Top ten rookie preaching mistakes

  • Peter Ko
  • 18 October 2017

1. ‘Spring-boarding’ off the text 

This is probably one of the most common mistakes by 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 its interesting points and ‘spring-board’ into a sermon about that. Your sermon becomes more topical than expository—and while it gives the appearance of preaching from the passage, you could preach an almost identical sermon from any number of passages that also deal with the topic.

2. Hobbyhorses

We all have hobbyhorses we like to flog endlessly. Rookie preachers tend to do this more and hide it poorly, sometimes due to having fewer insights from exegesis and life/ministry experience. So whether your hobbyhorse is ‘five-point Calvinism’ or ‘heresy bashing’ or ‘the Westminster Confession’, if it’s not absolutely tied to the content or application of your sermon, 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 a quarter of the sermon, or have so many interesting twists and turns that the relationship between the illustration and the point being illustrated is hanging by a very, very thin thread. Make your illustrations interesting, and do extended ones on occasion, but please don’t be indulgent with them. Make sure your illustrations serve the sermon, and not the other way around.

4. Saying too much

Rookie preachers often forget that less is more, especially for 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.

Sometimes a rookie says too much because they are still learning how to leave most of what they’ve read 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.

5. Saying too little

Clearly this is the opposite problem to the above, but it’s not unrelated.

Sometimes, in order to accommodate long illustrations or technical commentary-like details that weren’t cut, you don’t have time to take listeners deeper in other areas.

Sometimes rookies say too little when quickly mentioning concepts and ideas that actually require more explanation. Don’t just throw out phrases like “all this points to Jesus” and 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 spent ministering to and teaching people 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 miss the mark. Again, this will improve with time and experience. In the meantime, rookies need to be aware of the tendency to drift to shallow applications, and so 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 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 the parts that sound too much like writing and not like speaking.

You can get more in-depth help online, but for starters:

  1. Avoid passive verb constructions (rather than “the man was healed by Jesus”, go for “Jesus healed the man”).
  2. Don’t use words like ‘therefore’, ‘however’, and ‘moreover’, etc. Try using ‘so’, ‘but’, and ‘the other thing is…’ instead.
  3. Chop up long complex sentences into shorter and simpler ones.
  4. Use pauses, repetitions, re-phrasings—things you don’t need to do in writing because they’re a waste of space. When speaking, use them liberally to help make your point clearer and more memorable.
  5. Learn to script in slangs, contractions (didn’t, wasn’t, hadn’t), and 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 you don’t have your own style yet. Copying those you listen to (especially if you use podcasts 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’s because 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 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 the unhelpful bits of what make you ‘you’ are going to be heightened.

Is your sense of humour cringe-worthy? Do you like using esoteric vocabulary, or waxing poetical in your everyday speech? Do you like giving soapbox 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. Others will.

10. Lacking a good preparation method 

Finally, a lot of the above mistakes can be addressed if rookies just remember that they’re rookies. That means you need to learn a method, practise a few hundred times until you nail the method, and then you can freestyle a bit more. Many rookies don’t want to invest this way, to their own detriment.

Learn a method of preparation from the great teachers of preaching. My method of choice is John Chapman’s, from Setting Hearts On Fire. It’s not the only one out there that’s good; whichever method you choose, learn it well.

When you’ve absolutely mastered the method, before you know it, you’re not making these same rookie mistakes any more. But just remember, as Chapman famously said, “the first fifty years are the hardest”—so keep at it brothers and sisters. Soli Deo gloria!

This article was originally published on Fan Into Flame, and has been edited and republished with the author’s permission.