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.

Stuff I Starred

Here’s a short list of some of the stuff I favorited on Twitter, starred in Google reader or clipped into Evernote:

  • In his day, Billy Graham spent millions promoting himself and his crusades, all so people could come HEAR HIM TALK ABOUT GOD. – Donald Miller in Some Thoughts on Self Promotion
  • Jenni Catron on the difficulty of ministry and work.  
  • I am a pilgrim and a stranger on the earth, but I am not an orphan -Vance Havner
  • Barna data on what churches are seeking to improve next year.  What struck me as backwards was only 6% of churches saying they would definitely work with an organization to help increase giving” but doing so would actually help accomplish all of the other goals!
  • There are only three real job interview questions.
  • Let me tell you the secret that has led me to my goal. My strength lies solely in my tenacity. – Louis Pasteur (via @tonymccollum)
  • The average email user receives 147 email messages a day.
  • Loved this story about a church helping an atheist. We love to point out the dumb things Christians do – so it’s nice to give some love to those who get it right.
  • “When you say ‘My people won’t do that’, what you’re really saying is, “I haven’t led my people to do that’.” @kevinpenry (via @geoffsurratt)
  • Mobile purchases on smartphones and tablets are expected to grow 73% to $4.6 billion in the US this year.
  • “The Father has so much more for you than just letting you come home.” – George Moxley
  • Can you tweet your sermon’s main point? If not, keep working. – @tallywilgis

Giving and Preaching

I’m honored to play a very small part in launching two things today.  Super proud of both and wanted to let you know.

First, this new resource from Giving Rocket is something that church leaders have needed for a long time.  It’s a short, mailable booklet that THANKS givers for their donation.  It’s not a treatise on how they should give more – it’s a heart-felt appreciation for generosity.  It comes with a blank thank-you note and an envelope and is the perfect thing to send first-time givers.  Here’s a preview video.

Secondly, Preaching Rocket has officially left the launch pad.  It’s a members-only coaching community for communicators who want to develop their skill and calling.  The sermon is arguably the most important element of the weekend service – it’s certainly the most visible.  Unchurched and churched people alike say they attend church primarily for the message, yet most pastors do not have an ongoing system for improvement.  Jeff Henderson and the team at Preaching Rocket are going to change that by providing monthly coaching and usable story content. Check out the website and the benefits then sign up for a preview.

Jeff Foxworthy Wants You To Preach Better Sermons

Have you heard about Preach Better Sermons, a FREE online event with Andy Stanley, Dr. Charles Stanley, Louie Giglio, Perry Noble, Jud Wilhite, Vanable Moody and Jeff Foxworthy.  It’s happening on March 15 from 1-4 EST.  All of these communicators will be sharing practical information on preparation and delivery, all to help you become a better communicator.

Check out this short video with Jeff Henderson and Jeff Foxworthy, and be sure to register for the event.

Jeff Foxworthy Wants You to Preach Better Sermons from Preaching Rocket on Vimeo.

Preach Better Sermons – Free Online Event with Andy Stanley, Louie Giglio, Perry Noble and More

Preach Better Sermons Speaker Line Up

For the past six months, Casey and I have been working behind the scenes on something that I believe can revolutionize your church. The idea: Preaching Rocket – intentional, focused coaching to help preachers develop their skills in communicating the Gospel.

Since preaching is one of the most visible things in all of the church, we wanted to create a place where people could get coaching and resources to help them prepare and deliver their own sermons. Not an online database of content, but a coaching system to help them find and develop their own unique voice.

To kick that off, our friend Jeff Henderson helped us put together an amazing event called Preach Better Sermons. It’s a 100% FREE 3-hour, online conference on March 15 with some of the best speakers in the world.

Check this out.

Andy Stanley, Dr. Charles Stanley, Louie Giglio, Dr. Vanable Moody, Jud Wilhite, Perry Noble and Jeff Foxworthy.

All of these incredible communicators are going to open up about how they prepare and deliver sermons. Or in the case of Jeff Foxworthy – how he delivers some of the funniest stand-up comedy in the world.  They are going to talk about what happens behind the scenes.

The event is absolutely FREE, and it will enrich you as a communicator.  And it’s just the beginning.  Preaching Rocket is going to deliver world-class coaching beginning on April 1.  Check out some of the coaching topics:

  • Personal development
  • How to get three weeks ahead
  • How to preach to the unchurched
  • Finding your unique voice
  • Creating an annual teaching plan
  • Developing a team
  • Evaluation
In addition to coaching, we’ll add some content that will pepper your messages with fresh flavor and community that will keep you from feeling alone in the process.
But the free conference is first, and I can’t wait for it to help you as a preacher, communicator or messenger of the Gospel.

Here’s a Great Sermon Illustration

Here’s a great sermon illustration that you could use in your preaching.  After you read, would you leave a comment and share your feedback.  Is this helpful for you?  Do you think you would use it?  Would you save it for later?

Title: How a failed video game led to the most successful game franchise in history
Tags: failure, second chance, leadership, mistakes

In 1980, a Japanese company called Nintendo came out with an arcade came called Radar Scope. If you’ve ever seen a game called Space Invaders, it looked a lot like that. It was a shoot-em-up, one button, one joystick video game.

It quickly became Nintendo’s biggest game of the year in Japan and Nintendo looked to expand into America. Hiroshi Yamauchi, who took over the company from his grandfather in 1949 set up his son-in-law to run Nintendo of America.

Yamauchi decided to go all in on Radar Scope and started manufacturing thousands of cabinets and shipping them from Japan to a warehouse in New Jersey. They were able to pre-sell about 1,000 of them, but 2,000 more remained in that New Jersey warehouse collecting dust. Nobody was biting…nobody was buying.

When they realized that Radar Scope wasn’t going to sell anymore, they began promising a new smash hit.

So here was Hinoru Arakawa with 2,000 useless video game consoles and a promise to deliver a smash hit that nobody had developed yet. He announced an internal competition and received several ideas from a young employee with no video game experience.

He took a basic story – a guy trying to rescue a girl from an evil villain. And the villain would be a giant gorilla. They made the decision to take these 2,000 Radar Scope video games and convert them to a new game.

At the time, conversion kits were commonly used to update older games to get a few more quarters out of the kids. It’s the equivalent of reheating yesterdays leftovers.

They took the Radar Scope cabinet and turned the monitor sideways, so the game would play from the bottom of the screen to the top of the screen. They created a story…a common plumber saves a girl from an evil villain. The little plumber with the mission of rescuing the girl was known as “jumpman” and was given the name Mario, a suggestion from the owner of the warehouse where these 2,000 video game cabinets were being retooled. The evil villain holding the girl hostage would be a giant gorilla. The game would be called King King.

They removed the old game board and put a new one in. They connected the wiring harness, slid out the old plastic art and slid in new art panels. It took two months, but all 2,000 video games were converted.

The hero from King Kong would go on to star in several other video games, including Super Mario Brothers…Nintendo’s biggest selling video game ever. Mario has starred in more than 200 titles.

If Radar Scope had been more popular, Donkey Kong probably wouldn’t have been invented. But a leader named Arakawa and his team at Nintendo took a failure and turned it into a successful game, and in the process, created the most successful video game character of all time.


1. Second Chances. 
“God, my God, I yelled for help and you put me together. God, you pulled me out of the grave, gave me another chance at life when I was down-and-out.” – Psalm 30:2 (The Message)

2. God isn’t through with you. “…for God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable.” – Romans 11:29

3. Failure isn’t fatal. “My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength
of my heart and my portion forever.”
Psalm 73:26 (NASB)