content in getting the message across.

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  • Dieter Schneider

    A useful though not exhaustive list.

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  • sammy

    HOW PRUDENT…

  • http://www.thinkpoint.wordpress.com Steve Cornell

    Great list! After 30 years of preaching, I went down the list and just said, guilty, guilty, guilty, guilty, etc…. You could take each of these and do 10 sessions for a homiletics class (or, how about a book!?). Thanks for the thoughtful reflection!

    • http://headhearthand.org/blog/ David Murray

      Great idea, Steve.

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