Pastor Kyle’s confidence as a preacher ebbs and flows. Some Sunday sermons feel electric. His message flows and the congregation seems to light up. On other weeks, the whole experience can be captioned: “Lights On; No One’s Home.” Without warning, Kyle’s hours of preparation just don’t add up that day. He can’t help but cringe at the thought of meeting new families between services. They always shake his hand and say, “Good sermon, Pastor,” but do they really mean it? What if they never come back? He always assumes it’s because the church across town is more [insert “better than us” adjective here]. Kyle would love to deliver a consistent flow of life-changing preaching, but first he needs to stop cutting the power behind the scenes.
Lots of factors hinder effective preaching: secret sin, lack of spiritual gifting, ignoring the practice of prayer, undisciplined study, haphazard planning, broken relationships, unhealthy congregation, insensitivity to the Holy Spirit, and more. Still, there’s another prevailing issue that keeps creeping in and cutting the power on preaching ‒ the ever-alluring “Cleverness Trap.”
Beware the Cleverness Trap
Throughout history, pastors have spent countless hours wordsmithing main points and spinning phrases just right so hearers will be cut to the heart. Most of the time this stems from a desire to communicate the Gospel clearly. In naïve or desperate moments, preachers find themselves overdosing on creativity, a motivation that typically results in confusing and complex messages. Worse yet, as in Kyle’s case, pastors secretly play the comparison game with other communicators and ministries. They succumb to the cleverness trap by trying to compete with rising stars in the age of podcasts and platforms. Too many pastors unwisely trade in their God-given preaching power to compellingly convince people with Tweetable nuggets of truth, quippy catchphrases, and even clickbait. The occasional, surface-level result? Winsome preachers woo a handful of potential congregants (for a season) or gain a few minutes of social media fame. All the while, they’re cutting the power on their preaching.
The issue of trying extra hard to get people to grasp the Gospel isn’t new, but in this era of information overload, it’s become harder for pastors to streamline what they’re trying to say. It’s tempting to constantly mine for fresh ways to sway people intellectually and develop airtight arguments when what they really need is simple, straightforward truth from God’s Word. There’s nothing wrong with pastors getting better at preaching, growing in influence, and building an audience. Nor is it out of bounds or unwise to sharpen one’s thinking and strengthen one’s apologetics in order to build bridges with the spiritually curious and equip devoted believers. The biggest problem is pastors allowing themselves to get swept away by the temptation to shortchange the Gospel’s inherent power by adding to or altering it in some clever way.
The cleverness trap is easy to fall into, but there’s a way around this all-too-common, power-cutting preaching snare. Paul addressed this head-on in his first letter to the Corinthians and his focused approach still applies today. Additionally, there are three principles for pastors to practice that will help them (and you) stop cutting the power on their preaching.
1 Corinthians 2:1-5
And so it was with me, brothers and sisters. When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.
The early church was caught up in its own age of information overload. Greek thought was sweeping through the nations, so the reliance of people on new ideas and intellectual prowess was on the rise. Paul could have easily spoken about the truth of Christ in ways that stimulated people’s minds; rather, he chose to avoid confusion by keeping the Gospel message simple and straightforward. His desire was to eliminate any confusion that hearers had any role in making sense of or taking credit for God’s grace. In a day when thinking was revered as powerful, Paul wanted to draw all attention back to the Lord’s power as the starting point and sustainer of genuine faith.
Pastors can learn a lot from Paul’s approach in Corinth. There were certainly other occasions where he approached people with more academic and apologetic rigor (see Acts 17). However, at least in this case, the Apostle chose to model a rationale and what it takes to communicate the heart of the Gospel and nothing more. It doesn’t get more simple and straightforward than Paul saying in verse 2, “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.”
Three Preaching Principles to Keep You from Cutting the Power
Today’s preachers, whether in spoken or written word, would do well to assess how often they veer away from the Gospel’s core by eloquently persuading versus simply proclaiming. To assist you with this, here are three preaching principles to put into practice that will equip and remind you to resist cutting the power on your preaching.
- Stick with Scripture.
Communicating eternal hope in Christ doesn’t need to be gilded in cleverness to be compelling. Don’t just start with God’s Word, stick with it. Keep reminding yourself and your hearers that the Bible is the plumb line for all truth and teaching. On a regular basis sinners and saints in earshot of your ministry both need the plain message of the Gospel, the fundamentals of the faith. In 1 Corinthians 2:13-14, Paul went on to say: “This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words. The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit.” You may feel tugged toward the cleverness trap, but you don’t have to fall in. Let Scripture be the launching pad for what you say. You can still be creative, just make sure your message remains simple and straightforward so the truth and power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is clearly present.
- Speak from the heart.
You know what matters most to you and what your congregation needs to hear better than anyone else. When you’re leaning into God’s Spirit, your attunement with Him will overflow into and direct your messages. Is it time for a series on a particular section of Scripture or a particular topic? What are people in your community struggling with that desperately needs a word from the Lord? In what way(s) does your church need inspiration or redirection? Like Paul and the church in Corinth, you can let them know how much you care about them by speaking heart-to-heart. He presented the Gospel in simple and straightforward ways so their hearts ‒ not just their minds ‒ would hear, be convicted, and respond. As you prepare your sermons, don’t neglect letting God transform you first, and let your guard down a bit so people know you are human. Your heart will pour out most effectively when you commit to being a conduit for the Spirit and fellow disciple of Jesus, not just a clever communicator of Scripture. When the intrinsic power of the Gospel changes you, it will change your message. In turn, the people in your congregation and community will gain a window into your heart and the heart of God.
- Say what’s true and trust God.
It may sound counterintuitive, but some preachers have a hard time driving home a strong spiritual point. They can talk all day long about how to be a high-character employee, raise the bar on family life, handle finances, serve the needy, and even worship as a way of life. Then, when it’s time to tie it back to God’s Word and the Gospel, they hesitate to hammer home the primary reason for raising the issue in the first place. Sadly, ultimate hope in Christ ends up taking a back burner week after week. Perhaps they fear offending people or working against numeric growth? Or, maybe they intend to work toward a standalone salvation sermon that never feels right in the moment? Whatever the reason, the cleverness trap gets the better of them and pastors shrink back instead of standing firm in the power of the Gospel. Paul certainly didn’t shy away from calling out the Corinthians as spiritual infants (see 1 Corinthians 3:1). His conviction didn’t crumble at the thought of this church trembling in the light of God’s truth, and neither should you. Your responsibility as a shepherd is to kindly and courageously tell it like it is and let the Holy Spirit do His work with people. Decide now that clarity, not cleverness, will guide your God-given message. Then, leave it in His powerful hands to compel and convict people to dive deeper into the Gospel of Christ.
Get Help to Steer Clear
Sticking with Scripture, speaking from the heart, and saying what’s true and trusting God are three practical principles that will help you stop cutting the power on your preaching. However, you don’t have to do this on your own. Find someone you trust that will give you honest feedback on your messages. How are you standing firm in or shrinking back from the heart of the Gospel? What are you communicating or holding back that’s hindering the hope of Christ coming through loud and clear? Ask your friend to constructively critique your writing and speaking, to highlight where you’re being simple and straightforward or where you’re teetering into the cleverness trap.
When is the last time you fell into the cleverness trap? Before you get started on your next sermon, revisit 1 Corinthians 2:1-5 and the three preaching principles above. Make every effort, in step with God’s Spirit, to keep your message simple and straightforward so that the power of the Gospel, and no other motivation, will stay present as you preach.