I’ve been in full time youth ministry since 2011, and have been working with students in a paid capacity at Fellowship Bible Church since 2008. That means I’m working through my 12th year with Fellowship Students, which is hard to believe.
In that time, between Wednesday night services, chapels, outside speaking engagements, camps, retreats, and things like that, as of right now I have had the opportunity to preach right around 300 times to rooms with anywhere from 10 to 1000+ people. These don’t count what we call “Service Pastoring” type moments (hosting events, prerecorded video elements, etc.).
Let’s look at some numbers for that real quick, and just ballpark it low at 275. In reality, I didn’t start regularly speaking until I was full time, so we’ll just factor numbers from 2011.
275 speaking engagements.
With an average message time of 30 minutes, some hard math means that’s around 137 hours and 30 minutes on stage, communicating.
In my early years, sermons took me a long, long time to research, outline, write, cut, and prepare. I do my studying and prep in spurts, and my writing in one sitting, so it’s hard to quantify the time. But, my best guess is that I’ve spent somewhere between 5200 and 5700 hours in sermon prep since August 2011.
I would argue I am far from an expert, but preaching and communicating is something I love dearly, and want to see done well.
In that time, I’ve had some coaches and mentors identify some major oversights and mistakes in my preaching, and give me some game-changing warnings before mistakes were made.
I would love for other communicators to grow from my mistakes and learn from their wisdom. So here is part one of the list of 10 major mistakes in preaching and public speaking.
Disclaimer: 99% of my communication context is in a church and/or theological setting. That being said, rules of public speaking aren’t limited by that, so even if you aren’t in my context I think these tips apply.
Ignoring Part of the Room
Whether you’re on stage, in a classroom, or in a living room, you will likely have a portion of the room you favor.
I sent a video of one of my messages to a trusted friend a few years ago and his first comment was, “You never look to stage right. I think it’s because when you’re looking out in the room, you keep your notes at 2:00. Move them to 4:00 to force you to open up to stage right more.”
Ever since then, I’ve drastically changed where I keep my notes, with the sole purpose of forcing me to address a part of the room I was previously unintentionally ignoring.
Wherever you’re speaking, make sure there isn’t a part of the room you don’t address or face.
Too Tied to Notes
If you don’t think your content is important enough to know, why should your audience?
There are a few communicators I know who do a fantastic job using a manuscript. I learned long ago that I’m not one of them.
I write an outline for each sermon, script out a manuscript so I can think through transitions, points, and key takeaways, and then have a second outline out of that. That final outline is what I take on stage with me.
All they contain are intro points, verse references, key sentences, and prompts for what comes next.
They’re trigger points to launch the next “block” of the content. By the time I’m on stage, I need to have owned the content well enough to not have to be owned by my notes.
Abrupt Elevation Changes
When we’re talking about the flow of a service, our team uses language of “an emotional airplane.”
At the beginning of service, we have to have a quality takeoff.
At the end, we need to land the plane well.
In between, there are all kinds of elevation changes based on the energy and emotional level of the room.
Here’s what this means for the speaker/communcator/preacher…Things are happening before and after your content. You have to be sensitive to where you’re taking controls of the plane and how you hand them off.
In the context of preaching, are you up after a high energy song that ends with a huge rise and lots of celebration? We’d call that mid-high altitude. You can’t come on stage and kick off your time with a somber, reflective prayer at low altitude. That drop in energy and emotion is going to be too jarring.
Is the song after your message going to be repentant and reflective with a slow and low flight? Make sure you’re message doesn’t end high and jovial right before dropping to low altitude.
Match the energy, match the emotion, aim for smooth transitions.
If it isn’t your story, don’t use it.
If it isn’t your illustration and you’re still going to use it, give credit where credit is due.
In the world of student ministry, there are tons of quality curriculum options out there and a lot of places that provide pastors with sermons to save them time. When it’s content provided with the intention of being used by other people, that’s one thing. Used well, that’s a huge win.
When you listen to another speaker’s content and decide it fits for you because “This content is great and no one will know,” that’s when the line is crossed.
What’s the worst that could happen? In my context, a student could hear me use a sermon from a church’s podcast and if I don’t cite where I got the content, it cheapens anything else I’ve ever said.
If what I said then wasn’t original to me, how do they know any of the rest was?
A friend of mine who spent a decade traveling and speaking told one of his go-to illustrations in a city he’d never been to before. A student came up after and accused him of stealing his youth pastor’s content and left upset and frustrated. In reality, my friend was the one who developed that content, but he had lost all credibility with that church’s youth group…all because the youth pastor had stolen content and led his students to believe it was his.
Don’t steal, and if you’re going to borrow, give credit where credit is due.
My students know it’s my favorite thing to “nerd out” on Biblical context when we’re walking through a passage. I love digging into nuances and references within a passage that make it come to life.
But I can’t always do that.
The hardest part of being a preacher (or any communcator) is knowing that we are eating, drinking, and breathing this content, so level 7 information only feels like level 3 for us.
We can’t walk into a room, hope to bring new content and give them everything we’ve got.
Make it simple. Make it memorable. Always default to simplicity over complexity…even if it means some of your best content doesn’t see the light of day.
I would rather communicate 30% of what I want to, and have them remember half of it, than communicate 80% of it and have them remember nothing.
There are more coming in part two of this post…but in the nature of avoiding over complexity, we’ll take a pause and finish the rest in the next post.
What about you? What are some major mistakes in preaching you’ve noticed in your own experience?
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Austin Walker is a husband, dad, pastor, and college football fanatic who leads a multisite student ministry team in Central Arkansas. He writes about leadership, productivity, team building, coaching, and theology.
If you want to find out more about Austin, listen to sermons, contact him about speaking, or inquire about coaching opportunities, visit www.austinjwalker.com
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