Sermon Tips That Can Help Just About Everyone Be a Better Preacher

Mike 2I get it. Each week it seems like you can’t find enough time to prepare a sermon for Sunday. Thinking about ways to be a better preacher is to overwhelming, because you can barely get from one Sunday to the next with another passable sermon, let alone carve out time to think about how to be a better preacher.

But one of the most important responsibilities of a preacher is to explain and communicate the Bible in a helpful way. Certainly there is a spiritual component to that where God works in ways we don’t often understand. However, God in his wisdom has also decided to work through the skill and effort of the preacher. So it stands to reason that we should view preaching as a craft and find ways to do it better.

Here are seven tips that will help just about everyone be a better preacher. And since I know you don’t have a lot of time, just pick one or two to try out in the next couple of weeks.

1) Slow down

One of the biggest critiques people have of my own preaching is that I go too fast. When you preach, you always will think you are talking slower than you really are. So if you think it’s a good pace, it’s probably too fast. Try slowing it down to the point where you think it’s too slow. In addition, try pausing about five seconds every time you say something you really want people to remember.

2) Study longer

I know this one might make you groan, especially if you feel like you’re strapped for time. But when you understand and believe what you are preaching, your delivery will go better. In fact, if you make a habit of not allowing yourself to start writing your message until you’ve studied a bit longer than you normally would, you’ll likely find that actually writing your message will take less time.

3) Watch yourself

Yeah, I know: it’s painful to watch video of yourself preaching. But the reality is that you are your harshest critic, and if you watch your messages (or at least listen if your church doesn’t record video), you’ll come up with at least a few things that are distracting to your audience you should stop doing immediately.

4) Ask someone to critique you

This one’s also pretty painful, at least if you find someone honest enough to do it well. But if you want to be a better preacher, why not ask someone to evaluate you who actually has to sit through your sermons. Extra credit: Ask someone who doesn’t go to church to watch or sit in on a message and give you some feedback.

5) Work ahead

If you find that you usually run out of time when trying to prep your sermons, why not try working on them more than a week in advance? Working ahead will allow time for God to shape ideas in your mind and heart, and you’ll be more creative. You’ll also have more opportunities to bounce ideas for messages off of other people, rather than locking yourself in your office at 9pm on Saturday night to try to crank a sermon out.

6) Don’t preach so often

If you’re a solo pastor at a small church, I know this one sounds impossible. But no matter the size of the church you serve, there are other people with whom you can share the pulpit. Taking a week off of preaching at least every other month—if not every month—is a great way to get ahead on sermon preparation and be refreshed.

7) Focus on one point

We’ve all done it at one time or another: preach a handful of sermons in one, single Sunday message. Every one of the five points you make might be true, and each one might even make an impact in someone’s life. But no one in the room—including you—will remember all five points on Monday morning. In addition, you won’t have done justice to any one of those points. Whatever text you are preaching from, focus on one thing God is prompting you to preach on. If you find you could talk forever on three or four things from that text, great news: you’ve got yourself a three- or four-week sermon series.

 

What else would you add to this list?

Two Unlikely Enemies of God-Honoring Ministry

Enemies

Last week, my reading plan took me to Mark 14:3-9, which describes a woman (identified as Mary in John) who anoints Jesus using a very expensive jar of perfume. It is a passage I have read and heard many, many times. Mark reports that some at the gathering were indignant that a three-hundred-denarii jar of oil—worth 300 days of wages for a day laborer—was wasted on such an elaborate display of affection toward Jesus. They would have rather, we are told, the “ointment of pure nard” be sold and spent on the poor.

When I have encountered this story in the past, my attention has typically been on the hypocrisy of Judas Iscariot. John tells us that his reason for protesting the “waste” of the oil was not because of his concern of the poor, but because he made a habit of lining his own pockets with money from the disciples’ common treasury. (We are not told whether the other disciples’ motives were pure or not.) For me, it has always been a simple story of Mary choosing to honor Jesus in a significant and sacrificial way, something that we need to remember is just as important as loving the poor in word and in deed.

