Deep down, every preacher knows that it’s the power of the Holy Spirit that convicts—not the eloquence of the preaching. However, that scriptural truth doesn’t give us an excuse to preach without skill, passion and conviction. Whether you’re like William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army preaching on a street corner, or you wear a fine robe in a magnificent sanctuary, or you’re somewhere in between, it’s your task and great calling to preach the gospel to the absolute best of your ability. John Wesley said, “Give me 100 preachers who fear nothing but sin and desire nothing but God; such alone will shake the gates of hell.”
And yet I travel to church after church watching pastors preach with shockingly little skill and even less passion. The sad truth is that there are too many pulpits across this country filled with preachers and teachers who simply aren’t capable of captivating an audience.
Beyond the starting point of a preacher’s calling and personal commitment to Christ, there are also practical elements that every pastor should master. And while that list is long, there’s five key mistakes I’ve seen most often during the last year, and here’s how to fix them:
1. Use your creative team. If you pastor a large enough church to have a creative team (or at the least a single creative designer or communications person) then use them. Pastors tend to shoulder the burden of too many things beyond writing the sermon and leading the church. For instance, thinking of a catchy title, promoting a series, writing up something for the bulletin, getting the message out on social media, etc. Bring your creative person or team into the conversation early and let them help. Research indicates the average adult makes about 35,000 decisions a day, and there’s even a clinical term called “Decision Fatigue.” Stop being a lone wolf and get some creative help.
2. Be very careful about using PowerPoint. Pastors often feel using a PowerPoint presentation will make them more accepted by a younger audience, but if you’re not confident with how it works, you’ll only look foolish. Read the book Give Your Speech, Change the World: How To Move Your Audience to Action. It begins with a simple premise: Become a good speaker first, and then add PowerPoint if necessary. Too many preachers end up spending all their preparation time looking for slides, writing the text, and getting the order right—when they should be using that time to practice their sermon. Hold off on using PowerPoint or Keynote until you become absolutely confident.
3. Stop being obsessed with notes and make more eye contact with your congregation. Occasionally checking your notes is fine, but referring to notes too often is the best way to tell an audience you’re not prepared. If you need to read your sermon, then print it out and pass it around because I’d rather read a message myself than have a speaker do it. Practice, learn your sermon, get comfortable with it and stop constantly looking down and checking your notes. I actually attended a church recently where the pastor rarely looked at the congregation. If you’re going to connect with the message, you need to connect with your eyes. Look at the audience just as if you were talking to a friend. Without that relationship, you won’t make an impact.
4. Be more confident physically. This year I saw too many pastors who looked like they were embarrassed to be in the pulpit. They didn’t stand up straight, look poised or even give the impression they knew what they were talking about. It’s not about faking it, it’s about building up the congregation’s confidence in the message you’re sharing. They won’t respond if they don’t believe what you’re saying.
5. Understand that your message is the “point of the spear.” In other words, the message of every communication platform from the church should trickle down from the Sunday sermon. I see far too many churches where the pastor preaches one message, but the website, the social media and other communication platforms all say something different. Marketing guru Seth Godin says, “We remember the things we see again and again.” That means the familiar is remembered and trusted. So make sure that the week following your message, that message is reflected again and again in all the communication that flows out from the church.
As a preacher of the gospel in today’s culture we often have it backwards. Philosopher and theologian Soren Kierkegaard got it right when he said, “People have an idea that the preacher is an actor on a stage and they are the critics, blaming or praising him. What they don’t know is that they are the actors on the stage; he (the preacher) is merely the prompter standing in the wings, reminding them of their lost lines.”
Your job “reminding them of their lost lines” could not be more important, so do everything in your power to set the stage where your congregation is ready to be convicted and transformed by the power of the gospel.