Julian Freeman

Freed to live through the death of another.

The Top Mistakes I Make in Preaching

Maybe it’s because I’m naturally a pessimist, but the most natural way for me to figure out how I can grow as a preacher is to identify what mistakes I most commonly make and try to work on improving those, by God’s grace. For the purpose of self-evaluation and ‘fanning into flame’ the preaching gift that I have, I decided to list out the mistakes I most often make in sermon preparation and delivery.

I imagine that I’m probably not the only preacher who makes some of these mistakes with regularity, so I thought I’d share them here in case my list ends up helping any of you brothers who are working on preaching evaluation / improvement as well.

Top Mistakes I Make in Sermon Preparation

1. I Don’t Pray Enough

This one is simple. There are more weeks than I care to admit when there is very little by way of earnest, extended times of prayer for the ministry of the preached word. This reflects self-reliance, and a disturbing amount of trust placed in my gifts rather than the one who actually has the power to do spiritual work in the hearts of the hearers. This one is first because it’s clearly the worst offence.

2. I Don’t Study Enough

This doesn’t happen quite as much for me, but sometimes I think my sermons are lacking in power because I just simply haven’t studied broadly enough. If I’m not absolutely confident that ‘this’ is what the text says, then I can’t preach it with absolute conviction.

3. I Study Too Much

This happens to me fairly regularly. The issue here is not so much that I study the text too much, but that the bulk of my sermon preparation goes to studying so that there is far too little time left to actually write the sermon. When this happens illustrations becomes sparse and obscure and application can seem forced. When this happens my sermons include very little by way of helps for the hearer.

4. I Don’t Spend Enough Time ‘Snacking’

Great sermons are personal. They reflect the reality that the preacher has soaked in the text, has drunk deeply of it, and been changed by it. I once heard a preacher (lovingly) talk about his ‘large’ grandmother. She was always cooking, he said, but never ate with the family. He couldn’t figure out, as a child, how she could be so large if she never ate. Then, one day, he watched her in her kitchen. As she cooked, she snacked. All day. This preacher said that we, as preachers, ought to be like his grandmother. We must be constantly snacking on the food that we’re preparing for others. When I do this, I think my sermons are more personal, more practical, more warm, and easier to hear. I just don’t do it enough.

5. I Don’t Consider a Broad Enough Audience

Often times when I think about the point of a text that I’ve been studying I think of a particular demographic that this point applies to, and then I gear the sermon to them. I don’t do that consciously, but I think it happens subconsciously a fair bit. That may be appropriate in certain contexts, but when I’m writing sermons for public consumption, I need to think about more of a broad audience so that people can more clearly and easily see the relevance of the text for them.

Mistakes in Sermon Preaching

1. I Preach Too Long

Hear me on this: people need to hear preaching and Christians need to cultivate the spiritual discipline of listening to God’s word through preaching so that sermon-listening becomes an act of worship. I don’t think that one hour per week is too much to ask of God’s people. I think if we sit through movies and sporting events and TV shows for hours on end, God’s people can and should be disciplined to sit and hear from God. The people at Grace Fellowship Church get this, and I love that about them. They love to sit under the word and never complain about length of sermon. That being said, I do want to consider that sometimes talking too long diminishes the power of what’s actually being said. I need to work on correcting this.

2. I Preach a Commentary Rather Than a Sermon

This relates to a couple of the points above. Too often I think that merely understanding what the text says is the same this as having a sermon to preach. I can default to thinking that merely explaining the text is the same thing as applying. That is simply not what is most helpful to people.

3. I Give Too Much Detail / Information

Christians love the word of God and want to study it deeply. But no one can drink from a fire-hose. And too often I take what took me 3 days of study to understand and try to force-feed all of it to others in under an hour. People need truth that is deep, but they also need truth that has been distilled.

4. I Don’t Sit Under the Word While I’m Preaching it

I’m embarrassed to even think about how many times I’ve preached a sermon without realizing in the moment that the one person in the room who needs to hear this particular word from God the most is the one preaching. Some of the most effective preachers I’ve heard also happen to be the most affected preachers. And that’s not because they’re dramatic (it’s fairly easy, I think, to tell the difference). Effective preachers are affected preachers because they themselves are sitting under the word that’s being delivered and are experiencing the ministry of the Spirit of Truth even as they speak. I need to cultivate more of a spirit of humility and neediness so that when I preach I also listen to hear what God would say to me.

Am I Alone?

Anything else? What are some common mistakes you make when you preach or study to preach?

24 Comments

  1. Dear Julian,

    Great article. Very helpful to reflect on. I have to agree on points 3 and 4 in preparation. There's that academic in us that wants to study, study, study and I find this can often leave little time for my own reflection on application.

    As far as the snacking goes, I liken preparing a sermon to digging a treasure. In my preparation, I am digging down into the text in order that I might find the treasure chest, the fortune of which I might share with everyone I preach to. But while digging, I unearth innumerable gold coins along the way, all of which I cannot share, but I do get to keep them for myself. And much of the time, these are just as precious to me as the larger treasure itself.