But this time, I saw something else in the story. As I read it and re-read it, I could not shake the feeling that I have far more in common with the disciples in this story than I would like to admit. Clearly they did not have the right attitude, especially in comparison to Mary’s. But what was it about their attitude that wasn’t right? As I thought about it, I realized their negative reaction to Mary’s act of worship revealed two road blocks to Christ-centered ministry. These road blocks are so significant, I think, that we really ought to call them enemies of Christ-centered ministry. Here they are:

1) Practicality

It’s human nature to be practical. I love talking about theology and philosophy of ministry, but at the end of the day, I usually choose the course of action as a leader that I think will “work.” And that’s not usually a bad thing. When you read the accounts of Paul’s ministry travels in Acts and his epistles, there is a very practical side to his planning. In ministry, it would be unwise for me to not try to develop a strategy that I think is practical. This fall when we planned our fall Small Group Connect event where people can get into a new small group, I chose the date and time I thought would allow the most people to attend possible.

But I also know that I’m often guilty of only being practical when it comes to ministry. When I focus just on what is practical and what “works,” I start to rely on myself and my own wisdom rather than God’s. In addition, I also forget to step back and ask God to show me what he is doing from his point of view. I think that’s why the disciples were so upset—at least those not named Judas Iscariot. When they saw what Mary did, they only could see what ministry could be done for 300 denarii. But Mary was doing something different. This wasn’t just an act of worship; Mary was preparing Jesus’ body for burial, foreshadowing the suffering he was about to experience for her and for the others in the room. Mary’s move was anything but practical; but from God’s point of view it made perfect sense.

The way this usually shows up in ministry is when we try to copy what’s working for other churches and ministries, or when we try to recreate past successes. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not trying to say it’s bad to learn from the wisdom of others who have been there. However, when we try to replicate something that someone else has done only because it “worked” for them, we’re really only thinking about the results of ministry, rather than asking God what he wants to accomplish through us.

2) Efficiency

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines efficiency as “the ability to do something or produce something without wasting materials, time, or energy.” In other words, efficiency is getting from Point A to Point B using the fewest resources or the least time.

Most leaders love efficiency. Since I live in the nonprofit world, anything that can be done in less time for fewer financial resources is usually considered a positive. Being a good steward of resources in this way is a part of pastoral leadership. However, there are times when being efficient isn’t necessarily the best—or right—thing to do.

Those who witnessed what Mary did considered her act a waste of resources. Her choice to use expensive perfume in such a way scored pretty low on the Return on Investment scale. If she wanted to honor Jesus in some way, surely she could have chosen a different method that was a more efficient use of resources!

But sacrifice isn’t always efficient.

There are times when following Jesus means not taking the shortest distance from Point A to Point B. And there will be times when loving others involves spending all day with one person when you could have used that time to tackle several other ministry-related tasks. Faithful ministry rarely resembles pinpoint precision or a well-oiled machine.

I’ve found that efficiency is often an enemy of ministry. This isn’t a call to be disorganized or careless. Rather, it’s a call to rely on God’s roadmap and God’s plans rather than our own. Perhaps the reason God’s plans don’t always seem very efficient to us is because he has all the time and resources he needs to accomplish his will.

Three Statements that Can Wreck Your Leadership

Attitude is a funny thing. How we view the world—and the things that the people we lead perceive that we value—is shown in small interactions over a long period of time. For instance, it doesn’t matter how often a CEO of a retail chain says that he values the customer; if his conversations and small, daily choices show otherwise, those around him who know him best understand what he really values.

The things that we talk about and the things that we say in the small moments reveal what we really value. It could be that what you’re communicating in those small moments is that what you really value is…you. These three statements—if you say them too often—have the potential to wreck any positive influence you have on the people you lead.

“I did”

There’s nothing wrong with a deep satisfaction about something you worked hard to accomplish. When you put some hustle and sweat into a project or initiative, it feels good when it actually works out the way that you hoped. But if most of your statements out of your mouth are along the lines of “I did,” you might be taking most of the credit for something that was a team effort. If you want to chip away at your team’s morale, start taking too much credit for yourself rather than giving it to your team. In addition, “I did” statements in ministry fail to give credit where it’s really due: to the One who works in the hearts of the people you are serving, and who enabled you to do what you do in the first place.

