What Preachers Do to Burden Their Hearers

“God was well-pleased through the foolishness of preaching to save those who believe.” (I Corinthians 1:21)

On Facebook, I asked the question, “How do preachers burden their hearers and undermine their own effectiveness?” Since a large percentage of my “FB friends” are in the ministry and almost everyone else goes to church, the answers poured in. Pastors preach too long, tell too many personal stories, get too deep, never have a focus, and such.

More than one pastor took umbrage at the entire exchange. One said, “All this criticism–and during ‘Pastor Appreciation month’ at that!” Another seemed to shrug it all off, saying he would take pleasure in staying with “the foolishness of preaching.”

To my knowledge every person making a comment on that page loves the Lord, believes in preachers, and supports them. But that does not blind us to the fact that some are undercutting themselves by mannerisms and methods which interfere with the very thing the minister is trying to do. He is making his work more difficult and creating problems for his listeners, the very people he’s trying to bless and strengthen.

We are starting with two assumptions: no minister preaches as well as he would like; every minister would love to improve.

Anyone for whom this is not the case may get up and leave the room now. Nothing that follows will pertain to you.

The rest of us are always looking for ways, ideas, pointers, inspirations that will increase our effectiveness in delivering the message of God. That more than any other thing accounts for most of the books and magazines we buy. An article on “5 ways to connect with your congregation” or “10 things you can do to make your preaching more effective” will pull us in every time.

A full generation after I began pastoring, I was overcome by an intense need to improve my preaching effectiveness. Google “I prayed for my preaching and got an answer” and see how that turned out.

Here then are a full dozen ways preachers burden our congregations.

Why take the negative approach? Sometimes it communicates better than the positive. Not often, mind you, but sometimes. Let’s see how this goes….

1) The sermon has multiple points with sub-points.

The sermon which seems to go on and on with its points and sub-points is hard to follow. The hearer loses himself/herself in details and the big picture gets crowded out by all the undergrowth.

My impression is that young, beginning preachers are the primary offenders here. They try to do too much in their half-hour and end up doing far less than they could have. They bring in every pertinent text and answer every possible objection. They literally bury their people under points and principles and lessons.

Haddon Robinson popularized the “one big idea” in preaching, which calls for the preacher to hone his focus to one central theme and build everything in and around that. This encourages the minister to avoid side trips, detours, and complexities, anything that detracts from the main message.

Clarity is everything.

2) We deliver sky-scraper sermons (one story on top of another).

I am a lover of a good story. When Austin Tucker wrote “The Pastor as Story-Teller,” he had me from the title. Then, when he invited me to read the manuscript in advance and included one of my stories, he became my best friend forever.

A well-placed story that is “just right” can take an average message and make it forever memorable.

The preacher who smugly resists using stories because “I just preach the Word” might want to reconsider. After all, Scripture says Jesus never preached without telling stories (Mark 4:34).

That said, however, we must not give our people too much of a good thing. The story should introduce or bring together, illustrate or drive home the point of the sermon. It should not become the point of the sermon.  Story after story–even great unforgettable ones–cloud the subject and bury the listener under too much “stuff.”

3) We become overly scholarly.

When I was in college and beginning to grow spiritually, I loved it when a preacher would tell us the Greek word for this or the Hebrew word for that.

But not everyone feels that way.  Some people roll their eyes impatiently and practically hold their breath until the preacher gets past what they see as that little display of oneupsmanship. The pastor thinks he’s helping the congregation, and actually may be blessing several . But the overwhelming majority are ready to get into something that speaks to them.

Years ago, some preaching book suggested that once a year the pastor ought to deliver a knock-out sermon that is so deep theologically his people will never again question his ability to do so. It was meant seriously, but it’s a silly notion.  The pastor who sees the deeper things in the Word will not have to go out of his way to make the church members aware of his learning. It will come through in how effective a communicator he is, not by the obscure sentences he can speak or the strange words he knows.

The smarter a speaker is, the clearer he can communicate.

4) We give the hearers nothing practical.

Harry Emerson Fosdick is credited with telling preachers, “No one ever comes to church wondering whatever happened to the Jebusites.”

Those of us who love the details of history and the finer points of Bible exposition should keep this in mind. The people filling the auditorium, who are giving you their undivided attention for a full half-hour, have come to church for a hundred reasons–worship and fellowship being toward the top–but they will leave frustrated if the message does not give them some practical pointer on how to improve their lives.

This perhaps more than anything else accounts for the popular success of preachers like Joel Osteen.  Regardless what you think of him or his theology, give him credit for being an excellent communicator and for leaving his audience with specific things to do once they leave the arena.

5) We overlook lots of great stopping places.

I have sat in auditoriums and heard preachers deliver great messages and seen them undermine their own effectiveness by not knowing when to quit.

