40 Lessons I’ve Learned About Preaching After My 400th Sermon

One of the joys of preaching is that it presents the challenge of getting better every week. Here are the top 40 ways I’m trying to raise my game based on the preaching experience the Lord has graciously provided me.

1. Progress. You don’t have everything about preaching figured out after 400 sermons. You’re just getting started. This short video does a great job of summing up what is going on in your first few hundred trips to the pulpit.

2. Feedback. Your best sermons are ones you get feedback on before you preach them. Let someone you trust go to town on your outline in the middle of the week.

3. Sin. You don’t have a sermon until you know what sin you’re preaching against. Until then, it’s either a lecture, or a devotional.

4. Pray, pray, pray.

5. Illustrations. The four keys to getting good at sermon illustrations are: 1) knowing where to find them, 2) knowing where to keep them, 3) knowing how to write them, and 4) lots of practice.

6. Yikes! Make sure your fly is up before you get up to the pulpit.

7. Manuscripting isn’t necessary, but the process of crafting it is very helpful. It clarifies your language and burns your message into your soul. The result is that you are less tied to your notes, not more.

8. Substance. Accurate exegesis and rich theology are the most important parts of your sermon.

9. Pre-application. Illustrations are second most important. You must use illustrations if you want to motivate people toward application. You don’t get motion, without emotion.

10. Titles. Don’t underestimate the importance of your sermon’s title, especially if you publish it on your website the week before you preach it (which you should do). The title of your sermon is your best shot at bringing in people who are shopping online for churches to visit.

11. Breadth. Preach through one book from every genre as early as you can in your preaching career. Like swimming, it reveals unexercised preaching muscles you never knew you had, and forces you to develop them.

12. Schedule. Figure out your best pace for sermon prep. Some guys go hard-core for a couple days at the end of the week. I prefer the crockpot approach of working in smaller chunks of time throughout the week.

13. Tricksy. Sermon prep shortcuts cut unction short.

14. Gospel. If you just preach the cross, you get a congregation of ascetics. If you just preach the resurrection, you get a congregation who expects success without sacrifice. If you just preach mission, you get an active congregation who doesn’t accomplish the Great Commission. Gospel-centeredness comes from preaching Good Friday, Easter, and Pentecost.

15. Frustration. Don’t take it personally when people don’t listen.

16. Eye contact. Don’t underestimate the power of sustained-to-the-point-of-feeling-awkward eye contact.

17. Work. Thomas Edison’s quote, “Genius is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration,” applies to preaching. Rarely does the sermon get zapped into your brain.

18. Your work. To tell your people, “Thus sayeth the Lord,” rather than, “Thus sayeth the commentaries,” you must do the work of handling God’s word for yourself.

19. Life experience. Your best applicational teaching will be what you have learned from long time experience, not what you just learned that week.

20. Trivia. 95% of the cool exegetical insights you gain during your prep will not make it into your sermon. But save them for later.

21. Procrastination. Half the battle of sermon preparation is getting started.

22. Criticism. You’ll say less in your sermon, not more, if you qualify everything. One sentence often does the trick for a theological connection, a punchy illustration, or a convicting insight.

23. Adaptation. Your sermon preparation constantly evolves. Never assume that you have it down.

24. Giftedness. Any preacher who does not eisegete and preaches the gospel is a good preacher. This is easy to forget in a celebrity-obsessed evangelical culture.

25. Precision. For us who preach from the Bible, our greatest sins are not usually what we do say, but what we don’t say.

26. Books. For preaching purposes, books on biblical theology tend to be more helpful than commentaries at the front end of preparing a series. I want to see more books like this and this published.

27. Book-ends. Your most important illustration is the one you open your introduction with. Second is the one you close your conclusion with.

28. Background. Preach the biblical text that is on the page. Don’t get bogged down in historical or cultural backgrounds. If you’re not careful, you will confuse the background with the foreground.