    Thanks again for the thoughtful post. God bless you, brother.

    • Julian

      8 May, 2013 at 11:23 am

      Thanks, Noel!

      I love the 'treasure-digging' analogy. I love those moments where the truth is brought to bear on my soul in such profound ways. Once you glory in it, then the challenge is simply, 'How in the world do I communicate this to others so that they can share in this joy?' And therein lies the work.

  2. Thanks Julian. I especially connect with your comment about the need to be under the word that you are preaching. I find it almost impossible to preach something which has not affected me first. Good thoughts all around

  3. One of my top 10 mistakes would be running off script. I manuscript my sermons, then highlight the main points I need to make. I don't read it, but I find the closer I stick to my prepared remarks the less danger I am in of saying something really stupid or unclear.

  4. Very helpful, brother.

    • Julian

      8 May, 2013 at 5:10 pm

      Thanks, Paul. One thing I did that wasn't a mistake was learning to preach by sitting under good preaching for a long time before trying to do it on my own. :)

  5. Dan MacDonald

    8 May, 2013 at 5:36 pm

    Good words Julian.

  6. Julian, a question about #5 – How broad of an audience do you think a preacher should consider in his sermon preparation? In one sense must you not limit your consideration to a specific demographic – namely those who are in your congregation? Or do you limit it to those in the larger community?

    • Julian

      9 May, 2013 at 11:43 am

      Good question, Alex. Yeah, I think what I want to do is try to get away from the mindset that would think 'This is good for young mothers' or 'this is good for fathers' or 'this is good for singles' or what have you, and then make the *whole* sermon geared in that direction.

      I think you want to aim where your people are to help them see how the word applies, but if I'm narrowing to a particular subset of people in our church (not just for one application, but for the direction of the whole sermon) then I'm probably not serving the body well.

      • So to clarify: the sermon is for the congregation but the application can be (should be???) tailored for specific groups within the congregation? Do I understand you correctly?

        I think Paul does this in his epistles. Eph. 5:15-16 give s a broad instruction to the whole church but then the instruction gets applied very specifically in vs. 22 -6:9.

        • Julian

          9 May, 2013 at 12:08 pm

          Correct!

          Another thing I do poorly is answer clearly and succinctly, like you just did. :)

  7. How long is too long?

    • Julian

      9 May, 2013 at 11:45 am

      Great question! Lots of people far more qualified than me have attempted to answer that. I think it largely depends on (1) the maturity and life-stage of the people, (2) the gifting and maturity of the preacher, (3) how many teaching points there are in the life of the church.

      For the most part, though, I think that unless you're dealing with an elderly congregation, you can probably train your people to sit through longer sermons. But if you're going to get them to endure longer, you must be able to give them sufficient blessing in return for their investment. Length for the sake of length is never a virtuous thing. Length for the sake of increased blessing through the hard work of the preacher and the disciplined worship of the people is a good thing.

      All that being said, in our church we aim for 45 minute sermons. Typically they will be anywhere from 45-55, but we aim for 45 and people have endured longer than 60 minute sermons on occasion (not always from me). They are gracious.

  8. One I make when I am nervous is that I sense I am speaking to fast, rushing through the sermon. I often ask my wife after such sermons is I sounded like I was rushing. She says no. But I still felt like I was.
    To remedy this I am praying more for the sermon to be for the Lord instead of for the people. This is so I am not reacting with nervousness as I see their reactions while I preach. Those worried or drowsy looks on their faces can really throw the preacher off his track. But If I'm really preaching for the Lord, then I am not as bothered by what the people look like. I trust that God is speaking His message to the hearts of His people, through me.

    • Julian

      9 May, 2013 at 11:48 am

      I hear you, Lee. There are many sermons that I've preached that in the middle of preaching them I've been looking at people's faces and wishing there was a trap door which would take me away or a time warp to just end the sermon. It can be tough. Prayer is always good.

  9. Great article.

    Also, we have the same WordPress theme. Nooooooooo

    :)

  10. Thanks for posting this. I'm two weeks away from transitioning from 23 years as a youth minister into a lead/preaching role. Watching this roe from my vantage point has been enlightening, but actually doing it will be more challenging than I know. Thanks for the helpful tips. Looking forward to reading more…

    • Julian

      9 May, 2013 at 11:48 am

      That's super encouraging! May the Lord bless you richly in your new ministry!

  11. Great list Julian. My biggest struggle is a lack of prayer during my preparation. I definitely notice a difference in confidence and delivery whenever I've spent wonderful time in prayer!

    • Julian

      9 May, 2013 at 6:25 pm

      Agreed, Ryan. Prayer is such a blessing in so many ways. It's absolutely amazing to me that I still still don't pray more than I do.

  12. I know for myself preaching a commentary is definitely a struggle for me. To me it just speaks so much about what God is doing in the passage and I just love to share it. Thankfully everybody I have ever spoken to (not-common because I am not a pastor or anyone who would regularly give sermons) has been very gracious through my failures!

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