What Seminary Didn’t Teach Me About Preaching


I loved seminary.  Both Southeastern and Liberty.

There is no better way to learn the Bible than Seminary. And though I have a Masters of Divinity, there were a few things I didn’t learn about preaching during these educational years. Maybe I just wasn’t paying attention in class (after all, I was long-distance dating my soon-to-be wife during the first round and leading a church during the second), but here are five things I didn’t learn in seminary about preaching.

1. You need to preach like YOU.

I learned a lot about Bible exposition, preparing an outline and staying true to the text. All of these things are very important, but I didn’t learn how to preach using my unique voice. We studied other great preachers, but preaching like someone else caused me to fall flat. My experiences, style and failures are unique – I can’t learn those from anyone else. Finding my own unique voice happened outside of the classroom.

Earlier this year, I had the incredible opportunity to lead a session at the Preaching Rocket tour, which kicked off at NorthPoint Community Church.  The other three speakers that day were Jeff Henderson, Louie Giglio and Andy Stanley.  I was nervous and I didn’t do all that well, largely because I tried to communicate like someone else.

2. Your points are forgotten.

I grew up in a church that loved alliteration, and I learned how to craft a powerful outline in seminary. But nobody told me nobody would remember all of those alliterated points. I wish it didn’t take so long to learn this principle, because I wasted a lot of time covering information when I should have been inspiring with stories. If you want to learn more about the power of storytelling (and where to find great sermon stories), I did a free webinar on this very subject.  You can watch it on-demand right here.

When I look back on stuff I remember, it’s a lot of stories.  When I get together with friends, we tell stories.  When I try to get through to my kids, I tell them a story.  Preaching is much the same.

3. Your audience doesn’t care.

When I was in seminary, I bought into the belief that people would come to church because what happened there was so important. In reality, people don’t think about church much throughout the week. And people don’t have built-in care when it comes to the sermon. Just because I think about it all week doesn’t mean they do.

People don’t care about a topic just because it’s in the Bible. And they don’t listen to me just because I’m the preacher standing behind a pulpit. When I step up to preach, I need to assume nobody cares about what I am about to say.

One of the most important things a pastor can do in the first five minutes of their message is to show the congregation why they should care.  Instead of force feeding, we need to make them hungry.

4. Be engaging and funny.

In seminary,I was taught how to be faithful to the text. And that’s important. But I didn’t learn how to be engaging and funny. After all, being funny and engaging doesn’t seem very spiritual. But humor is a universal language – a smile communicates in nearly every culture. I learned a ton about this from watching other skilled communicators, including comedians and business presenters.

I’ve spoken in a lot of different places, but humor is one of those universal connection points.  It might not sound very spiritual, but it’s really important.

5. You need to raise up other communicators.

Seminary was all about learning to preach. But one of the MOST important tasks of preachers is to build up another generation. I cut my ministry teeth as a youth pastor, and once got to speak to adults was on low-attendance, holiday weekends. My pastors taught on Sunday morning and Sunday nights, and only gave up the pulpit to traveling evangelists. I would have loved the opportunity to be mentored, but it never seemed like a priority.

Today, the preachers I admire don’t see themselves as the sole funnel for God’s voice, but intentionally raise up other communicators.  It’s not honorable to preach every weekend of the year – step away from the pulpit and raise up some other people who can preach the gospel.

Those are five lessons about preaching I didn’t learn in seminary. Some of them I learned the hard way, and some of them I’m still learning.