The preacher has held our attention for 20 or 25 minutes. He has really connected with the people, he has made his point and driven it home perfectly. Now is the ideal time to send us home on a high note. Instead, he drones on and on. He thinks of something else to add, perhaps a story he left out of an earlier point.He belabors the application. He tries to herd us toward the public invitation but keeps stalling as though he’s afraid no one will respond. So, he talks us to death.

The congregation begins to fidget. They know the sermon is over. In fact, everyone in the room knows it except the man behind the pulpit.

One of the hardest lessons for young preachers to learn is when the sermon ends, sit down. I guarantee you that doing so will impress many in the congregation better than any insight the message delivered.

6) The focus of the message is all over the place.

I’m guilty of preaching pointy-headed sermons. It’s far easier than you might think. Your text is a story in the Bible that lends itself to numerous applications. Because you love this story–and in your study you came across some great insights that have nothing to do with the central thrust of your message–you feel that to leave out any of its lessons and principles would be shortchanging your people.

So, you tell them everything you ever learned about Bartimaeus, the blind beggar of Jericho (Mark 10 and Luke 18), or the Gadarene demoniac (Mark 5), or the conversion of Saul of Tarsus (Acts 9, 22, and 26).  When church is over, all anyone can recall about the sermon is the name of the main character you preached about. If there was “one big idea” in the story, it was lost in the forest of points and sidepoints.

Is there a place for such a message? Yes. In an informal setting where you and others are studying the Word open-endedly, deal with everything.  When there is no attempt to build a unified lesson on a single theme, you and the class want to hear all that text has to say. From the others in the room, there is give and take, questions and answers, contributions and comments.

In a sermon in church, there is almost never any direct audience participation. This means the burden is on the preacher to keep matters clear, his principles relevant, his language focused, and the audience with him.

7) We take alliteration to the extreme.

Your sermon has 5 points and they all start with the letter P. Or seven points, all of them beginning with the letter R.

Why?

“It makes it easier for the congregation to remember,” a preacher says.

No, it doesn’t. It’s actually a distraction. Even a silliness.

There may have been a time–may have been!–when outlining sermons was made simpler and more memorable that way. But it is long past. These days, your people are puzzled at this little quirk of preachers, making all the bones of the sermon’s body identical.

In fact, outlines made up of words like “the principle, the power, the place, and the people,” are useless.  Even when church members are able to remember these words the next week, they still don’t have anything. Outlines are more effective when they embody positive principles and make full statements. (The 13 points of this article are full sentences that stand by themselves, although, as said above, we took the negative approach.)

8) We’re too wordy.

Some Facebook commenter accused preachers of “circumlocution.” I had to look up the word. It means talking a subject to death. I’ve done that.

Seven-year-old Holly Martin gave me a wonderful gift on one occasion when she turned to her mom and asked about something I was belaboring from the pulpit: “Mother, why does Doctor Joe think we need this information?” (Every preacher ought to be stopped halfway through his message and made to answer Holly’s question!)

Someone told me his grandfather once said to a young preacher, “Son, you ran out of soap but kept lathering!”

The teacher of preachers par excellence, Calvin Miller, who recently left us for Glory, would encourage ministers to take a central idea of the sermon, and then make every point relate to it. One idea, many aspects.

Looking over this article, I’m probably being too wordy. For one thing, 13 points is too many. And a paragraph on each should be enough. (In defense, let me say that writings are different from sermons. In a piece like this, you can quit reading at any time, get up and do something else, and come back to it later. Try that in a sermon.)

9) We rely too heavily on PowerPoint and those fill-in-the-blank outlines.

My pastor, Mike Miller, types his own PowerPoint notes to be displayed on the screen during his sermon. And, smart man that he is, he stays with a few basic points.

I’ve seen pastors plaster whole paragraphs of quoted material over the screen. The typical worshiper is overwhelmed by this, and if it continues, will zone out.

Twenty years ago, when pastors were handing their people outlines with spaces to be filled in, I did my share of that. Eventually, I gave it up for many reasons, chief among which was that I found it distracting.  If anyone was helped by it, I couldn’t tell.

Nor do I use PowerPoint for the same reason. In seminary classrooms when all the other professors are displaying their material on screens, I retain my dinosaur-status and refuse to do it. I like the eye-to-eye contact and reject anything that interferes with it.

I sometimes tell congregations, “Many of you like to take notes during sermons. Good. But may I say a word to you about what to write down. Don’t worry about writing my outline down. In fact, you can’t always find one in my sermons. Instead, write down anything the Holy Spirit tells you to. Write down something you want to remember or look up or do later.”

10) We bring in too much historical stuff.