“I am”

When you’re the leader of a department, organization, or local church, it can be tempting to frequently remind others that what you say goes because, well, you’re the one in charge. When you rely on your position or title to motivate others—especially when that title allows you to decide who keeps their jobs—you’re not really leading people; you’re just scaring them. “I am” statements that point to your credentials or title don’t inspire or influence people. They just remind people that they have to do what you say, even though they don’t want to.

“I will”

Confidence is a must in a leader. But overconfidence in yourself, your talents, your ability to control all future events comes across as a lack of humility. “I will” statements communicate that you are more interested in your own success than the success of your team. In addition, and “I will” attitude tries to take control of our future from God, who is the only who is really sovereign over our future, anyway.

Instead, try:

  • We did…
  • We are…
  • We will…

And better yet:

  • God did…
  • God is…
  • God will…

A Three-Step Guide to Communicating Change

Drawing sketchIf you’re a leader, chances are you like to create change. Casting vision—dreaming of a better future—is simply a part of leading a team, organization, or local church.

The thing is, a lot of people don’t like change.

Or at least, they think they don’t like change.

To most people, change is scary. And if you’re leading an organization, there have likely been times when you’ve been frustrated by people who seem to cling to the past instead of dreaming of a better future. When we experience push back when we try to incite change, we often blame people for not wanting change.

Maybe that’s the wrong approach. Because in reality, it’s often our fault as leaders that people resist change, not those who seem to be opposing our ideas. Sure, there will always be people who are diametrically opposed to any change, just because that’s what they do. But that’s not how most people are. In fact, most people are actually open to change.

So why do you seem to get so much resistance when you suggest change?

To put it bluntly: you might be doing it wrong.

Chances are, when you’ve tried to enact change in an organization or a team, it was a good idea. You likely thought it out, sought input, spent time in prayer.

Then you announced the change. And you didn’t get the response you hoped for.

When a leader receives a lot of pushback about a proposed change (assuming it’s a good idea and a change for the better), here’s the reason that’s usually in play: The leader announced the what before the why.
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Leadership: Making Decisions vs. Solving Problems

a missing piece in a square built from tangram pieces, a traditiWhat does it mean to be a good leader?

A common perspective on leadership is that a leader’s role is to make the right decisions, and the best leaders are simply those who make the best decisions. In this scenario, the leader’s team—the people who work for the leader—are to carry out the leader’s decision to the best of their ability. The team may have freedom to pass along information and perhaps even opinions to their leader, but ultimately the decision rests on the leader alone.

There really isn’t anything inherently wrong with this approach to leadership. In fact, this approach is absolutely necessary in some situations, such as a crisis when immediate action is needed and there is little time for debate or extensive gathering of data.

But is this framework the best for leading a team on a regular basis? On the surface, it sounds like a great setup; all the leader has to do is to make more right decisions than wrong ones, and the future is bright, right?

The problem with an approach to leadership where one or a few people at the top make all the decisions is that it is based on a flawed assumption, namely that the people who work under the leader have very little capacity and desire to be leaders in their own right. In an organization where being a leader means making decisions and all the decisions are made by just one or a handful of people, there are only a few leaders; everyone else is assigned their tasks to carry out.

But that’s not the ideal, right? As leaders, Even in a church setting that utilizes hundreds of volunteers, don’t you hope that among your volunteers are high-capacity leaders who have the ability to impact their environment in a positive way?

Again, there are times when a decision needs to be made and it falls on the leader, for better or worse. That’s what it means to lead a team sometimes. However, making most or all of the decisions may not be empowering your teams to be the best team members and leaders they can be.

So as leaders when we are faced with a problem or an obstacle, maybe our focus shouldn’t be on just making the right decision. Let me suggest a different paradigm: Instead of being decision makers, maybe we should instead be problem solvers.

Not sure about the different between the two? Let me explain.

Problem solving invites people into the process.

When a team’s leader is simply a decision maker, then the team’s job is to simply carry out orders. At best, the team is allowed to have some input on decisions. At worst, the leader is a Moses figure who ascends to a mountain—or their office—and descends only to declare their revelation. The key to problem solving is that it’s almost impossible to do well on your own. Approaching leadership as a problem solver invites people to help find a solution that the team gets credit for. Of course, it’s possible to solve problems on your own without a team, but at that point, what you’re really doing is reverting to deciding how to solve a problem on your own and telling your team how to carry out your plan.Continue Reading

Reaching Your Community: Short-Term Mission Trip or Sold-Out Missionaries?

Vector horizontal illustration of big city and skyscrapers with clouds sky.

In the last generation or two, the primary way that churches and ministry leaders in our (Western) culture have attempted to reach people who don’t yet know Jesus has been to build strategies around an “If you build it, they will come” approach. The church building was the hub, and we only had to wait for people who wanted to know about Jesus to come and find us.

I’m not saying that such an approach was never effective. However, the approach reveals something about how Christians have tended to think about our place in American culture, and still do to some extent: to do ministry well, we have to get people to come to us.

Here’s the question: Is that paradigm the way we’re supposed to reach people?
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Five Ways to Reach Your Goals in the New Year

GoalsIt’s a new year. As many are quick to point out, there’s not much different this week than last week—other than that most of us have gone back to work. But it’s a new year nonetheless, and it’s a great time to reflect on the past and what you hope to be different in the future.

The way most of us attempt to shape our future is to set goals. Whether you’ve written them down or not, chances are you’re heading into the new year with some goals in mind. Maybe you had some goals last January, too, and you’re not quite sure what happened to them. How can you make sure that your goals won’t be lost in the noise of life in 2016?

Pray.

Yeah, I know; this is the Jesus-y one. But think about it this way: If you’ve got goals for the future, shouldn’t they be a part of the time you spend with the One who holds your future? Or maybe you’re like me, and your goals are sometimes borne out of selfish ambition rather than a desire to serve. Any goal that’s worth it’s salt deserves at least a mention on your prayer list.Continue Reading

Manage the Christmas Chaos

ChristmasChaosIf you’re a pastor or ministry leader, December is fun, right?

Unfortunately, most ministry leaders I’ve run into don’t feel that way. In fact, most people I know in vocational ministry look forward to the last week in December when they finally get some breathing room.

It’s not that we don’t love Christmas or what it stands for. And most pastors are genuinely excited for the people who will be coming to a Christmas Eve service who need to hear that God loves them and how Jesus’ coming and eventual death is a very real picture of that love.

But even when things are going well, most of us are relieved when December 25th is behind us. And if things aren’t going well—in ministry, in our family, or just in our hearts—December can feel like a marathon we never wanted to run.

And it shouldn’t be that way.

Could it be different? I think so (and I say that as someone who has also been overwhelmed in December). But it takes intentionality, and it takes work. I don’t think Jesus intended the celebration of his birth to be the cause of stress and even burnout for those who lead his Church. Here are some things we can do differently in the weeks leading up to the celebration of Jesus’ birth:Continue Reading

How to Recruit and Keep the Best Volunteers

Young man consulting his business partner at meeting in office

Every ministry leader has felt it: The panic of not having enough volunteers for an event or program.

Or maybe you’ve got the volunteers, but they aren’t engaged and don’t show up on a regular basis.

No one told me when I started out in ministry that leading volunteers would be such a big chunk of my job. In my current position, the team I lead includes one part-time staff member and almost 150 volunteers. Since I lead our church’s small groups, we literally could not do what we do in small groups without great volunteers.

Yet I remember hearing very, very little — if anything – about leading volunteers in any seminary classes or leadership books I read when I first started out in ministry. And to be honest: most of what I’ve learned about leading volunteers I’ve learned the hard way.

Whether you need a handful of volunteers on your team or you lead hundreds of volunteers, your life would probably be a lot less stressful if you had more volunteers who were committed to being consistent and helpful in their role, right? Here are a few ways you can recruit and keep more of the best volunteers:

Don’t recruit people to complete a task; recruit people to realize a vision.

The best volunteers want to make a difference. When you recruit people just to do one task, you’ll get people to do that task. But when you recruit volunteers to accomplish a huge goal, you’ll get people who love using their gifts to create something incredible. Show people a compelling vision, you’ll get people who will do everything they can to help it become a reality.Continue Reading