5 Mistakes Pastors Make When Choosing Sermon Material
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I hate the way these things work, but it is what it is. I’ll write something such as “the three best decisions I ever made in the ministry” and few people will bother to look at it. But come out with “the worst decisions” or “the meanest deacon” or “my biggest regret” and it gets all the attention. Human nature, I suppose.
Motorists slow down to gawk at the wreck on the highway, but no one bothers to study the driver who did well. Obviously.
So, rather than announce “five great decisions preachers make in choosing sermon material,” we will talk about errors. I hope you find encouragement in knowing that I’ve made all these mistakes, so I can pass on the lessons.
Here are five that come to mind. Only five you might ask? Answer: One can make these articles only so long.
1. “I had this great idea.”
Good for you. Great ideas are often the product of a fertile, imaginative mind. I hope you have one. It’ll come in handy along the way.
The best way to see if that “great idea” was from the Lord is to administer two tests: Time and Scripture.
Time: let it marinate.Reflect on it. Jot down notes that occur to you.
Then, Scripture: ask yourself if there are scriptures that speak to that issue, whether anyone in the Bible illustrates its lessons, positive or negative.
A great idea could well be the spark leading to a great sermon. Or not. Wait on the Lord. As the song says, “See what God hath done.”
2. “This is a huge conviction of mine.”
Caution signs should be erected around your convictions. Those things are not to be the main body of what you preach. Preach the Word.
The preacher who cannot tell the difference between political convictions and God’s Word is in trouble, and will pass it along to the congregation.
I suspect there are a lot of pastors out there today filling their pulpit time with sermons on politics and politicians, Democrats and Republicans, impeachment and exoneration, all because the pastor “has these convictions.”
We say about your convictions what the Lord told the preachers of Jeremiah’s day concerning their dreams: “Whoever had a dream may preach it; but whoever has the Word of God should preach that. After all, what does straw have in common with grain?” (Jeremiah 23:28)
3. “I preached two years in 1 John.”
I’ve known more than one pastor who did this. Lord help the congregation. They are to be pitied.
The pastor who spends a year or more on one book of the Bible will bog his preaching down in minutiae and his people in quicksand. No one will ever love 1 John again, I guarantee. Let the next pastor announce he’s beginning a series on 1 John and they will head for the doors. The previous pastor forever inoculated them against loving that wonderful little epistle.
In the same way, I doubt that preacher will ever want to preach through that book again. Even with a file cabinet full of material, the very idea will seem burdensome.
It’s not necessary to do it. There are ten thousand better choices. Ask the Father. He is the Source of good sermons.
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4. “I decided to preach through the entire Bible.”
It can be done, but it has to be done right and well. And not all preachers can pull this off.
For one thing, even though it’s all God’s Word, it is not all created equal.
For example, the United States of America is a great country and lovely in a thousand ways, but part of it is desert. Even that has its beauties and its life, but it is not to be compared with the glories of the rich Mississippi Valley, the delights of the western coastline, or the majesty of the Rockies.
There are pastors who boast that they have preached on every verse in the Bible. I ask one question: Where in the New Testament do you find anyone doing that? Where do you even find the authorization to do such? Where in the NT does it urge us to preach through every OT book? Sure, you can find a few sermons from the more obscure books, but we should not burden our people—or force our preaching into this—by a verse-by-verse study of every book of the Bible.
Some of my generation began preaching through the Bible a half-century ago when W. A. Criswell of Dallas announced that he was doing it. If anyone was well-qualified to do it, Criswell was the man.
But the typical pastor who heard him was not.
These days, I hear of pastors bringing one or two sermons on each book of the Bible. I suspect they know their limitations and the capacity of their people.
5. “I read a great sermon and decided to preach it.”
Hold on just a minute here, preacher. You heard someone else do a great job and that inspired you, yes. It encouraged you to give your best to studying more, praying harder, and preparing better to deliver your own sermons. But please don’t preach someone else’s sermon just because it was great. That’s his sermon, not yours. God gave it to him, not to you.
It’s very possible–likely even–that God can and will use that sermon to inspire your sermon, motivate you, and enrich your own sermon.
But there is no Scriptural precedent or allowance for one preacher entirely copying what another preached.
These are five of many likely and understandable errors—in my judgment alone—that pastors make in choosing sermon material. Each of us will have our own list of ways we got it wrong or have seen it abused.
In the Jeremiah 23 passage cited at the beginning of this article, the Lord said something to those false (or lazy) preachers that all of us pastors today would do well to hear:
I have not sent these prophets, yet they ran. I have not spoken to them, yet they prophesied. But if they had stood in My counsel, and had caused My people to hear My words, then they would have turned them from their evil ways, and from the evil of their doings. (Jeremiah 23:21-22)
Therefore, behold, I am against the prophets who steal my words every one from his neighbor, who use their tongues and say, ‘He says.’ (Jeremiah 23:30-31)
That’s the idea. Get into the Word and never leave it.
Pastors go through so much material, particularly if they are preaching two or three sermons a week, that “feeding the appetite” can become the problem. So, an idea presents itself, you think of a good illustration and a couple of scriptures, and you’re off.
Surely, you think, this was the Lord’s will since He knows what you are doing, is responsible for your doing it in the first place, and after all...don’t you continually ask Him to show you what to preach? Isn’t this obvious it’s His will? Maybe so, maybe not.
Check with Him. Wait for His approval.
The bottom line for me is to always feel conviction on this: that what I am declaring before any congregation is the message that the Living God gave me for that day. Nothing else is so important.
Joe McKeever has been a disciple of Jesus Christ more than 65 years, been preaching the gospel more than 55 years, and has been writing and cartooning for Christian publications more than 45 years. He blogs at www.joemckeever.com.