I do love history. And the pastor who tells of something involving old Sennacherib or Nebuchadnezzar (or Napoleon or President Eisenhower, for that matter) has my undivided attention.

But a little of it goes a long way.

Enough said.

11) Our illustrations are so old, if Adam were to come back today, he would recognize them.

I suppose no one uses those old books of “one thousand sermon illustrations” any more. I hope not.

It’s been said that any incident which occurred more than 20 years ago is ancient history to the average person in the pew.  Twenty years ago? I was 52 years old! Man, that was like last week.

You can get by with an old story once in a while, preacher. Congregations are patient and tolerant with pastors they love. (And aren’t we glad!) But the stories that will rivet their attention speak of something recent, something you read about this week, a thing a child said to you last Sunday.

If, however, you do have a story from a half-century ago, may I make a suggestion? Don’t tell them when it happened. “Some time ago” or “One day” will date it sufficiently. The exception is when the dating of the incident is necessary to the story. In that case, go for it: “In the days when radio was king and everyone gathered in their living rooms at night to find out what was happening in the world….” “When I was a child, before hardly anyone had a television set, the kids in my neighborhood would play outside every night until dark….”

12) We can make the most exciting message in the world sound dull.

This may be the cardinal sin of preaching, to take Heaven’s good news and make it mind-numbingly boring.

That takes skill, but some of us manage to pull it off.

There are no sermon books to correct this problem. Nothing but prayer and a living, vital relationship with the Living God can drive out this demon.

The iron-clad principle to keep in mind goes like this: If, in your study, you find yourself bored with the message, it’s a sure bet your people will be bored with it, too. If this happens, stop your studying and drop to your knees and ask the Lord what He wants to do in this sermon. Whatever else we know of the preaching of Jesus, He was never boring. In Mark 3:20-22, we see three reactions to His preaching: a) crowds followed, b) his family accused him of insanity, and c) the opponents slandered him. That’s good preaching!

13) We lose ourselves in our material and forget all about the people sitting before us.

Okay, that’s thirteen points, a baker’s dozen, and we promised 12. Here in Southeast Louisiana, we call that “lagniappe,” a little something extra for good measure.

Imagine a drawing. The pastor stands at the pulpit preaching to a full house. Now, put the letter A beside the preacher, B on the pulpit, and C on the congregation.

If his focus is on “A,” the preacher is thinking about himself. If his focus is on “B,” his mind is all about the material he’s trying to convey. If the focus is on “C,” he is centered in his people and really connecting with them.

I can hear someone say, “You left out ‘D,’ the Lord Himself. We should be focused on Jesus.” And no one can argue with that.

However, for the sake of the point, let us assume the pastor is filled with the Lord Jesus, his sermon is about Jesus, and the congregation loves Jesus. So, the Lord is in it all. Now, the message-deliverer still has to make a choice, whether to center all his efforts in himself, in the notes in front of him, or in the people sitting before him with faces turned his way.

I vote for the latter.  Let the preacher focus on the people, see them as individuals in their sitting places. Let him notice what they are doing, whether their eyes are glazing over or they are passing notes or looking at their watches or are engrossed in his every word. He will quickly develop the ability, I’m betting, to preach and pray at the same time!

Finally, brethren.

A Facebook friend said she hates the way preachers will say “finally” several times as though they were winding up the message, and just keep right on. So, we will take the hint and stop.

There. God bless you, pastor. We love you and thank God for you. Don’t obsess about any of this stuff. Just get out there and give us and the Lord your best, and it will be enough.

4 thoughts on “What Preachers Do to Burden Their Hearers

  1. Very well done … I’m well past rerirement age .. and just recently re-entered the pastorate full time. I’ve seen all the pitfalls … probably stumbled into most of them.
    One other thought, not directly related here: And that concerns how we preachers can properly handle the matter of preaching messages that will give some answers to the wide range of needs and conditions present in the service on a given day. Such a study would be quite interesting.
    My little book, A JOY TO SHOUT ABOUT, is available at http://www.lucianrudd.com

  2. Thank you for writing this. I am going to share it on my Facebook page. It really hits home. I cant stand a wordy sermon and someone making his point five different ways before moving on to his next point and doing the same again and again until his 45 minute preaching time is up…. Its as if he has nothing to say so he does that to fill in teh time…… So annoying. I wish when we went to church we were doing something other than hearing an abundance of unnecessary words. How about we get to the point… Then get to planning how to help some widows and orphans…. Playing church for the sake of playing church makes me sick. Thank you for witting this.

  3. Hello old friend:

    I ran across my name in kind remembrance in your outstanding article on what Preachers do to Burden Hearers. i read everything i see that you have written because I know (1) It will be worth reading for its content. (2) It is well written.

    We are getting old, you and I; I want to see another book of yours out this year.

    Austin B. Tucker

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *