Q&A: How to avoid going awry with sermons

In their new book, What Not to Say: Avoiding the Common Mistakes That Can Sink Your Sermon (Westminster John Knox Press), authors John C. Holbert and Alyce M. McKenzie offer advice for avoiding common pitfalls in preaching.

Dr. McKenzie is professor of homiletics at Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University; Dr. Holbert, who retired June 1, is Lois Craddock Perkins professor emeritus at the seminary. Both are featured in an online companion video at http://holbertmckenzie.wjkbooks.com.

Staff writer Mary Jacobs recently spoke by phone with Dr. Holbert; here are excerpts.

Are there any common errors that United Methodist preachers tend to make?

We wrote the book as an attempt to address the sorts of things we have heard from students, from other preachers and even in our own preaching. These are endemic to the preaching task, and not limited to United Methodist pastors. Likely they’ll be familiar to any mainline preacher. We limited ourselves to a few generalizable areas: the stories preachers like to use in sermons; what preachers tend to say about God, the Bible, themselves or the people in their churches; and the shapes of sermons—how they begin, the middle and how they end.

What’s the biggest error preachers tend to make when preaching about the Bible?

One is to assume if you quote the Bible a lot, you’re doing a ‘biblical’ sermon. You’re not. The Bible was written over 1,500 years. There’s an enormous number of ideas, different claims and different ideas about God in the Bible, and all those things are so complex.

Often I’m asked to come to churches, and they’ll ask me, “Could you come and tell us what the Bible says about ‘family’?” Well, there aren’t any good families in the Bible. The most important figures in the New Testament are both single. Using the Bible is a real land mine. Preachers who quote the Bible in a sermon almost always tend to misuse the Bible. It’s better to simply focus on the text you have and don’t necessarily universalize from it. Don’t read Genesis Chapter 1, and then say, ‘Well, now we know everything there is to know about creation.’

In the book, you write that the beginning of a sermon should not be designed to gain attention. Why not?

You already have people’s attention. People read the bulletin. They know now it’s time for the sermon. They’re going to listen. But you can easily lose their attention if you haven’t designed the beginning to make it clear what you’re about to do. If I start in a story way—as in, “Once upon a time . . .,” they know what’s coming. They get their “story ears” on, which are different from their “logical ears” or their “philosophical ears.”

All you need to start a sermon is to have a good, sharp opening sentence. Sermon openings are promises. They promise about what you’re about to hear. You don’t have to grab attention. If I say “Isn’t it difficult, the way that neighbors deal with their neighbors?” then I’m announcing the subject and what the people in the pews can expect to hear from me.

The worst thing a preacher can do is tell a joke at the beginning.

Really? Don’t start with a joke? Why not?

It’s a waste of time. It’s a kind of Johnny Carson act. Humor is terribly important; I use it all the time. But the humor has to relate to the ideas you are talking about. Humor that’s superimposed on a sermon doesn’t work. You don’t start with a joke about a rabbi, an imam and a preacher who walk into a bar, unless it’s directly related to the issue of the day. It’s like those books with titles like 1,001 Short, Snappy Sermon Starters. I avoid those like the plague. I want to live out of my experience when I preach. Jokes are just cheap attempts to win the favor of a few chuckles.

Your book says that “the middle is where a sermon often goes bad.” Is there a rule-of-thumb or two for avoiding a flabby middle?

The middle is where sermons generally fall to pieces. One common pitfall is the “1, 2, 3 thing” where the preacher makes three points in the middle. The minute you do that, listeners have to work harder to make connections between ideas. Too many stories will confuse people, too. Maybe they’ll remember the end or the beginning, but all the stuff in the middle will get vague.

Every sermon needs to have only one idea, not two or three or four. When you have three points in the middle, that almost always means you really have three different sermons. You can use those for three weeks! But, it’s not easy to do a one-idea sermon. It’s much easier to play around with several sort-of-related ideas. But when you do that, people tend to remember the last thing you said and that’s all.

In the 21st century, people are no longer trained to listen to extended discussions. When you watch TV, there’s no argument; they’re just hurling one-liners at each other. To stand up in front of people for 15-20 minutes to preach, and expect people to pay attention—it’s really very hard. Preaching is harder now than it’s ever been. My own sermons tend to be 15-17 minutes, at the most. I just don’t think that people can hear any more than that.

How do you balance the need to keep people engaged, even entertained, with the need to challenge them to think more deeply about something?

That’s the hard thing about what it means to preach. You don’t have to be hilarious to be listenable. You don’t have to be a raconteur. But it helps. When people are having a good time, they pay attention.

You quote an expert who advises preachers to never use their own experiences in preaching. What’s the potential pitfall in doing so?

It’s not that you never use your own experience, but a constant portrayal of your own experience can be self-aggrandizing, especially if you tell stories where you turn yourself into the hero. I certainly have heard preachers who use the pronoun “I” too much.

I say to students, you should look back over your sermons from time to time and just see how often you used the pronoun “I.” We ought to think more about using the first person plural. Talk about what “we” struggle with or “our” relationship to God, for example.

If there’s one thing “not to preach” you’d like to leave with our readers, what would it be?

I would hope that preachers would be clear about what the gospel is. It’s the conviction that God loves us unreservedly and urges us to care deeply for all of God’s creatures. The issue of justice is the bottom of the thing for me and I would hope that preachers would really get that.


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The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
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The idea that 21st century people cannot listen to an extended discussion is disappointing and self-defeating. Many sermons I hear are superficial, repackaged "self-help" pop culture. Five minutes of that is too long. If a sermon is intelligent, thought provoking, and substantive, 15-17 minutes is too little of it. I came to faith from an unchurched background. I'm constantly dismayed at how shallow church leaders' messages are considering how rich, deep, and significant the material is they have at their disposal. Talk up to your congregants and perhaps they won't tune you out so quickly.

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