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6 Sermon Myths We Need to Bust

6 Sermon Myths We Need to Bust
  • Name
    Carey Nieuwhof
Preaching is one of the most demanding tasks required of communicators. You’re not just giving a ‘talk,’ you’re communicating the Word of God—faithfully (you trust). And you do this in front of groups of people who have more communication options and sources than at any point in human history. Not an easy task. In addition, when it comes to preaching, everyone has an opinion. As a result, preachers get more than their share of feedback. Sometimes it’s helpful. Sometimes not so much. So to wrap up my five-part communication series, I thought I’d finish by busting some sermon myths. The rest of the blog series covers topics like creating sermon series that connect with unchurched people and learning how to speak without using notes: Part 1: How to Design a Message Series That Engages Unchurched People Part 2: How to Craft a Killer Bottom Line for Your Next Talk Part 3: 7 Reasons You Should Speak Without Using Notes Part 4: A 5-Step Method for Delivering a Talk Without Using Notes Part 5: 6 Sermon Myths We Need to Bust (This post) I’ve learned a lot about communicating through preaching for over two decades, but I’ve also been tremendously helped the last few years by Preaching Rocket (affiliate link). I’ve been through their entire coaching programming and it’s been fantastic for me both as a preacher and a conference speaker. If you want to explore it for yourself, you can try Preaching Rocket for free for seven days. So what sermon myths should we bust? Here are six.

1. Sermons need to be short because people have tiny attention spans

Now that human beings apparently have a shorter attention span than goldfish (eight seconds), there’s pressure on preachers to be shorter. Long sermons are almost always seen as a thing of the past. I think we’ve framed the issue incorrectly. We think that shorter equals more engaging. It doesn’t. You can be short and boring. Or you can be longer and highly engaging. Is there a perfect length for sermons? No way. Fifteen minutes of boring is 15 minutes too long. Forty minutes of fascinating is fascinating.  The average feature film hasn’t gotten any shorter in length. In fact, they’ve actually grown longer. The latest Star Wars installment and The Martian both did just fine at over two hours each. The issue isn’t length. It’s engagement.

2. Clear preaching is watered-down preaching

Many preachers have worked hard at becoming clearer in their communication. Personally, I think that’s awesome. But people mistake ‘clear’ for ‘watered-down.’ Does watered-down preaching exist? Sure it does. But clear preaching is not inherently watered-down preaching. It’s just clear. But being clear when you preach doesn’t mean you’re gospel-light. More than any of us would care to admit, we’ve sat through a 45-minute message and then, an hour later, found ourselves completely unable to recall a single point that was made. What we experienced was a rambling message filled with obscure references and void of application to real life. But because we don’t know what to call that, we too often call that style of preaching ‘deep.’ It’s not deep. It’s confusing. As any preacher will tell you, it takes far more skill and hard to work to be clear than it does to be confusing. Don’t criticize a preacher because he or she is clear. In a culture in that is increasingly becoming post-Christian, clarity is our friend, not our enemy. The last thing I want is for someone to walk away from the Gospel because they didn’t ever hear it. So be clear.

3. Thorough planning eliminates the Holy Spirit

As a church grows, it becomes more structured. As I outlined in my last book, Lasting Impact, and in posts like this one, this is a good thing. You need to structure bigger to grow bigger. Part of that means preaching preparation happens far earlier than in many cases. I personally plan our series months in advance and write my messages weeks in advance. It helps our team function far better. One criticism of advanced planning is that it removes the Holy Spirit from message preparation. I’m not sure that logic holds up. That critique implies that the Holy Spirit shows up when you’re panicked and unprepared more than he does when you work ahead. If you take it further, the argument would be that the more panicked and unprepared you are, the more spiritual you are. Too many preachers say they’re relying on the Holy Spirit when in reality, they didn’t prepare. The Holy Spirit can and will show up a month in advance of your message like he will the night before your message. In fact, you may have more time to listen to him a month before than you do during your Saturday night scramble. Does advance preparation mean you can never make last minute changes? Of course not. But your team will thank you and ultimately your congregation will thank you if you show up studied, prepared and rested.

4. You should judge your message based on how well you did

So I’m a recovering performance addict. In my early years of preaching, I was obsessed with ‘how well I did.’ Too often, that became a defining characteristic of my evaluation. It led me to ask questions like: Did people like me? Did they think I was funny? Did they think I was a great communicator … or just a good one? Insecurity and narcissism are close cousins, you know. Here’s an imperfect but better set of questions: Did the message faithfully communicate the text? Did it connect with people? Did they respond to the stories and the humor? Did it help anyone? How? How can I grow as a communicator? The early questions were far too much about me and not nearly enough about the content or the audience. As someone once told me, stop focusing on how well you’re doing as a preacher and start focusing on your audience. So true. Take it further as a preacher: Focus on Christ and your audience. When you lose yourself as a communicator, you find yourself. 

5. Topical preaching isn’t faithful preaching

Some people argue the only preaching that’s faithful is biblical, expository preaching. I think expository preaching can be amazing. But by that standard, Jesus was a failure. Jesus was a more thorough student of the Scriptures than anyone who ever lived. Yet his primary mode of communication wasn’t verse-by-verse exposition of the Old Testament. He told stories. He engaged people. He addressed issues in their lives. Topical preaching isn’t the only way to preach, but it’s a helpful way to preach. Preachers have a responsibility to cover the major issues in the Christian faith and the scriptures in their preaching. If you’re going to engage truly unchurched people, one very effective way to do it is to frame what people need to know in the context of what people want to know. So if you want to cover the scriptures’ teaching about love, do it from the angle of relationships, marriage, break ups or the like. That way, you cover what they need to know but engage them based on what they want to know. That’s not unfaithful. It’s just effective.

6. The listener’s job is to evaluate what they got out of a message

Critics. Got to love ’em. And we’re all critics. Too many times I’ve listened at a message rather than to a message. And that’s because somewhere along the way many of us have bought into the lie that we need to evaluate a church by what we get out of it. That’s not Christianity. That’s consumerism. You get out of a message what you put into a message. Lean in. Listen. Look for God. Confess. Apply. If you can’t find anything to apply in a message, it’s because you didn’t put in enough. Finally, I need to remember that criticism is a form of lazy arrogance. If all I do is criticize a message, it says “I put in 1/100th of the effort you did, but I could have done better.” If you could have done that much better, then do it.