Published in Preach Magazine Summer 2016 - Preaching Justice
All preachers have strengths and weaknesses. The great thing is that we can work on our weaknesses and become better communicators if we are willing to take an honest look at ourselves. As you read through this list of common mistakes, don’t allow yourself to feel ashamed or smug, but use it as an opportunity to consider how you can improve your preaching.
1 Reading from your notes
Many great preachers write out their sermons word for word, crafting each sentence with great care. If that is your style, there’s no problem with that. The problem is if you simply read your way through it, rather than speaking it to your listeners. Reading from notes signals a lack of confidence in the material and a detachment from the congregation and it hinders normal speech inflection.
There are several ways to reduce dependence on notes, including ensuring you are familiar with the content, printing your pages out in a large font with sizable spacing so your eye can easily find its place when you look down, and marking down reminders to look up in the margins.
2 Making no allowance for context
Preachers have the great privilege and responsibility of bringing the word of God to specific people in a specific time and place: bridging the world of the original text and the world of the moment. In a sense, what is happening is an act of translation. It is vital to understand and adapt the message so that those listening are able to hear, understand and then live the truth of the Bible.
3 Talking for too long
Some studies have suggested the average adult has an attention span of around 20 minutes, although this can be longer if there is enough stimulation, variety and interest to retain focus. We can also tune in and out again and pick up plenty of beneficial content over a longer period of input. There are no hard and fast rules about how long a sermon should go on for, but I’d say from personal experience that I start getting impatient at the half-hour mark, resentful at forty-five minutes, and sorely tempted to walk out if it goes on longer than an hour.
As the American comedian George Burns once said, ‘The secret of a good sermon is to have a good beginning and a good ending and to have the two as close together as possible’.
4 Shouting to make a point
There’s nothing wrong with varying your volume for dramatic effect, but if you shout at people they are likely to feel you are angry with them and telling them off. No one wants to be treated like a naughty child in church, or anywhere else come to that. Shouty preaching was de rigueur in days gone by, and still is in certain parts of the world and branches of the church, but it won’t go down well in your average British twenty-first-century worship service.
5 Coming to your sermon underprepared
My preaching professor, the legendary Darrell Johnson, would prepare his sermons months in advance, so that by the time he came to preach them he’d internalised them and lived them and could speak from a deep, personal understanding of the passage. He told us we should plan to spend an hour on every minute we preached. Talk about setting the bar high! Few of us manage to be as diligent as that, but a few pleasant thoughts thrown together last thing on a Saturday night does not constitute adequate preparation.
6 Staring at the back wall
Good eye contact is vital for effective communication. It makes people feel spoken to and engaged with; it builds trust and rapport; it reassures people you are not sleep-talking! A friend of mine has recently become a teacher. Her class has told her they didn’t learn a thing from their previous teacher because she talked to the wall. They said the wall learnt more than they did last year. She might have been saying very useful, intelligible things but because she wasn’t addressing them to her class, they didn’t listen.
If you need to rush, you probably have too much content. It is better to say less at a pace your listeners can absorb than to gallop along leaving everyone behind. As the old truism reminds us, you can’t drink from a firehose.
8 Relying too heavily on quotes
As David Murray writes on headhearthand.org, it is a mistake to use ‘too many quotes from commentators, theologians, and other preachers from the past and the present’. Andrew Delugen says ‘There’s no rule about how many quotes you should use, but their effectiveness gets diluted if you use too many’. And finally, ‘Let thy speech be better than silence, or be silent’ (Dionysius of Halicarnassus).
9 Being too serious
A touch of humour can make all the difference to the impact of a sermon. Laughter has a way of warming people up and lowering their guards. It is not a question of telling tangential jokes with cringey punchlines, but simply looking for opportunities to lighten the tone, perhaps by saying something unexpected, telling a story with a comic twist, or pointing out incongruity and farce.
Preachers tend to be fairly intelligent; there’s a certain academic acumen needed for the biblical studies and theology that most denominations put their preachers through before letting them loose in the pulpit. But long words, abstract concepts, convoluted chains of argument and erudite references can leave listeners baffled and bored.
‘ THE SECRET OF A GOOD SERMON IS TO HAVE A GOOD BEGINNING AND A GOOD ENDING AND TO HAVE THE TWO AS CLOSE TOGETHER AS POSSIBLE.’
Jo’s job is generating all the wonderful content for Preach Magazine. She is a writer, speaker and editor with a Master’s degree in Theology from Regent College, Vancouver and six books with her name on the spine. She is married to an Anglican vicar and mother to two extremely chatty little girls, with whom she shares a love of cake and blackberry picking.