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Sunday, November 10, 2013

Preaching Pitfalls to Avoid (a sample chapter from Preaching Essentials)

Getting off to a good start in the ministry of preaching is important. There are a few pitfalls that most new preachers encounter and from which some never fully recover. Knowing the mistakes to avoid is really half the battle. The other half is working hard to evade them. This chapter is simply a “head’s up” for new preachers and perhaps a reminder for the seasoned preacher. No matter where you are in the preaching journey, the following five pitfalls are dangerous but avoidable.

Too many preachers have been taught to divorce the devotional reading of Scripture from the homiletic or exegetical study of Scripture. The wrong-headed assumption is that the preacher who explores the biblical text for the sermon in a devotional manner will ignore the exegetical dynamics (i.e., historical background, word meaning) in the text. Isn’t it possible, and even advisable, for the preacher to both prayerfully and critically engage the biblical text? While it is important to explore the biblical text based on the historical and literary contexts surrounding the text, can’t the preacher simultaneously wrestle in a devotional manner with what God might be saying through the text to the preacher and the congregation?    

In Chapter 16 Exegesis 101 I focus on how to critically engage the biblical text on its terms. In Chapter 17 Preaching as a Spiritual Discipline, I suggest some practical ways for preachers to explore a biblical text devotionally throughout the homiletic process. The preacher must simply avoid a divorce between the devotional and exegetical reading of Scripture. The more that the biblical text for the sermon penetrates the life of the preacher the more chance it has of penetrating the lives of the people to whom one preaches.

Many preachers spend between 10-15 hours each week studying a biblical text and developing the sermon. If the preacher shared every exegetical insight discovered during study and all of the illustrations that fit with those insights, the sermon could last for 2 hours! I remember one of my earliest sermons called “6 Godly Traits Found in Joseph,” which covered chapters 37 to 50 in Genesis. It took me nearly an hour to preach this sermon, which was really six sermons rolled into one. Sometimes we preachers are tempted to include in the sermon every thought or idea that we conceive, even if they don’t reinforce the focus of the sermon. Overloading the sermon with exegetical rabbit trails, unnecessary technical details, and a plethora of illustrations prevents the sermon from reaching the homiletic pot of gold called clarity. See Chapter 18 The Preacher’s Two Best Friends for guidance on how to bring more focus to the sermon.

Pastors get upset when congregants engage in what we call “church hopping.” These hoppers go to your church one week, then another church the next week, and still a third church the following week. Pastors try to muster up the nerve to tell them, in love of course, “find one church and commit to it; stop church-hopping.”One of the pitfalls we preachers fall into if we’re not careful is text-hopping. We fall into this pitfall when we hop around in the Bible from text to text to text while preaching our sermons. Some lay people may wish to tell their preacher, “stop hopping…please find one text of Scripture and commit to it.” Of course, the topical sermon by its nature invites multiple voices from Scripture to weigh in on the topic. Even still, the topical sermon must attend to those texts without a quick proof-texting followed by a hop to the next text. People come away from the text-hopping sermon with lots of good Bible verses, but ones that may not really reinforce the main focus of the sermon.

I used to think that what made a sermon biblical was the amount of Scripture I used in the sermon. Today I am convinced that what makes a sermon biblical is its ability to say and do what God, through the biblical text, seems to be saying and doing. “Biblical,” then, has nothing to do with the amount of Scripture but instead the approach to Scripture. Being a mile wide and in inch deep is okay for a topical bible study but a sermon, in most cases, should find one main theme and drill down deep or the people to whom we preach might come away dazed and confused. If the preacher is going to strike deep into the hearts of listeners, the sermon must drill down deep into a biblical passage to identify a primary focus that is faithful to the text and to the congregational context.

I used to think that if I just had tasty and fresh ingredients in my sermon such as powerful illustrations, challenging applications, and insightful exegetical nuggets, it didn’t make a difference how those ingredients were brought together. I just threw all of the ingredients in without much thought to the order in which the ingredients were added. The sermon was like a brownie mix. The brownie recipe doesn’t require any sequencing of ingredients; you just throw the powdered mix, eggs, milk, and oil together into the bowl in no particular order and everything turns out okay. But there are some recipes that require you to add ingredients in the proper order or you will ruin the food. My wife and I bake bread in one of those bread making machines. Our favorite bread recipe requires that water, sugar, and yeast are added first. Then, after about ten minutes in the machine, the oil, flour, and salt were supposed to be added. We discovered the hard way that ignoring the sequencing of ingredients can be disastrous.

The sermon is less like the brownie recipe and more like the bread recipe. Once the preacher has all of the elements that will be included in the sermon, careful and prayerful thought should guide how those elements are ordered within the sermon structure. Avoid slopping the parts together thoughtlessly, as I had a habit of doing for the first few years of my ministry. Consider the best time to add each ingredient to the sermonic recipe.

Let’s be honest, most of us preachers like to talk more than most people are willing to listen. If this is true, perhaps we should assist our listeners by talking less. Every context has its own standards regarding sermon length (See Chapter 13Preaching Dress and Sermon Length), but regardless of context most listeners are opposed to their preacher ranting. There are several forms of homiletic ranting, but most are attributable to the preacher’s pet peeves or habitual redundancy.

All preachers have a few pet peeves that, if unchecked, keep surfacing in our sermons and utterly exasperate listeners. I know of one preacher who included in every sermon, no matter the text or topic, his diatribe about the evils of psychology. Some preachers avoid the diatribe but are guilty of careless repetition. Strategic repetition can be a powerful tool for sermonic clarity, as we consider in Chapter 19. But when the sermon goes an extra 15 minutes because the preacher simply, and not so creatively, repeats the same thing that he/she already said three times, it drives listeners toward the border of frustration.

The pitfall of ranting can be remedied. First, develop a preaching plan that incorporates a well-balanced diet of Scripture and topics (See Chapter 32). Second, try writing out a sermon manuscript word for word. This exercise can alleviate the tendency in preachers to rant and rave. Finally, don’t feel guilty for preaching a sermon that is 45 instead of 60 minutes or 30 instead of 45 minutes. Less is more when it comes to preaching today. Reduce your sermon length by cutting out the soap box rants and unnecessary repetition. God will, I promise, still love you even if you reduce the length of your sermons. And, your congregation will love you even more for developing tighter, more precise sermons that do not waste their time with rants and redundancy.

1. As you reflect upon these five pitfalls, which two do you intuitively avoid and which two do you need to intentionally avoid?

2. Explain and discuss these five pitfalls with your church staff, board, and/or a few trusted lay people. Ask them to honestly respond to your following questions: Which of the five pitfalls do you think I tend to avoid? Which of the five pitfalls must I learn to avoid? The level of honesty and transparency needed for this exercise is obviously high. Pick people who love you and the church enough to tell you the whole truth and nothing but the truth concerning the strengths and areas for improvement in your preaching.


Unknown said...

Well communicated Lenny!
-associate pastor of a large church in SoCal :-)

Lenny Luchetti said...

Thanks Kevin. I appreciate you reading the article. Blessings on your ministry.