Five Ways The Rocket Company Can Help Your Church

I’ve been involved with The Rocket Company for more than two years.  I started by writing giving talk scripts and creating resources.  I moved into a content role, then more of an operator.  Today, I’m the Chief Operating Officer and it’s my job to lead our team of 10 people to serve churches.
For the last year or so, Casey and the rest of our team have been working hard to crystalize our purpose statement – the bedrock reason for our organization’s existence.  After a lot of meetings, debate and talking, we settled on this simple statement: We help churches succeed. 
So that begs an important question. HOW do we help churches succeed? Because I know you love lists, I’ll get right to the point.
  1. Giving Rocket Core Coaching Program.  This is a 12-month coaching program to help you increase operational giving.  Not capital campaign stuff – I’m talking about regular giving.  If you want to do more ministry, hire staff, or expand outreach programs, you’ll need more money.  This program gives you the coaching and the tools necessary for that to happen.
  2. Too many preachers shortcut the sermon prep process by downloading sermons and just changing a few things.  I believe you were made for more.  We teamed up with Jeff Henderson to create this 12-month coaching program to help you preach better sermons.  A Thom Rainer study discovered 90% of people choose a church based on the preacher or the sermon, so if you get better at this, everything improves.  Preaching is the most important (or at least the most visible thing) you do.
  3. When I was pastoring a church, I used to say we were driven by God but fueled by volunteers.  Volunteer Rocket is a 7-step program to help you gain, train and retain volunteers.  I talked to churches and did a ton of research to create this program, and I am absolutely confident it will work in your church.
  4. What Happens When You Give is a revolutionary tool.  It’s a combination thank you note + booklet designed for you to mail to everyone w ho gives money to your church.  Form letters are impersonal (and don’t work).  Books are expensive to mail (and often aren’t read).  This booklet is perfect.  You get them by the case and send them to anyone who makes a first time donation.  Churches are also sending them with contribution statements or handing them to people after a stewardship message.
  5. The Systems Bundle.  This is a collection of five of my most popular resources.  I used to sell them here on this site, but they have become a part of the Rocket Company family of resources.  They are full of documents, forms, resources, ideas, sermons, graphics and more.

Three Things I Wish I Knew Before I Preached My First Sermon

Not long ago, I came across a bin in the attic full of cassette and video tapes.   There were hi-8 video tapes of youth camps I led, mini-DV tapes of my kids, and cassette tapes of early sermons I preached.   I was a 19-year old youth pastor and was given the opportunity to preach in “big church.”  The year was 1995 and the message was entitled “God behind bars.”
I’m fairly certain the people have long forgotten it, but I still have the tape if anyone is looking. Here are three things I wish I knew before speaking for the first time.

1.  People wouldn’t listen simply because I was preaching. 

You can imagine their disappointment when the people of Lakeview Baptist Church learned the real pastor wasn’t speaking that day.  If they didn’t listen to the regular pastors all that well, they certainly weren’t going to listen to the fill-in youth pastor.
This isn’t a unique circumstances, though. Most people don’t come to church on the proverbial edge of their seat to hear a message from whoever is speaking.  They aren’t waiting with baited breath for the launch of that new series or the next sermon from the book of Luke.  They drive to church thinking about lunch, the early game kickoffs or the errands they need to finish.  As the message begins, their minds are elsewhere, and someone standing up to tell them how to live isn’t enough to alter their state of mind.
There used to be a time when people would automatically listen when the preacher started speaking.  The profession of minister used to be one of the most highly respected professions, and sermons were delivered to people with built-in trust.  Today, ministers aren’t at the bottom of the trust totem pole – they fall somewhere in the middle, lower than healthcare professionals but higher than lawyers.
In other words, when you stand to deliver your message, people don’t automatically trust you or believe they should listen to you.  You’ve got to work to earn that trust.  Over time, but in every message as well.  I didn’t realize this when I preached that fall day in 1992.

2.  People wouldn’t listen simply because I was preaching the Bible.

 As a Christian, I care a lot about the Bible.  It’s an incredible collection of books with an important message for every single person.  I believe it’s the inspired Word of God, and I try my best to be a student, scholar and follower of it’s words.
In the weeks leading up to this debut message, I studied the Bible hard.  I looked at commentaries and read different translations.  My message was very, very Biblical.
But that didn’t make most of the people in the congregation listen to me that day.  And that’s still true today.  Most people don’t believe a preacher simply because he’s preaching the Bible.  Maybe they should, but they don’t.
The fact is the Bible is the inspired Word of God.  And we’re called to preach the Word.  But if we want to preach the Word of God effectively, we must consider our audience, baiting them into wanting to hear.  This doesn’t require tricks, schemes or crazy tactics, but it does require we work hard.
Over the last 20 years, I’ve changed my approach to preaching.  While I still start my message prep in the Scripture, I don’t start my message there.  While I believe sermon prep should start in the text, I believe the message should start with the audience.  Because most people aren’t drawn in by “open your Bibles to Matthew 7.”  That might work in some settings, or it might have been effective years ago, but times have changed.
I didn’t take time in the beginning of God Behind Bars to find common ground with the congregation and connect with them.  I didn’t do any groundwork from the pulpit – I just launched into the message.

