5 Common Preaching Mistakes & How to Fix Them

Preaching week after week, year after year is extremely challenging. Doing so with any degree of consistency and excellence is even more challenging. No preacher is at their best every weekend. Personal matters and church issues can hurt preparation time. Sometimes the well just seems dry. There’s no freshness, no zip on the old fastball. Other times, we may sense there’s another gear out there somewhere–we just can’t find it. Below are five common preaching mistakes we make and some help in fixing them. There are obviously more than five, but here is a sampling. I suffer them all at one time or another. Add to this list or comment on any of these in the comments section.

1. Putting too much or little of oneself in the message. Finding the right balance here is difficult and is more art than science. Generally, I limit myself to one personal story, but at least one. It might be funny, or it might be dead serious. But, it’s important for the church to know the preacher is a real person–and get to know that real person. In the stories, don’t always be the hero, and don’t always be the goat. The truth is you are an imperfect person who struggles with the same things they do. Don’t be afraid to let that show some–but always keep the spotlight on Jesus. One of the best ways to do this is to avoid…

2. Illustrations that have nothing to do with the point at hand. If you tell a personal story–have a point that matches the message or stash it for later. If you take them on a potentially boring log ride through the catacombs of exegesis–have a point. If you tell a joke, have a point. In all things–have a point. At the end of each point or movement of the sermon, ask, “So what?” or “What truth am I trying to illustrate here–specifically.”

3. Preaching in Saul’s armor. This comes in primarily two forms: trying to preach like your favorite preacher, and trying to preach like your professors and books say you should. You’re not Saul, you’re David. You’re not Long, Craddock, Buttrick, Billy Graham, Greg Laurie, Erwin McManus or Rick Warren. No, you’re not Jaroslav Pelikan, N.T. Wright, Wolfhart Pannenberg or Walter Brueggmann either. You are you. God made you and His Spirit has gifted you “as He chose.” So, let your own personality and insights from the text come through. Obviously, learn from others rigorously. But, be yourself.

4. Underestimating the listeners. People come to an assembly to encounter Christ and the Bible first. They expect you to use the Bible. They want to understand what it says and why it matters. They don’t need you to bring your sermon to the level of a coloring book, though you should explain churchy words if need be. In yesterday’s sermon, I knew I would use the term “theology” several times for a particular reason. I just said early on, “theology is simply studying or thinking about God.” No harm, no foul. But, very helpful to those who didn’t know what theology was.

People are much smarter than we sometimes think–and they appreciate us not leaving things on the surface. If someone bothers to come to church, they come expecting the Bible, teaching that helps them understand God and life better. If they wanted a TED talk, they know where to find one. They need a sermon. This is good news. Don’t be afraid to communicate nuanced ideas or make people feel things. Have regard for the listener–who is smarter and more prepared to hear a strong, biblical sermon than we often give them credit for. However, we shouldn’t succumb to…

5. Giving “In Theory” Sermons. These are sermons that in no way answer the questions, “What does the text want us to know/feel/do?”  “In theory” sermons tend to use lofty language straight from seminary that leaves people wondering what in the world those terms mean–not because the terms are over their head intellectually, but because the preacher doesn’t know how to use those terms/ideas. We often think the problem is the “shallowness” of the church when the confused look on their faces has far more to do with our own homiletical malpractice. When preaching, one can go to extreme depths, as long as one explains it CLEARLY. Two things will help with this–paying deeper attention to one’s use of language (clarity), and one’s aim (know/feel/do).

There are many more–preaching to a non-existent enemy, hypergeneralizations, and lethargy in the preparation process–just to name a few. But…

What else might you add? Which of these are you most vulnerable to? For me, it’s numero cinco. 


*Note: This post revised and expanded from a previous post.

Dr. Tim Spivey is Lead Planter of New Vintage Church in San Diego, California. He is the author of numerous articles and one book, "Jesus: The Powerful Servant." A sought after speaker for events, Tim also serves as Adjunct Professor of Religion at Pepperdine University. Tim serves as a church consultant, and his writings are featured on ChurchLeaders.com, Church Executive magazine, Faith Village, Sermon Central, and Giving Rocket.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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6 thoughts on “5 Common Preaching Mistakes & How to Fix Them

  1. Tim, thank you for sharing these thoughts. As I season as a preacher (read: get older), I find myself wanting to wrestle honestly with difficult challenges to our faith, while at the same time not undermining the faith of the congregation. I find that many people appreciate an honest struggle and the willingness to admit there are some mysterious aspects to God and faith that won’t admit easy resolution; but I still worry that for younger Christians, this may be more than they can bear. I recently finished a series on Ecclesiastes — people were appreciative of the questions that the text raises and my honest wresting with them. I did a lot of soul-searching in my weekly preparations; for example, Ecclesiastes 9:11 admits that a lot of life is pretty random, an experience and perception that a many people share. At the end of the series, I thought it was important to affirm the foundational aspect of the hope we share in the risen Christ, a hope that is completely absent in Ecclesiastes. But I didn’t want to rush to the “happy ending” or the “easy resolution” without really trying to hear and feel the burden of the message of Ecclesiastes for a number of weeks. I suppose what I’m trying to say is that this is a tension in preaching — affirming the Good News of Jesus Christ while also honestly wrestling with the authentic struggles of life, faith and being human, as various Biblical authors do. Peace!

  2. Preaching against other churches. – The people are already sitting in your church. Many of them probably know little about the other church. Most are not considering going to the other church… before the sermon. It doesn’t enrich anyone’s life. This isn’t the same as say preaching free will vs Calvinism, but it’s easy to do that without naming specific churches. But sometimes, it’s very tempting to drop a name.

    • Pete, that’s a great one. Another might be preaching against the non-existent enemy… Like an NFL player wanting to win because no one gives them a chance… When there is no one who doesn’t give them a chance.

  3. Oh, man. Yes! In particular, 1 and 2 – sometimes pastors come off as if they are trying to cultivate a cult of personality. They insert way too much about themselves into their sermons. So off-putting, especially in light of 4 – the real reason we’re sitting in the congregation. Give me Jesus. Give me God’s word. Help me grasp some new depth or height in His words. I once heard a sermon on Jesus and the woman who washed his feet with perfume. The pastor said nothing of his own self, only brought such a depth of compassion and understanding for the woman and the awe of Christ’s response in the context of his day…his sermon ran way long, but I didn’t even notice. I was busy weeping from the beauty and reflecting on how I could allow God to change me. I walked out of that sermon and thought – just give me Jesus every darn Sunday. Forget all that other “relevant”, personality gibberish, and give me Jesus.