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!
Okay I know. This is a somewhat controversial blog post title.
Yes, if you’re wondering, my sermons are over 30 mins. They average 45 mins. And perhaps some readers out there are of the opinion that no sermons should exceed that length.
I’m not going to argue that point or assume that all of my listeners like the length of my sermons. However, I do think there are good reasons for rookie preachers to adhere to the 30 min rule a little more than a lot of them do.
Firstly, why 30 mins? Well in my honest opinion, the ideal range is between 20 and 25 mins. In a normal Sunday gathering, anything less than 20 mins is on the ‘too short’ side. But anything more than 25 mins is on the ‘too long’ side. Therefore 30 mins is the absolute upper limit.
Now of course there are no hard-and-fast rules. And that’s why I do believe that there are exceptions. But I want to argue that for the rookie preacher, there better be a very very very good excuse why that 30 min upper limit should be exceeded.
Before I go into the reasons why, you should know that I passionately believe in training preachers. I’m constantly listening to sermons by rookie preachers and giving them feedback. My main congregation, ACTS 11, also believes in training lay preachers. Aside from our ministry interns and student ministers, I currently have four lay men who preach regularly to my congregation, all of whom have only been trained to do it in the last year. I love training preachers, and I greatly value the men who are willing to take up the challenge to learn to preach, especially when they are also busy husbands, fathers, workers, and lay leaders.
So as an ardent supporter of preaching and rookie preachers, let me now put my cards out on the table. Please rookie preacher, keep your sermons between 20-25 mins. And please, whatever you do, don’t exceed 30 mins.
Here are my reasons:
1. Practise packaging
One of the most important skills in sermon preparation is the packaging. Rookie preachers need to learn how to spend as much time on the packaging as they do on the text. Without good packaging, even a 10 min sermonette can be extremely painful and confusing to listen to.
One of the best ways to push yourself to hone the skill of packaging is to ‘leave more on the cutting room floor’. Rookie preachers don’t yet have an intuitive grasp of what, among the mountains of material they have, ought to be left out of a sermon. They almost always leave too much in rather than cut too much out.
Keeping to an upper time limit is a disciplined way of honing your skill of cutting and packaging so that only the very best stuff stays in. After you do that for a few years, it becomes a little more intuitive. In other words, keeping it short as a rookie is a good discipline to train you for a lifetime of preaching.
2. You don’t know as much as you think
Rookie preachers are either not theologically-trained lay preachers (or youth leaders etc.), or recently theologically-trained new pastors.
If you’re not theologically-trained, then understandably you’re going to lack a certain depth with the exegesis and handling of the text.
If you’re newly theologically-trained, then you’ll probably be brimming with biblical knowledge but lack a lot of knowledge of the people you’re speaking to. This is why most rookie pastors struggle with meaningful and deep applications.
Either way, you don’t know as much as you think you know. Therefore to preach long sermons will tend to take your sermon into the land of the ‘hobby-horse’. When we’re drawing on a limited pool of knowledge (whether exegetical or practical), we tend to default into speaking about the things that we feel most familiar with and passionate about. Now that’s all fine and good for us, but it may have nothing to do with the text or with the people you’re preaching to! That’s called a ‘hobby-horse’.
3. You’re not as interesting as you think
I always remember fondly the time when one of my Bible college preaching tutors, in answer to the question: ‘How long should a sermon be?’, replied: ‘It should feel like 20 minutes.’ Great answer! It gets to the truth of the issue since sermon length has a lot to do with the giftedness of the preacher. There are some preachers who can hold your attention for 90 mins and make it feel like 20. And at the end of their sermon, you wished they talked more. Therefore it is unrealistic and unreasonable to expect that all sermons should be of a certain length.
…Unless of course you’re a rookie preacher.
We always like to think of ourselves as more gifted and interesting than we are. This is especially so when our models are extra-gifted speakers who can preach for 90 mins and make it feel like 20. Part of learning to preach is to figure out what kind of a preacher you are and be happy with how God’s made you. The vast majority of preachers are 20-25 min preachers. So as a rookie, rather than assume you’re one of that special lot who can speak for longer than 30 mins, it makes better sense to assume the opposite. Assume you’re average. Keep your sermon in that range . And if, down the track, people keep asking you to speak for longer, then maybe it’s a hint that you should speak for longer.
My point is simply: it’s unwise for the rookie to assume it.
In all honesty, of all the rookie sermons I’ve listened to, I can’t think of one instance where I wished the preacher had spoken for longer. Don’t get me wrong, some of these are brilliant and delivered by extremely gifted rookie preachers. And sometimes my feedback has been for some areas (usually application) to be developed further. But even when I’ve wished certain parts of the sermon had been more detailed or longer, it’s always been in the place of another part of the sermon rather than in addition to. I don’t want the sermon to be longer. I just want it repackaged.
Okay, these are just three reasons. I’m sure there are more. Feel free to suggest more or push back on the points I’ve made.
But in closing, I know there’s one niggling question at the back of your minds: ‘when does a person stop being a rookie preacher?’
Great question. I don’t really have an answer to that. Perhaps Chappo would say ‘after the first 50 (hardest) years’. But you know I don’t believe that, or else I’d be a total hypocrite since my sermons are over 30 mins.
Maybe there’s no ‘line in the sand’ answer. Maybe it’s one of those tacit things that you and your congregation just know. Or maybe it’s when you’ve clocked up 200 sermons (roughly 5 years of preaching if you preach weekly, with a few breaks). I have no idea. But whatever it is, if you are a rookie and you and your hearers know it, please, I beg you: keep it under 30 mins!