The Preachers’ Problematic Practice
As a Christian, I enjoy listening to sermons. That’s because it is God-ordained means to grow and mature me. “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Rom. 10:17). According to the Westminster Confession of Faith, the ministry of the word is the ordinary means of grace whereby my faith is increased and strengthened (WCF, 14:1).
As a preacher, I also enjoy listening to sermons – from others that is. I like to learn how others handle certain texts and topics. And there are many fine preachers today (and past) that I can learn from.
As a student of preaching, however, I don’t always enjoy listening to sermons. That’s because as a student, I’m required to listen to some bad sermons – sometimes even by fine preachers. As one of my homiletic professors used to say, “That’s a great sermon, but wrong text!” His point was the sermon wasn’t based on the text though it was a good sermon. It was not exegesis, but eisegesis. Many of us who preach regularly, we’re all guilty of such practice. However, this is not the only pitfall to avoid as preachers.
The following are some common problematic practice that preachers (new or seasoned) make:
- Preaching is not a Bible study.
There’s a distinction between preaching and teaching (cf. Luke 20:1; Acts 5:42; 15:35; 28:31; 1 Timothy 5:17). If you don’t know the difference, then that’s for you to know. :)
- Preaching is not a running commentary.
Some pastors think of themselves as “expository preachers” when their sermons sound more like a running Bible commentary that of J. Vernon McGee or Chuck Smith. Running Bible commentary is not expository preaching.
- Failing to give the direction at the onset.
You need to give a clear direction at the onset what the sermon is about and where it’s going. Effective preachers give signposts at the beginning of their sermons (and often throughout the sermon as a reminder). The listeners are clear what the sermon is about and where it’s heading at the onset. They’re not confused nor do they try to guess to the end. Sermon shouldn’t be a guessing game for people. It should be very clear. That’s why one of the most difficult jobs in preaching is clarity. It’s hard work. But it pays off.
- Burying yourself to your notes.
Don’t bury yourself in your notes when preaching. It’s perfectly OK to use notes since many of us can’t remember everything we studied in our preparation. But do make eye contact with your audience. And do so often.
You may argue that Jonathan Edwards read his notes when preaching. But let’s be honest. You’re no Jonathan Edwards. And I’m not either.
- Failing to pause.
One of the most effective tools in preaching is to pause. When done it rightly and appropriately, it powerfully aids your sermon. One of the preachers that is masterful at this is R.C. Sproul. Learn to pause.
- Citing names of scholars and pastors in your sermon when majority don’t know who’s who.
I’m all for source citation. There’s enough plagiarism in academics, especially, in the institutions of higher education. I even witnessed seminarians who were being trained as pastors or already as pastors get caught in academic thievery! I also know of plenty of preachers who steal quotes, ideas, or phrases from others, and preach as if they’re the originators. Hence, I’m all for giving proper citation for your source.
But in preaching, it’s unnecessary to cite names of scholars, pastors, and even naming theological journals. Honestly, most people in your congregation probably have never heard of Geerhardus Vos, Herman Bavinck, Victor P. Hamilton, and so on. I’m not sure if they even care. However, without citing the last name(s) of your source, to say something like “according to one scholar…” and having footnote(s) in your sermon notes is sufficient. Naming the names may be impressive if you are presenting a paper at ETS or other scholarly meeting, but not when preaching.
- Using Hebrew, Greek, or Aramaic words in your sermon.
I often wonder why? Is it to impress the audience? Let’s be honest again. You know and I know, we’re no experts in the biblical language.
When I plan to listen to a preacher or I know ahead that a preacher will preach something out of the New Testament, sometimes I’m in the audience with my copy of Bruce Metzger’s The Greek New Testament (4th edition) along with my English translation as a Berean. And so often, I’ve witnessed preachers fail to pronounce the word properly or say something is in Greek when it isn’t. As one of my teachers used to say, if you’re going to say something in the original language, at least say it right.
When you’re tempted to use a Greek or Hebrew word, ask yourself whether it’s really necessary. This is not to say that you can’t ever use it. Sometimes using the original language in preaching can be helpful. For instance, pointing out the difference between agapao and phileo in John 21:15-17. Understanding the difference is not only important in your exegesis, but also in your exposition. Your people do appreciate such exegetical observation. So, if you think it’s necessary, then mention the original word. If not, keep it out.
- Failing to answer “so what?”
Ask “so what” question throughout your sermon, especially, your sermon points. And then see how they are related or relevant to the overall message of the sermon. Sometimes the “sermon points” hinder than help. It’s always a good practice to ask yourself “so what” and then see if your sermon points provide the answer and clarity to the main point of the sermon.
- Sermons are not compilations of quotes by various people.
In his book Lectures To My Students, Charles Spurgeon equates illustrations to windows in the house. Just as the primary purpose of windows is to let the light in, so do good sermon illustrations. However, having too many illustrations is likened to having too many windows open in the house, whereby greater chance for bugs and birds to come in and become nuisance. So is with sermons with too many quotations and/or illustrations in the sermon. They become nuisance.
- Saying too many “um,” “uh,” “like,” and other filler words.
I concur with D.A. Carson that filler words, such as, “um” and “uh” are one of the most unintelligible sounds, not only in American language but in any language.
Preachers are given the highest task for delivering the message from the highest one. As ambassadors for the highest kingdom and as representatives for the king of kings, our presentations should not be tainted with unintelligible noise or with other hindering manners.
- Preaching is not a means to promote yourself or tell your stories.
Woe unto preachers who use their pulpits as a platform to promote themselves. Woe unto preachers who are more interested in telling their stories than the redemptive story. Woe unto preachers who think preaching ought to be funny and entertaining, and fail to be the prophetic voice.
As a student of preaching for 20 years, I’m still learning. To preach well doesn’t happen overnight. But we all need to commit to become skillful of our craft.
Charles H. Spurgeon, Lectures To My Students (Grand Rapids: Ministry Resources Library, 1954), 349.