The 10 Sermon Lessons They Didn't Teach Me in Seminary

May 11, 2016

The 10 Sermon Lessons They Didn't Teach Me in Seminary

Seminary was one of the richest experiences of my life. I still have friendships that began during those formative years. As grateful as I am for the professors who guided my transition from the business world into pastoral ministry, I have found that there are some lessons better learned in the field.

One area where I found this to be especially true was preaching. In my twenty-plus years of delivering messages I've gleaned some truths that have come from the hard knocks of experience. Not to say that my seminary training was in anyway incomplete or without value, but there are just some lessons you can't learn in a classroom. Here then, are the lessons that experience has taught me.

1.  When you are the least confident in a message, that is when your homiletics professor or pastor you interned under, decide to show up.

Every preacher will at some point struggle with a message. It's just natural, especially for those who are tasked with the majority of preaching in their churches. The grind of week in and week out sermon preparation makes it difficult to hit a home run every Sunday. On those particular weeks when I'm feeling the only thing holding a message together is lots of prayer, that happens to be the Sunday when one of my preaching mentors makes a surprise visit.

2.  The very message you feel will speak to a particular person or group, is the very Sunday they happen to be away.

There have been particular messages where I've thought to myself, So and so really need to hear this! I can even remember scanning the congregation only to be disappointed to realize that the person(s) most needing the message, aren't even there. Thankfully, with the advent of technology, there is hope they will catch the message through the podcast stream.

3.  Biblical illiteracy is actually much worse than I was told it would be.

I remember in my early years as a church planter being taken aback by the lack of biblical knowledge. I recalled an early lesson when I alluded to the story of David and Goliath in an offhand comment to reinforce an application. I was stunned by the number of people leaving the service who asked me going out the door, "Who's this David and Goliath?" Just recently I mentioned the Proverbs 31 woman, and you guessed it, I was challenged afterward that I needed to explain the reference. I really should know better.

4.  There are some topics that will unexpectedly freeze a room.

There are some topics that you would naturally anticipate will be difficult messages to deliver. Topics like hell, sexuality, and money are just to name a few. Others, on the other hand can come as a complete surprise. I remember giving a message on idols and off-handedly stated the modern idols of today are children and pets. I could not believe how quickly the room froze. It was as if a sudden polar vortex descended upon the entire building.

5.  There is a real physical, emotional, and psychological toll to preaching.

I'm still somewhat amazed at the extent in which a 30-45 minute message can exhaust you physically. Couple that with the emotional and psychological effects that linger on the Monday that follows a Sunday, and you have a two day emotional roller coaster. Most pastors struggle with their effectiveness in the pulpit, but add the dynamics of exhaustion and doubt, and you have a recipe for an ongoing struggle.

6.  The times I thought the message fell flat, are the times I got the best responses.

There are times when I thought a message didn't come across very well or get the traction it should have. Yet, despite the misgivings about my effectiveness, I was nevertheless surprised by the response the message received. I've had to be reminded time and again that its the Spirit of God that takes the message and touches the hearts as he sees fit. I'm simply the messenger. This doesn't mean that I'm careless or cavalier in my study and sermon preparation, but it does reassure me that it does not all depend on me.

7.  No matter how clear I thought a message was, there seemed to be someone who took away the exact opposite of what I meant.

One of the most surprising outcomes, that I never would have anticipated, is the way some people will get stuck on a particular point in a message. So much so, that they end up not really hearing the full breadth of your argumentation and actually end up believing they heard exactly the opposite of what you said. I admit this has been rare, but when it does happen it leaves me scratching my head.

Once, someone was leaving a service and just as they were going out the door thanked me for the message on something that did not even resemble what I had spoken on. I was fortunate to have a group within earshot who all gave me a look of incredulity at what they just heard.

8.  Good application is more difficult than good exegesis.

Let's face it, with the number of resources available today there is little excuse for bad biblical exegesis. The availability of outlines, insights, and passage overviews makes the task of outlining a message easier than it has been in the past. What I think is much more difficult is the applications we apply to the outline.

Here's the rub too, people are more drawn into a message by the application, not the outline. For me, this is what separates the great communicators from the average ones, because they have a way of making the text come alive, and its mostly done by their ability to make the text have meaning for the person sitting in the pew.

9.  Repetition and reinforcement is far more important than its given credit for.

I am a big advocate for sermon-based small groups. I believe they are one of the best discipleship tools that the church has at its disposal. One of the key lessons I've learned being in a small group and going through Sunday's message, is just how much people forget.

I can't tell you how intimidating it is to be in a group of people who heard you on a Sunday, and can't remember what you said on a Tuesday. It's made me intentionally repeat the major points as well as bring in visuals and stories that reinforce the truths I want to stick in people's minds.

10. If the message doesn't grip you, don't expect it to grip anyone else.

I don't think we fully comprehend how much personality becomes reflected in a message. That's just the natural interaction between speaker and audience. But the one element beyond that, is your conviction. People can sense if you truly believe what you are presenting. Gone are the days of data transfer and data dumping. People want transformational teaching and if they don't sense that in you, they won't see it as valuable for them.

Those are my experiences over the years. I hope these have been meaningful to you. I believe preaching is one of the great privileges we have so it's something I think we cannot be careless or cavalier about. For those of you who are called to deliver God's Word, may you be inspired week in and week out to make a difference in the lives of your church.

photo credit: MomMaven cap on books via photopin (license)

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