3 Preaching Bad Habits That Are Making Your Sermons Weak
3 ways to improve the strength of your preaching by undoing common bad habits.
January 16, 2020
Today we're going to talk about three bad habits that keep your sermons weak.
As pastors, we want our sermons to have power. We want to see them change lives. We want to see the power of the gospel make its way into our church, into our communities, even into our own lives and families.
But one thing that we constantly run into is that the pressures that we experience as pastors run against the instincts that we need to develop to build good preaching habits. Oftentimes, we end up developing bad habits just to make it to Sunday.
I'm going to talk about three bad habits, all three of which I've been guilty of in the past. But if we're going to develop sermons that have power, that have resonance, that have an ability to see that the power of God's word be unleashed and to be satisfying to people and to motivate them to do God's will, then we've got to eliminate these bad habits and replace them with good ones.
1. You’re rushing your experience of the text
When we're preaching, if our experience of the text is rushed, we will end up microwaving the text to come up with a meal. If we're just trying to get down to the principles or the points or the life-changing insights, then we'll never slow down enough to savor the text. As preachers, we must learn to enjoy it and notice little things here and there.
For instance, we wouldn't notice Jesus calling Nicodemus “The Teacher of Israel.” What does that mean? Well, unless we slowed down our experience of the text, we would just drive right by that. What about the followers of Jesus making spices the night after he was crucified to anoint his body with. What were those spices all about? And what was it like for them to prepare them? We would completely miss it if we were just looking straight for how do I get a sermon written.
Here are a couple of ways to slow down your experience of the text. I learned these from one of my preaching mentors, Aubrey Spears in Harrisonburg, Virginia. One way is to turn the text upside down and read it upside down. It's annoying. It's going to slow down your reading, which is exactly the point. You're going to notice things you wouldn't notice before.
Here's another way to slow down your experience of the text. And this is my favorite one. If you have training in Greek or Hebrew, translate the text using as many tools as you need to in order to keep it moving. You will notice things when you translate it from Greek to English or from Hebrew to English that you wouldn't have noticed before.
You can even be praying along the way. You can pray: "Holy Spirit, would you point out phrases or verses? Would you highlight things for me, as I amble my way through this text?"
The first preaching bad habit is the most significant one, and that is rushing our experience of the text. We can flip that on its head and savor it instead. We go slow to go fast.
2. You listen to too many podcasts
The second bad habit for sermon preparation is listening to too many podcasts and audiobooks during downtime. This is something that I do every week. I've got to stop myself from turning on my favorite podcasts and listening to the audiobook. When we're commuting, when we're out on a walk, when we have this downtime, this is key sermon prep time—not to be drafting the sermon, but to be chewing on and meditating on the text.
Another one of my preaching mentors, Robert Morgan, will go for walks throughout his week. He'll have the sermon text that he's preaching on the next Sunday, printed out. He'll carry it around with him. He'll take along his journal as well. He'll take different parts of the text reflect: "I wonder why the author emphasized that. Why were those three words repeated over and over again? What would it be like for the single mom in my congregation to obey this? What would it look like if the reality represented here in this verse was alive? What if we were obeying this?"
You're going to see that the truth of the text starts to filter into your mind and heart. What that's going to do for you is you're going to have insights and ideas and an ownership over the text that you wouldn't have had otherwise if all you had was constantly streaming cognition from other people.
Turn off the podcast. Kill that bad habit. Podcasts are great in their season, but make sure you're prioritizing meditation on the scriptures, chewing over it, savoring it. It takes downtime to be able to have those kinds of insights. There's going to be some unbidden, unforced insights that drop into our minds that are pure gold. Some of the best things in our sermons are going to come from this playful, unforced meditation time.
It's going to be more fun to write our sermons if we've given ourselves some space for meditating on the scriptures. There are some questions that you can ask even as you have the text in front of you. You're going for a walk. You're on the train for your commute. Maybe you're even in the car.
