Rev. Dr. Kevin Livingston
Seven years ago, I left congregational ministry to teach at Tyndale Seminary. I moved from preaching lots of sermons to listening to lots of sermons by seminarians in my preaching classes. I've heard many thoughtful messages from these budding preachers, but I've also listened to some that weren't quite ready for prime time! These student preachers missed the mark, as evidenced by the inattentive, bored faces of their classmates. And while the act of preaching remains a divine mystery in many ways, I've isolated ten mistakes we preachers often make.
1. Planning ahead saves me from the tyranny of having to start from scratch every week. I suggest that you plan your preaching schedule three or four months ahead of time, balancing sermon series that work through a whole book or section of Scripture with more topical or seasonal (church year) messages. Your music and worship leaders will rise up and call you blessed for giving them the necessary time to plan music and other liturgical elements that creatively blend with your chosen sermon themes.
2. Devote yourself to be a true student of the Word of God. Commit to reading the whole Bible through once a year, using a systematic schedule. Also, read widely in biblical theology, particularly the works of accessible scholars like N. T. Wright, Ben Witherington, and Walter Brueggemann; as well as master preachers like Fleming Rutledge, Tim Keller, and William Willimon.
3. Use a weekly exegetical process that gets you wrestling with the biblical passage in a deep, sustained way. Don't be content to settle for a cursory, surface-level reading of the text. One way to insure this is by having at least two solid, scholarly commentaries on hand—but don't turn to them until after you have studied and questioned and grappled with the text yourself. (A good list of preaching commentaries for every book in the Bible can be found at calvinseminary.edu)
4. Work diligently to stick with one main insight or big idea per message rather than going down "rabbit trails" of other thoughts and ideas that are not related to the central theme that you are trying to communicate. Ruthlessly cut out extraneous material. I have listened to (and preached!) sermons that have gone off in all directions at once rather than isolating one central, controlling thought, and letting that theme direct the content and flow of the sermon.
5. Be sure that the "big idea" you have is not simply a moral lesson or three steps to a happy whatever…. Insure that the Triune God of grace remains the subject of your sermon and that God's active, passionate, redeeming love remains central to every message you speak. Only then will the sermon be "good news" and not merely good advice.
6. Don't simply impose your own pre-existing idea onto a passage; be sure that the "big idea" arises out of the text itself, as a result of your honest, prayerful study. I recently heard a student preach from the book of Esther, and he imposed a theme on the text; he focused on Esther's "teachable heart." Well, yes, we all want to be teachable and have hearts and minds open to God, but this is clearly not a major theme in the story of Esther, and was artificially imposed on the narrative.
7. There are many customs and practices from the ancient world that may need explanation, if the congregation is to understand the text. Don't assume your audience knows the cultural background or the personalities or the places mentioned like you do—you've been studying the text for a week or more but they haven't! Instead, clarify the larger context by explaining these customs and practices in a way that teens and adults can readily understand.
8. I recommend for newer preachers that they prepare a full manuscript of their sermons. The value of a manuscript is that it forces you to put down onto paper precisely what you mean, and this has the benefit of exposing imprecise language or leaps in logic. It also keeps you from straying too far from the sermon theme. Even if you don't take the whole manuscript into the preaching event, your sermon will be better because you've forced yourself to wrestle with precisely what it is that you are trying to say.
9. Devote some time to practicing your sermon, literally preaching it out loud to yourself. Whenever anything doesn't sound quite like the way you would say it to someone, then stop and rework the word or phrase until it sounds like "oral" rather than "written" English. Remember that our sermons are meant for the ear and not the eye, and so we should rehearse it out loud and revise any parts that lack clarity or that sound like an essay rather than plain, spoken English.
10. Pray throughout the sermon-making process. The preparation and delivery of sermons is a spiritual discipline joyfully imposed on those who are called to preach the gospel. Pray as you select a text. Pray as you do your exegesis. Pray as you seek to discern the message God has from the text for your congregation at this time in their life together. Pray as you write the sermon out, asking God for order, logic, faithfulness, and creativity. Pray as you rehearse the sermon and make revisions. And pray for your listeners as you walk into the pulpit, trusting that God has given you a word of grace and hope to those who hear it.
Rev. Dr. Kevin Livingston is Associate Professor of Pastoral Ministry, Tyndale Seminary, Toronto, Ontario