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Learning from My Mistakes

I preached my very first sermon at the ripe old age of 13. The Bible conveys that Timothy was a young preacher, but on that particular day, I made Timothy look ancient. At a summer retreat, the teachers of our youth group cruelly and puzzlingly decided to hold a preaching competition. My name was tossed in as one of three extremely nervous and unqualified preachers to share a message for this contest. We were given three hours to prepare a sermon on any Scripture text.

This competition clearly demonstrated that our teachers didn't understand what preaching really is, but we won't get into that today. I vaguely remember preaching from Ephesians 3:14-21 concerning Paul's prayer for the Ephesians. The sermon wasn't crafted with much skill—or much prayer—but I enjoyed the experience. So preaching became etched into my bones from an early age.

As an adult, I spent the better part of a decade in pastoral ministry. Prior to teaching homiletics at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, I served as a youth pastor in Brookline, Mass., and as the senior pastor of a church in Denver, Colo.. In both church contexts, I preached almost every Sunday. During these formative years in the pastorate, I discovered how to—and how not—to preach.

In this article, I want to share not from my successes in handling and preaching the Word, but from my list of failures. Here are 10 mistakes I've made in preaching and what I've learned from them. Perhaps one or more of these homiletical shortcomings will resonate with you, while others will cause you to reflect on areas for further improvement in your own preaching ministry.

Believing that Writing an Outline Is as Effective as Writing a Manuscript
As a youth pastor, I thought it was good enough to write a skeletal outline of the sermon and not write out a full-length manuscript. I didn't have time to bother with writing a manuscript. That would take too long, I thought. In short, I was lazy. The problem is that when you're introverted and not always quick on your feet, the right words don't seem to fall gracefully from your lips.

I remember toward the end of earning my M.Div., I was encouraged by the preaching faculty to study for doctoral work in homiletics. My wife, who was then my fiancé, and I had an exhausting conversation one night that went something like this: "Sarah, I've been encouraged to do doctoral work in preaching. I was hoping that after we get married, we could move to Scotland so I could pursue a Ph.D. in homiletics." To this, she bluntly replied: "Why would you want to do that? You're a terrible preacher."

After two years of listening to my sermons as a youth pastor, my wife had heard her share of not-so-stellar sermons. She kindly went on to explain that the ineffectiveness of my preaching stemmed from the fact that I didn't write out my sermons word for word. She was right. I just conjured up a few bullet points on my outline and filled in the sermon as I went along.

From day one at my church in Colorado, I wrote a manuscript for every single sermon. Sarah later commented on how writing a manuscript revolutionized my preaching. Through the process of writing a manuscript and writing for the ear, I became a more effective preacher. So, I want to encourage all preachers to take the extra step in writing a full manuscript, not settle for an outline. You'll only notice the difference once you give it a try.

Allowing my listeners' facial expressions and body language to influence my delivery and demeanor negatively. I learned early that as preachers we need to develop thick skin. Go ahead. Give yourself a little pinch on the wrist and toughen up that skin. It can be very discouraging at times, especially at the beginning of our preaching ministries when we look out at the faces of our listeners. Some or many of our listeners don't seem to care about what we're sharing from God's Word.

My listeners' facial expressions and body language slowly began to influence my delivery and disposition negatively. In our small congregation of 90 adults in Denver, I saw everything under the sun: raised eyebrows, folded arms, men slouched over watching football scores on their phones (we were, after all, in Broncos' territory) and several listeners who designated my Sunday sermon as their standard nap time.

Sometimes I took revenge on their perceived spiritual apathy. For those who were sleeping, I would speak loudly to try to wake them up or call out their names to see if that would startle them. After one sermon, a congregation member came up to me and inquired: "Are you OK? The last few weeks you've seemed really upset with the church. Please don't show your frustration in the pulpit!"

That comment really jolted me, because I realized I couldn't hide my feelings. I had allowed my listeners' facial expressions and body language to hinder my sermon delivery and demeanor noticeably. We want to monitor ourselves to ensure we're entering the pulpit with a loving posture.

After having children of my own, I realized why so many of my listeners were sleeping in the pews. I began to have grace for them.

Relying on Others' Illustrations Rather than Sharing from Personal Experience
When it came to illustrations, I naively thought my church members were more interested in the lives of famous pastors and well-known others rather than in my life. So I relied heavily on the illustrations of other preachers (always giving credit of course) and using examples from books of illustrations at times.

One day a church member asked: "How come you don't share much from your own life?" It dawned on me that with discretion I needed to disclose my life experiences, which would help my church members connect with me on a personal level.

Allowing Preaching and Teaching Preparation to Substitute for Pastoring and Disciple-Making
As an introvert who gains energy by being alone, it was only natural for me to go into my study and practice what Richard Foster calls the spiritual discipline of solitude. At the same time, I love people. However, being the shy and quiet type, it's not evident to some that I really love them. I thought initially that one way I would demonstrate love for the church would be to prepare the best possible sermon for them on Sunday, but I had allowed preaching and teaching preparation to substitute for real pastoring, shepherding and disciple-making.

My proclivities toward solitude prevented me from showing congregants that I truly cared about them. That attitude doesn't translate well into effective ministry or preaching. Preaching, similar to pastoring, is about people.  Yes, we need to study the biblical languages and interact with commentaries, but we also need to spend time with people.

Spending time with people made a tremendous difference in my preaching in two ways. First, when we spend time with people, they are more apt to listen to us. This is particularly true when someone doesn't particularly like us or our style of preaching. Second, when we spend time with people, we get to know their struggles, joys and life needs. Our sermons take on an added level of richness because we begin to preach relevantly to our listeners and their life situations.

