3 Cardinal Sins of Preaching and How to Avoid Them

Stephen Radford

It’s not just enough to preach. You have to preach well. What defines a good and effective sermon is for many a moving target, and so this blog will hopefully spark a creative and constructive debate on how to best effectively preach the Word of God. This particular post assumes that your sermons are based on and built off of the Bible. But just because you’re preaching the Bible (and the vast majority of preachers do so) doesn’t mean that your sermons are automatically effective. Here are three cardinal sins of preaching and how you can avoid them:

1. Giving the answer before people ask the question. If I introduced myself and immediately started my conversation with you by telling you the answer to a complex math problem that I had been working on, that’s great for me but it holds no weight for you. You don’t care about math and you don’t concern yourself with complex math problems. When we start the sermon immediately with the Scriptural text, “Let’s start by reading Matthew 5 together,” you’re immediately going for the answer before the people feel the full weight of the problem that the answer solves (that’s the fatal mistake too many preachers make). How to avoid this cardinal sin is to build tension into the beginning of your message. Typically done with a series of questions or purposeful statements, building tension gets people to buy in. The point is to get people to care about the answer (from Scripture) as much as you do. To do that you first have to help people feel the weight of the problem.

2. Assuming people know what you’re talking about. It’s so easy to do this. Most preachers do this subliminally. While preaching through a text, other biblical stories and references will come to your mind because of your deep saturation in the biblical text. And so you’ll throw out an aside during the middle of a message: “this isn’t that different from the story of Samson and Delilah” or “this reminds me of the time Peter tried to walk on water.” You’ll throw out those references and move on, assuming that most people know those biblical stories. Increasingly they don’t. Biblical literacy is reaching historical lows, and we as communicators need to ensure all of our biblical references have background and context. When you preach through a letter written by the Apostle Paul, don’t just assume that everyone knows who Paul was and why his conversion was significant to the early Christian movement. Give people background and context. Assume they don’t know all the biblical stories.

3. Preaching at them instead of talking to them. This one is harder to gauge but that doesn’t make it any less real. It’s too easy to hide behind the safety of the pulpit and simply preach truth, not concerning yourself where that truth lands. The easiest way to preach is to lecture, to preach at them, to give them the truth and leave it up to them to figure out how to apply it. The better way to preach requires the hard work of relationships, of empathy, of application, which is why too few preachers go that extra mile. Your messages should come across less like a seminary lecture and more like an informal conversation over coffee. Folksy doesn’t have to mean shallow. Preach in a way that is authentic and relational. Don’t preach at them, talk to them. If you care more about the text than the people you’re charged with preaching to, they will know. As John Maxwell is famous for saying, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

If this post has sparked your interest here are two other posts where I discuss the fine art of preaching:

7 Key Ingredients to a Transformative Sermon

5 Practical Ways to Preach More Effective Sermons for the Non-Believers in Your Audience

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