29. Hypothetical illustrations work much better for the preacher than they do the listeners. It’s convenient to create a situation that corresponds exactly to your point, but it lacks power because it isn’t real. Never start an illustration with, “Imagine if…”

30. Rules. Some homiletics rules were meant to be broken.

31. Rules. It takes a couple hundred sermons to figure out which rules exactly.

32. Rules. It takes another hundred sermons to figure out when, why, and how to break them the right way.

33. Rules. It takes yet another hundred sermons to appreciate those rules again.

34. Idolatry. Don’t find your identity in the quality of your sermons. It’s something that goes without saying, yet I constantly need it said to me.

35. Paper. Figure out your ratio of outline/manuscript pages to sermon minutes. For me, a 5 ½ page manuscript, or a 3 ½ page outline, is 30 minutes. Anything over that means I need to cut stuff out.

36. Communication. Each of your main points may be only a sentence in your outline, but it takes more than one sentence to get the point across to your audience. Take a short paragraph to state each main point.

37. Improvise. Some passages, by virtue of their unusual structure, demand that we preach them in an unconventional way.

38. Efficiency. It can take up to 30 minutes or more of fruitless study before you hit the “flow.” Avoid the temptation to shift to other tasks while you wait for “inspiration” to hit.

39. Application. If you give only corporate application, then your church will be missional, but lack piety. On the other hand, if you give only personal application, then your church will be godly, but lack vision and mission. Do both.

40. Continuing education. The conferences that help you become a better preacher are not the ones that only tell you what to do, but that force you to put it into practice. I can’t say enough good things about the Simeon Trust Workshops on Biblical Exposition.

What about you? What lessons are you learning right now? What tips do you have to offer? Drop them in the comments below!

(Image credit)

Comments

  1. Thanks Mc–great post. Levering told me to read this after I told him about a bad sermon and now I don’t feel so discouraged about being bad…and neither do I expect to get much better any time soon!

  2. Adam Tisdale says:

    What a great list…thank you for expressing these lessons. I have about 200 sermons under my belt, so I can see lessons that I have learned, need to learn, and hopefully will learn in time.

    Could you expand on #22? I’m confused by what you mean by the heading (Criticism) and the lesson learned. I am sure it is my dullness that causes my failure to understand!

    • Eric McKiddie says:

      Hey, Adam. What I meant was that we tend to qualify our statements in order to avoid criticism. But when we try to preach perfectly balanced sermons, we end up not saying anything powerful. So the lesson I was communicating was not to qualify your bold statements in order to avoid criticism. Let those bad boys fly, in a single, powerful statement.

      I hope I clarified that for you!

      • Adam Tisdale says:

        Yes, that absolutely does help. And, I have been guilty of doing this! I’ve found my people-pleasing tendencies and preaching don’t mix well. Thank you again.

  3. Great post! While reading this I was thinking about my particular situation. How do you stay fresh when you do not get to preach or teach very often? Right now, I have not preached since September 2010. The opportunities seem to come in waves, except this desert has lasted almost two years. It has been so long since I have been in front of a group of people that I am afraid that I will forget how to preach or that I will be more nervous than normal. Second question would be how to find/secure opportunities when they are not readily available in my current church. I am a seminary graduate with an M.A in Theolofy and Biblical Studies and a MDiv. Also I have been looking for opportunities for pastoral ministry since Jan of 2010 lots of submissions of resumes but no interviews.

    • Eric McKiddie says:

      Terry, thanks for posting your questions. I doubt I know your situation enough to give you informed feedback, but here are a couple things I would say, generally speaking. As to your first question, don’t be picky about your opportunities: teach children, small groups, convalescent centers, etc. If you prove yourself faithful and gifted in those little things, larger opportunities will present themselves.

      As for your second question, in my experience, jobs come through relationships more than resumes. Find ways to rub shoulders with new people and inquire about openings they know about.

      I know those aren’t magical formulas, but I hope they help.

  4. Great post, Eric. Here are two lessons I’ve learned recently:

    1. Don’t be afraid to spend a good chunk of time at the beginning engaging people. Present them with the problem that your text is going to solve. Get them on the edge of their seat desperate for answers. So many times I’ve had so much I want to say that I just dive right into the text and the exegesis.

    2. This is so cliche – but it’s so true. Pour into yourself spiritually. Then do it some more. Then do it some more. The most effective sermons and lessons are given from the overflow of what God is doing in your life.

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