Every now and then you hear a sound bite that was intended for one context that oddly enough has immense applications to other areas as well. This recently happened to me. I was listening to Bono, the lead singer for U2, talk about some advice he got early in his career. The advice came from Bruce Springsteen and, loosely quoted, it went something like this: “Don’t ever allow yourself to be put in a situation where people have the option of turning the volume down on you.” Wow! Now that is some great advice—especially for how we deliver our sermons.
Some of you may be asking “How in the world does that have anything to do with preaching?” Well, let me share with you some observations that I have gained over the years. Due to my particular situation, I’ve had the opportunity to observe how different pastors deliver their sermons. It has especially given me the opportunity to learn how they often lose their congregations, sometimes even within the first several minutes of their messages. This often has dire consequences for those listening simply because once someone gets distracted from what we are saying, then regrettably there is no guarantee that we will be able to get them to re-engage with us. Consequently, I wish to provide 5 surefire mistakes that often cause us to unintentionally lose our audiences.
- Deaf by Review: Some pastors spend the first 10 minutes of their message introducing their sermon series. This is one of the best ways to get your congregation to stop listening to you and begin focusing on other things. Tragically, this is completely unnecessary. First of all, the majority of your congregation was in church last week; consequently, they already know what you said so why tell it to them again? Secondly, for the minority who weren’t in church last week (more specifically, your regular church members), you can’t really effectively relate to them everything you taught last week anyway, so why spend almost 20 to 30% of your time trying to re-teach it to them. Besides, many churches have their sermons online now, so if they wanted to catch up on what you preached about last week, then they would have already done so. And lastly, for most seekers and those who are visiting your church they generally don’t care about what happened last week. They don’t care precisely because they currently aren’t involved in your church, so why spend valuable time reviewing what they don’t really know a lot about to begin with? Doing so only gives them the opportunity to get confused about what you intend to say to them this week. The basic point is this; last week is old news, so don’t sacrifice your congregation’s precious time rehashing it. If you really feel the need to introduce your series, then you can effectively do so within 15 seconds and then move on to proclaiming the actual message that the Lord has given to you for those who are present this week.
- And Now a Word from Our Sponsors: Giving announcements before you start preaching is by far the easiest way to quickly lose your congregation’s attention. Announcements about upcoming events, generally speaking, are really only important to a minority of those listening to you, and if it is really important to them then they probably already know about it and will seek out the relevant information for themselves—regardless of what you feel the need to add while in the pulpit. I actually know a pastor that often gives announcements about particular ministries and events in the middle or near the end of his sermons—this is a profoundly ineffective practice. For example, if in the middle of your sermon you spend 5 minutes talking about some events involving the single adult ministry, then just consider all of the people who will begin thinking “this doesn’t relate to me.” Once that thought crosses their minds most of them will begin to tune you out, which means the majority of the youth, the young married couples, the married couples with children, and the retired married adults are no longer listening to you simply because you really aren’t talking to or about them. In other words the majority of your congregation will simply begin to stop listening to you. Consequently, going over specific announcements before or during your sermons is only adding a lot of white noise to your message, which also provides many in your audience opportunities to tune you out.
- And the History Teachers Says “Anyone? Anyone?”: I’m amazed at how many pastors believe that their congregations think that those who have been dead for hundreds of years are some how relevant to their every day modern lives. I know the adage that those who ignore the history are doomed to repeat it. I’m not talking about ignoring seminal movements and events of history. Instead what I’m referring to is the constant use of testimonies and events involving people who have been dead for centuries as examples real life modern illustrations. Most of the people in our audiences are not history buffs, they are more concerned with what Katy Perry, Lebron James, Anderson Cooper, Oprah, and Limbaugh are saying and doing. Take it from me, the moment you start talking about Calvin, Wesley, Luther, Augustine, or Aquinas some in your congregation start to get glazed eyes. And the more and more you talk about your dead heroes, then the more and more they start looking for their iphones. This is not to say that you can’t ever talk about them or quote them, but if your sermon illustrations only involve historical figures that have long since passed on, then you are for the most part boring people who spend their lives living in the 21st century. Many in your congregation don’t even know who some of them are or how they became famous in the first place. Moreover, most of those that actually do know them don’t think that they are all that relevant to today’s modern world. Consequently, many are wondering why you are even talking about them at all. Take it from me, I am a New Testament and church historian by training and profession, and even I sometimes get bored with hearing about them. You can just imagine what Joe the plumber, Suzy housewife, and Tina the teenager are thinking about as we blather on about those who that lived hundreds of years ago. Let me put it to you another way; who do you think your audience has most likely read from or listened to during the week—Ellen Degeneres, Jimmy Fallon, or Charles Spurgeon? I know that the truth is tragic; nevertheless, it is the reality of our modern world.
- Only 747’s Need Long Runways for Takeoffs: Believe it or not I’ve witnessed pastors spend nearly 15 minutes introducing their sermon, by which time even I’m looking for some scrap paper for doodling. This is probably the easiest habit to fix since most of us either write out or practice our sermons before giving them. So, if this is your habit and you find that you are taking more than 5 minutes with your introduction, then you need to find a new “hook” for getting your congregation’s attention. Generally speaking, the longer your introduction is, the greater the possibility of confusion and distraction. It’s just a fact. It’s probably even one of the laws of thermodynamics.
- From Simple Language to Irrelevant Complexity: This is a habit that especially drives me the crazy. I have even observed it from several popular pastors, and I regularly get it from the students in my classes. I can’t tell you how often I hear a pastor take a rather clear and simple dialogue found in a biblical narrative and turn it into some complex systematic theological statement or completely unrelated political diatribe. And in order to do so these pastors and students exhibit some of the most amazingly inane hermeneutical maneuvers that in the end leave the average person in the pew completely confused, dazed, and saying under their breath, “What in the world?” A few pastors think they are impressing some in their congregation—and regrettably they are. However, most that are listening are getting lost in the proverbial fog, which inevitably leads them to stop listening and wander off into their favorite daydream, or begin wondering what’s for lunch. What is most ironic about this practice is that I’ve watched pastors pass over some otherwise obviously relevant and meaningful applications for their modern audiences in order to race off to their pet theologies or political positions. Pastors who preach in this manner inevitably begin to sound like Charlie Brown’s 3rd grade teacher rather than vibrant channels through which God regularly speaks to their congregations. And the more pastors do this type of eisegesis, the more they condition their congregation to just tune them out.
Well, these are some common mistakes we sometimes make that can be easily avoided. Regrettably, many congregations have been conditioned to tune out whoever enters the pulpit. I can’t tell you how many times I entered a pulpit and saw someone already asleep with their head back and the mouth wide open. I never took it personally since it was obvious that they never gave me a chance to begin with; but who knows, maybe my reputation preceded me. Nevertheless, the truth is that we are the ones that have conditioned many in our churches to tune us out simply because we have either unintentionally sidetracked them before we actually started preaching, or because we have gotten into the habit of not being faithful to God’s word in the first place. It’s we who have conditioned those in our ministries to turn down the volume on us, and now many are completely tone deaf to our poor and irrelevant musings. Consequently, the only thing that has the ability to renew their hearing and cut deeply into their hearts is the scriptures. We only have 30 to 45 minutes once a week to be used by God to impact them for the cause of Christ, so for crying out loud let’s jettison all the distracting white noise and get them into God’s life changing word.
Submitted by Dr. Monte Shanks.