Assuming My Listeners Share My Biblical, Ethical and Theological Convictions
We can't assume today that people in our churches share our convictions and practices. Here are three faulty assumptions that many preachers make about their listeners.

Biblical Knowledge
Very few people in the church today read their Bibles; and fewer listeners have grown up in the church, which means they aren't familiar with common Bible stories taught in children's Sunday School. Biblical narratives and Bible verses are not as familiar as in previous eras.

Sexual Ethics
Many Christians today have very shaky morals when it comes to sexual purity. Throughout my years in ministry, I heard unwanted gossip about those who engaged in premarital and extramarital sex. Many church attenders didn't seem to be bothered by this promiscuity. We can't assume our listeners share our biblical ethic regarding God's standards for sexual intimacy only within the proper boundaries of marriage between a man and a woman.

Religious Pluralism
Sadly, there is a surprising number of regular church attenders who still believe all roads lead to God and eventually everyone will wind up in heaven. I learned this after about one year of leading a men's small group. A few of them would say things such as: "Everyone on this earth loves some kind of God. So that should be good enough for heaven." Or, "I was surprised to hear you say in your message that Jesus is the only way to heaven. I'm still not convinced." We would be remiss if we didn't probe some of our listeners further concerning their views on the exclusivity of Christ for salvation.

We can preach in such a way that we acknowledge that biblical, ethical and theological differences exist and be willing to dialogue with our listeners about their perspectives.

Being Disillusioned by the Slow Transformation of My Listeners
We often think pastors are in the business of life transformation. That's why we entered ministry in the first place. We long to see spiritual maturity and lives being transformed increasingly into the image of Christ. There are many moments in ministry when we don't see the fruit of our labor. We murmur in the depths of our souls and point fingers at our sheep as we wonder why they won't change. We easily can become disenchanted by the slow maturation of our listeners.

However, it is God who is in the business of transforming lives and God who is working on the hearts of His people. I learned only after several years that I couldn't change people. It was a long and frustrating journey to come to that conclusion. I became increasingly discouraged by the slow, snail-paced movement toward discipleship among my church leaders, as well. Our disillusionment invites the need to pray for our people.

Preaching Without First Being Transformed by the Message
"I wish so and so were here for that sermon." We've heard others make this snarly comment. We may say it occasionally ourselves. It's easy to preach without first being transformed by the message.

Haddon Robinson's classic definition of biblical preaching is helpful here: "Expository preaching is a biblical concept…which the Holy Spirit first applies to the personality and experience of the preacher, then through the preacher, applies to the hearers." We can't expect our listeners to change if we're not committed to being changed first by the Word.

Emphasizing the Art of Homiletics over the Role of the Holy Spirit (Prayer)
Prayer is the missing ingredient in much sermon preparation today. We get so caught up in hermeneutics and homiletics that prayer often is overlooked. We toss up a half-hearted prayer on the short walk to the pulpit. Yes, we should prepare diligently for the message; and we should pray diligently for the Holy Spirit to open minds and hearts.

You would think that in every single sermon there would be much homiletical preparation and especially much prayer preparation, but that's not always the case. The sermons that were most transformational were those in which many prayers covered preparation and delivery.

Making Preaching All About Me
In his article, "Pastoral Narcissism: The Shadow Side of Ambition," J.R. Kerr writes: "Rooting my calling and ambitions in my community helps keep me from slipping into a self-centered focus. Without the community, it becomes all about me, my ministry, my dreams, my achievements. Community is used by God as a guard against this tendency to self-promote."

Preaching can be a self-serving act. It's the unspoken part of pastoral ministry where self-importance is built into the vocation, especially when all eyes are on you. In preaching, opinions are made rather quickly by hearers about the effectiveness of our preaching or the lack thereof. Naturally, we want people to think highly of our preaching prowess. It is a constant inner battle not to make ministry or preaching about us. It's a challenge not to allow our self-image to be elevated or crushed by the opinions of others.

Asking My Wife What She Thought of My Sermon
Let's be honest. Every once in a while, we think we nailed it. Our imaginations naturally summon us to think we hit a 500-foot homerun over the centerfield wall. So, on the drive home you decide you're going to fish for some much-deserved homiletical commendation. "What did you think of my sermon today?" To our chagrin, our spouses think we hit singles that should've been scored as errors.

God graciously has provided me with a wife who doesn't like it when my head swells. She simply loves me too much to let that happen. My fishing for human praise has invited its share of arguments because of my fragile ego. After numerous sour squabbles in the car, I eventually gave up searching for compliments. Now, my wife simply prays for me instead of telling me what she thought of the sermon. Her wisdom has helped our marriage tremendously. We preach for the glory of God, and to Him be the glory alone.

Although I've made many other errors in preaching, these are some common mistakes I've made through the years. I'm certain you probably have your own gaffes to share, as well. May we preach with grace and with a large dose of humility; because in spite of our imperfections and blunders, God still chooses to transform lives through the preached Word.

Richard J. Foster, Celebration of Discipline (New York: HarperCollins, 1998), 96.
See Matthew D. Kim, 7 Lessons for New Pastors: Your First Year in Ministry (St. Louis: Chalice, 2012), 93-105.
Haddon W. Robinson, Biblical Preaching (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001), 21.
J.R. Kerr, "Pastoral Narcissism: The Shadow Side of Ambition," Accessed on Jan. 5, 2013.

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