Questions like this: “What's bugging me about this text? Is there some kind of tension or some kind of frustration that rises up in me as I read this text?” If that's in you, it's going to be in your sermon. But the only way of discerning that is slowing down enough to let that rise to the surface.
Another question that you can ask is: “What would it look like for me to enthusiastically obey? What would it look like for our church to enthusiastically believe and obey and live out what's written here in this text?” You'll see things in the text that you wouldn't have seen before.
Jonathan Edwards used to do something unique to prepare for his sermons. One of the reasons that his sermons were so powerful is that he spent a lot of time meditating on the Scriptures. One of the ways he would do that is that he would hop on a horse. He would go for a ride in the woods alone. And when he would have insights and ideas in prayer, he would write them down on a piece of paper and then he would pin them to his jacket. By the time he came home, according to Jonathan Edwards' legend, he was basically covered in flapping paper. This is easily done with a journal and the passage of Scripture printed out. It's a wonderful way of improving and deepening, not only the quality of your preparation, but the power of your sermon.
3. You hide your first sermon draft
You keep the content to yourself until you preach it. That’s a preaching bad habit. This is an instinct that I had early on, where my perfectionistic tendencies were to make sure that before anyone read my outline, before anyone read my sermon, I had perfected it. I was afraid of just that first bad draft—that first bad outline. I didn't want anyone to see it or hear it until it was ready.
What I realized later was that a lot of what I thought was great, was actually bad. And some of the things that I thought were crappy, were great. But the only way of figuring that out is if you get feedback in advance. You should send it out to people that are good with preaching—someone who likes and respects your preaching and you like and respect their feedback.
If you can get it to those people in advance, email it out or print it out so that you can give it to them. Any insights they have are going to help your sermon get better. Especially if several people say the same thing about your content. Then you know you're either onto something or you're not. My method of doing it goes like this: I send my sermon draft out Thursday afternoons to some mentors of mine, some colleagues in ministry, people who would have great feedback for me.
Some people are prayerful, others are great preachers. Some others are wonderful Bible expositors. They're going to check me and help me. Almost every time I send out my sermon, I feel the need or the urge to say: "Hey guys, I know this is half-baked. I know this is incomplete. I know this is bad. Please have mercy on it." I've decided to stop saying that. Now I simply say: "Here it is. Here's my best work. And I'd love your feedback before Sunday morning comes along."
And when their feedback does come along, it always strengthens my sermon. It increases the power of the sermon. It takes away all of the distracting things that don't belong in the sermon that I think are great. But it also adds value. It adds energy and intelligence and even relational support in advance of Sunday, all of which have deepened the power of messages in the past. And I commend that to you as well.
Another way of looking at this whole idea of feedback is that we resist criticism. We resist feedback. Instinctively, people know i if we don't want to hear their feedback. The power is mostly in the hands of the person who could receive the feedback. One of the ways that we overcome this bad habit of keeping the sermon content to ourselves until we preach it is to address our own fear of receiving negative criticism.
We must learn how to embrace feedback week by week just by asking for it. We must also remember that the person giving feedback loves you. When they're giving some constructive feedback for the sermon, they're actually not attacking the core of who I am. They're not bringing shame and judgment. What they're actually doing is they're bringing love. They're bringing value. They're giving you and your church a great gift by telling you the truth.
If we can address our own defensiveness and give way to a community of people who are going to see things that we can't see, our sermons will benefit. People are going to see the spinach in our sermon’s teeth one way or another. Looking in the mirror by getting feedback is going to lead to more powerful sermons. But it's only going to be on the other end of a little bit of courage shown on our part.
I’ll close with one final point. As preachers, we are developing week by week. We are learning to master the craft of preaching. Our sermons will grow in power year by year, week by week if we actually commit ourselves to slow down and do the deep work of rich sermon preparation time.
It doesn't take tons of time. But it does take a mindset that's willing to slow down, that's willing to meditate on the Scriptures, and that's willing to bring in a whole community of people to make the sermon stronger, richer, and more powerful in the lives of our congregations and cities.
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