“What you do before a Sunday morning ever begins, for the most part, determines what happens on a Sunday morning. Chances are you’ve struggled through the mistakes below. I have. And what’s hard for preachers is that we always make our mistakes in public.”
So maybe you’re a preacher, or you listen to preachers (or stopped listening to preachers). Almost everyone has a perspective on what makes or doesn’t make for a great sermon.
I’ve been preaching regularly for over 25 years, so I know a little bit about the head games preachers play with themselves.
What you do before a Sunday morning ever begins, for the most part, determines what happens on a Sunday morning. Chances are you’ve struggled through the mistakes below. I have. And what’s hard for preachers is that we always make our mistakes in public.
How you approach preaching ultimately determines how you preach, which, of course, also determines how your audience interacts with your message and the effectiveness of your message.
Here are 5 preaching mistakes I’ve made from time to time. They’re also mistakes I’ve seen others make far too often.
1. Failing to Get To The Right Kind of Simplicity
Complexity is the enemy of great communication.
Come on, you know what I’m talking about. We’ve all sat through talks where we felt lost, and sadly, we’ve probably given a few of those talks as well.
But complexity is also a natural companion of preachers. Here’s why. You are doing the difficult task of trying to relate God’s word with our world. And both are complex. The Scripture is an ancient text that requires background, nuance, and understanding to communicate it well. And the human condition within you and around is, well, also complex.
A lot of preachers get lost in the complexity. It’s exceptionally difficult to push through the complexity of the text and the complexity of the human condition to get to a great message.
As a result, some preachers never wrestle through the issues sufficiently and just dump their unresolved, complicated ideas in front of a congregation and call it a sermon. Bad idea.
Others fight for greater simplicity. The best communicators make complex issues seem simple. That’s been true for thousands of years, and there are the seeds of genius in it if you can do it consistently.
But here’s the challenge: there’s are two kinds of simplicity: simplicity on the front side of complexity, and simplicity on the other side of complexity.
There’s a world of difference between them. Here’s how to get the right kind of simplicity.
Simplicity on the Front Side of Complexity
Too many preachers settle for simplicity on the front side of complexity. They find a simple line that sounds true but fails to really engage the scripture passage or life particularly well. You see them all the time on Instagram.
Maybe they’re lines like “God loves prayer because he cares” or “God never gives a reason out of season.” What do those things even mean? Sure…they rhyme, but they’re trivial statements that don’t really carry weight.
To me, it’s always a sign that the communicator hasn’t really thoughtfully tackled an issue. Simplistic never weathers the storms of life.
Simplicity on the Other Side of Complexity
But there’s a second kind of simplicity: simplicity on the other side of complexity. Preachers who have wrestled the text, faith, life, God, angels, and demons struggle deeply with complexity. And on the other side, if they stick with it, they bring insight that makes deeply complex matters easier to understand.
Steve Jobs leveraged simplicity on the other side of complexity when he introduced a phone that got rid of all the clutter of every other phone on the marketplace and introduced one screen. Elon Musk is doing it right now as he cuts through all the weirdness of electric and hybrid cars to produce a model that simply, cleanly and now, more affordably, works. These are leaders who worked through exceptionally complicated issues to find simplicity.
Preachers can do the same thing with ideas. It’s just hard work to get there.
I’ve been working on a series on the book of Jonah for a while. It took me months to figure out the main approach to the book, but I came up with a simple sentenced that crystallized the message of the book (and, in some respects, the Gospel) for me:
God doesn’t run away from runaways.
It’s just six words, but it’s the essence of the book (both Jonah and the Ninevites have run away) and in many ways reflects the Gospel itself. It has teeth and carries weight but it’s memorable. And memorable, done right, is portable.
Other examples of bottom lines that for me have crystallized things after wrestling down complex issues include
Live in a way today that will help you thrive tomorrow (the antidote to burnout)
98% of pastoral care is having someone who cares (on what biblical pastoral care truly is)
Fixing your mind on Christ fixes your mind (on how to approach the self-talk that destroys us)
If you want to learn more about how to craft simple statements that convey complex truths, I wrote about the methodology here.
Do you have to have a bottom line for your message? No, of course not. But I agree with Andy Stanley that if you can’t summarize your message in a single sentence, you don’t understand it well enough to preach it.
Before you jump to criticize, remember, simple is not simplistic. Simple is clear, and it’s memorable. Simple allows complex truth to live in the hearts of people in a memorable way.
2. Making the Bottom Line More Important Than the Text
So let’s say you have a bottom line that you think works. Great.
You may be tempted to make the bottom line more important than the biblical text. Don’t.
The goal of preaching is not to have a memorable bottom line, it’s to help people find God’s story in their story. And the text bridges that gap.
The scripture is always more important than what the preacher says about the scripture.
Don’t make the text subservient to your clever bottom line. It’s a trap I can fall into frequently if I’m not careful.