3.  People wouldn’t remember all of my points.

 God Behind Bars had three carefully alliterated points.  Some of the sub-points were alliterated.  In fact, for the first few years on my preaching journey, I preached all of my messages this way.  I had carefully constructed outlines that would have made John Phillips proud.
But I don’t imagine anyone from the congregation remembering any of the message content seven days later.
A few years ago, I was leading a preaching workshop for about fifty people.  I asked this room full of preachers to name ANYTHING they remember from ANY sermon they have ever heard or delivered.  After a little bit of prodding, the responses started coming in and I wrote them on a whiteboard.  After about 25 things were written, I drew a line right down the middle.
As it turned out, everything that this room of preachers remembered fit neatly into one of two categories – carefully worded principles or beautifully told stories or object lessons.
People didn’t remember outlines or points.  They remembered key phrases, repeated often.  Or they remembered stories and illustrations.
This has shifted the way I prepare messages, and I spend less time alliterating outlines and more time trying to hone in on one powerful statement.  I force myself out of my natural desire to communicate information and intentionally weave in more stories.
I’ve learned a lot more about communication in the last 20 years, and I still have much more to learn.  I love listening to a good presentation that connects with an audience.  Whether it’s a sermon, a comedy set, or a business presentation, I love learning from them all.
If you’re interested in learning how to become a better preacher, check out the Preaching Rocket Core Coaching program.

Seven Things I Learned from Watching Andy Stanley Teach Junior High Students

NorthPoint just started a new series called You’ll Be Glad You Did.  The kickoff message on February 24, 2013 was actually recorded by Andy Stanley on the previous Friday evening.  It was the opening talk of a transit weekend retreat.  Andy taught the message to a room full of middle school students, knowing it would be shown on Sunday morning in church.

Andy was teaching junior high school students, knowing the message would be shown at area churches on Sunday.  As he walked off the stage Friday, a camera followed him as he addressed the adult service. It was like the Inception of sermons.  Communicating to two audiences is a difficult task for any communicator.

I couldn’t help but think how many parents appreciated the look inside the message their kids are hearing at NorthPoint.  But I also couldn’t help but jot down some notes on communication from Andy’s message.  It was masterful.

Here are seven things I learned from Andy Stanley’s sermon to students.

1.  Andy used a ton of  humor.  The message was all about labels, and how we accept labels from other people, and miss out on the fact that only our maker has the right to label us.  Andy told stories from his own time in junior high school.  He talked about getting the nickname “Sabertooth Andy” because his teeth were so messed up.  (I bet a lot of people could relate to that). He talked about being labeled “not smart” after his teacher just wrote “NO” in red ink on a math test.  Andy didn’t talk about all his successes in junior high…he made fun of himself.  And whether you’re teaching junior high kids or senior adults, this is a great way to make a connection.

Andy Stanley

2.  Andy built tension into his talk.  I’ve seen him do this time and time again, but this message was a great illustration.  There was a time when he wanted everyone to think about the question he was going to ask.  Think about it, not answer it out loud.  He spent several minutes baiting the crowd and setting up this moment, so by the time he put the question on the screen, it just hung in the air.  Too many times, we assume people are interested in our message.  Work on the tension early on and they will lean in.

3.  Andy introduced an idea and then brought it back at the end.  I’ve seen comedians do this throughout the course of a set, and it’s a great way to weave a major point through an entire message.  In this case, Andy said that manufacturers, owners and purchasers had the right to label something.  This came in the first few minutes of his talk and then he moved on.  Later, he came back to this idea and said that God – the one who made you, owns you and purchased you – is the only one who has the right to label you.  When you tease and idea or set it up early, you can come back to it later.  Done right, it can be a great a-ha moment.

4.  The message was short.  The message was about 30 minutes.  This might be longer than you think middle school students could handle (it’s not…you just can’t waste their time and you have to be on your game.)  30 minutes seems like the right length for most sermons.  It’s not a hard and fast rule.  In general, I think we need to say what needs to be said and then stop talking.

