1. “Spring-boarding” off the text
This is probably one of the most common mistakes for rookies learning how to preach expositionally. Rather than letting your sermon flow from the main idea and logic of the passage, you find one of the interesting points of the passage and ‘spring-board’ into a sermon about those points. Your sermon becomes more ‘topical’ than ‘expository’; and while it gives the appearance of preaching from the passage, you could really preach a nearly identical sermon from any number of passages that also deal with that topic.
We all have hobby-horses that we like to flog endlessly. Rookie preachers tend to do this more and hide it less well. It’s probably because they have fewer insights from exegesis and life/ministry experience. So whether your hobby-horse is ‘5 point Calvinism’ or ‘heresy bashing’ or ‘The Westminster Confession’, if it’s not absolutely tied to the content or application of your sermon, learn to leave the horse in the stable.
3. Indulgent illustrations
Illustrations are great. Vivid and interesting illustrations are even better. But not when they go for 1/4 of the length of your sermon, or have so many interesting twists and turns that the relationship between your illustration and the point being illustrated is hanging by a very, very thin thread. Make your illustrations interesting and, by all means, do extended ones on occasion, but please don’t be indulgent with them. Make sure your illustrations actually serve the sermon, and not the other way around.
4. Saying too much
Rookie preachers can often forget that less is more. This is related to the above point about illustrations, as well as, in particular, introductions and conclusions. Neither have to be long and drawn out. Sometimes a short punchy intro is enough to get your listeners on board. And your conclusions don’t need to reiterate all your points again. Just tie it up and finish memorably. That’s enough.
Another way rookies say too much has to do with taking all that they’ve read (and/or in the case of seminary students and graduates – all that you’ve studied), and learning how to leave most of that in the study. You’ve heard of the iceberg principle? Only 10% needs to be above the water. The other 90% stays beneath.
And one last note. Rookie preachers should almost never preach longer than 30 minutes. Remember this?
5. Saying too little
Clearly this is the opposite problem to the above, but it’s not unrelated.
Sometimes in order to accommodate for the long illustrations or techy commentary-like stuff that you haven’t left on the cutting room floor, you don’t have time to take listeners deeper and further in other areas.
Sometimes rookies say too little when you quickly mention concepts and ideas that actually require more explanation. Don’t just throw out phrases like ‘all this points to Jesus’ and then just leave it like that. Tell me how it points to Jesus. Chances are that right there is a glorious point about the gospel you should say more about.
The other reason rookies may say too little has to do with lack of pastoral and/or ministry experience. That can only get better with time. It’ll come as you spend more time ministering to and teaching the people in the congregation, outside of the pulpit.
6. Shallow applications
This is related to the previous point. A lack of experience in both life and ministry will inevitably lead to applications that will often miss the mark. Again, much of this will improve with time and experience. But in the mean time, rookies need to be aware of the tendency to drift to shallow applications and so need to work just as hard on application as they do on the passage. If in doubt, regularly use a cross-section of the congregational leaders as sounding boards and test out your applications on them.
7. Speaking like you write
We write differently to how we speak. Most rookies use full scripts and so need to draft, re-draft, and re-draft again in order to replace those bits in their writing that sound too much like writing and not like speaking.
There are lots of good stuff on this floating around on the web, but for starters:
i. Avoid passive verb constructions (rather than: ‘the man was healed by Jesus, go for: ‘Jesus healed the man’).
ii. Don’t use words like ‘therefore’, ‘however’, and ‘moreover’ etc.. Try using ‘so’, ‘but’, and ‘the other thing is…’ instead.
iii. Chop up long complex sentences into shorter and simpler ones.
iv. Use things like pauses, repetitions, re-phrasings – basically things you don’t need to do in writing because they’re a waste of space. In speaking, use them liberally to help make your point clearer and more memorable.
v. Learn to script in slangs, contractions (didn’t, wasn’t, hadn’t), even grammatically incorrect things you use in speech that you’d lose marks for in essays.
8. Trying too hard to emulate someone else’s style
I get it, you’re starting out and so you don’t have your own style yet. Copying those you listen to (especially if you podcast them and listen to them A LOT) is unavoidable. But try not to consciously emulate someone else’s style. This isn’t a copyright thing. It has to do with the fact that the famous guys you listen to are generally very unique. If you try to do it their way, it’s most probably not going to work.
Let the Francis Chans and David Platts and Tim Kellers do their thing. You just keep your head down and work hard at improving being you.
9. Idiosyncrasies heightened
The interesting flip-side to developing your own style is that if you’re a rookie, the unhelpful bits of what makes you ‘you’ is going to be heightened.
Is your sense of humour cringe-worthy? Do you like using esoteric vocabulary or wax poetry in your every day speech? Do you like giving soap-box lectures to groups of friends, even if that group is only two big? Do you gesticulate a lot even when talking to your dog?
All of these things will likely be heightened in the rookie’s preaching, and you’re generally not going to even notice them.
10. Lack of good preparation method
Finally a lot of the above rookie mistakes can be addressed if rookies just remembered that they’re rookies. Which means that you need to learn a method, try it out a few hundred times, practise and practise and practise until you nail the method, and then you can freestyle a bit more.
Many rookies don’t want to do that, at their own detriment. Learn a method of preparation from the great teachers of preaching. My method of choice is Chappo’s (John Chapman, from Setting Hearts On Fire). It’s not the only one out there that’s good, so find another one that is and learn it.
When you’ve absolutely mastered the method, before you know it, you’re not making these same rookie mistakes any more. But just remember, ‘the first fifty years are the hardest’ (Chappo), so keep at it brothers and sisters. Soli Deo Gloria!