Andy Stanley

5.  Andy started with them.  I believe that while sermon preparation should start with the scripture, the sermon itself should start with the audience.  The goal is to teach the Bible, but in order to do that effectively, we have to start with where people are.  What are their hopes, dreams, fears, thoughts and desires?  What are they thinking in that moment?  The first minutes of Andy’s talk were not wasted…He was building a connection by starting with where they live and what they deal with on a daily basis.

6.  Andy made the audience the hero.  Here’s a secret….your audience loves to feel smarter than you.  When you talk about the things you mess up, the people can relate to you.  When you make them into the hero, they connect and pay attention.  In this message, Andy referenced the room of adults listening (remember…this was an Inception style sermon!), and said, “Right now, there is a room of adults who are saying – I wish someone had told me these things when I was a kid.”  Andy told the students they could get this right the first time.  Without putting down anyone, Andy made a room full of junior high students feel like they could do something better than their parents.

7.  Andy taught one passage.  Andy got to Romans 12:1-2 and unpacked some meaning from that verse.  It was a bite-sized teaching time – He knew it didn’t have to be the final word on the topic.  He didn’t jump all around the Bible and confuse people with a bunch of verses.  He taught one passage, and he taught it well.   Of course, he used a sticky statement to tie it all together.  The bottom line of this message was “The labels people put on you could cause you to miss God’s plan for you.”

Andy Stanley

Every Senior Pastor should teach students from time to time.  It will keep you on your game and will force you to work on your craft.  Adults will often sit through a boring message because they are supposed to…students usually will not.

As someone who cares so much about helping people communicate God’s Word authentically, passionately and effectively, it was great to see how Andy did so in front of junior high students.  It was refreshing to see a Senior Pastor willing to communicate to junior high students.  And a church willing to give show a message in the adult service on the weekend.

I learned a lot from Andy’s message.  Not just about finding my identity in Christ, but how to connect with students.  I don’t know if I’m an expert in communication, but I do love serving churches by helping the pastor preach better messages.  That’s one reason I devote so much of my time to the Preaching Rocket Core Coaching Program.  I don’t know of a better way to work ON your calling and your craft.

The Best Conference Talk I’ve Ever Heard

Last week, I heard one of the best conference talks I’ve ever heard.  I’m not joking or trying to hype something, either.

It was from Andy Stanley at the Preach Better Sermons event in Atlanta.  Andy talks about preaching with unchurched people in the room.  He talked about how he prepares and delivers messages that actually connect with unchurched people.  It was brilliant.   One attender just sent us this:

I want to thank you for providing a place where someone who communicates at a pretty high level to large crowds could be challenged & grow.  It’s honestly been years since I’ve really been challenged with a new way of thinking.  Both Jeff & Andy’s sessions did that for me.  I walked away with several new thoughts & practical ways to work on the craft of communicating.  My ministry, preaching style & our church are better because of Friday.  Hands down the best time & money we have spent all year.

You’ve got six more chances to hear this message because the Preach Better Sermons LIVE event is heading to Chicago, Nashville, New York, Dallas, Los Angeles and Orlando.  Plus, there will be three other messages at each event.  Jeff is doing one (and it’s incredible).  The host pastor or a special guest is doing one (great people).  And I’m doing a session.

If you use the code PREACH, you can get the lowest rate. Here is the full schedule with dates, locations and guest speakers.

  • September 27 – Chicago – Soul City Church – Jarrett and Jeannie Stevens
  • October 18 – Nashville – Cross Point Church – Pete Wilson
  • November 16 – Los Angeles – Glenkirk Church – Reggie Joiner
  • December 6 – New York – New Life Fellowship – Pete Scazzero
  • January 23 – Dallas – Concord Church – Bryan L. Carter and Reggie Joiner
  • February 21 – Orlando – TBD – TBD

If you’re a pastor or communicator, I really recommend you attend one of these six one-day events.  When it’s all said and done, we will create a DVD of the full experience, but it won’t have Andy’s talk.  That one is exclusive for the attenders.  We’re not webcasting or broadcasting, so make plans to attend.