[ 6 minutes to read ]Pulpit tricks and how to avoid them. Harry Houdini is likely the most famous magician from history, or illusionist as they now prefer, and the father of the modern performance art of magic. He was a Hungarian Jew born in Budapest, who moved as a teen with his family to the United States. He began his professional career in 1894 and performed until his death in 1926. He is most well-known for his daring escapes but he did perform other illusions as well.
He had other pursuits and interests in life, and one was tied to his experience and knowledge of magic. Later in life he became adept at exposing and debunking psychics, mediums, spiritualists, and others who claimed to perform feats through paranormal power. He could reproduce their effects or identify the sleights and tricks they used. At one point, he worked with Scientific American and offered a cash prize to anyone who could fool him with their paranormal powers. Many tried but no one ever claimed the prize.
Houdini identified many tricks that people used to deceive others into thinking they had supernatural powers. Houdini I am not, but I have seen some preachers using tricks to make people think more highly of them and their preaching than they ought to. Sometimes they have the dubious skill of covering weak preaching with pulpit flourish. I am not talking here about “faith healers” or “prophets” or anyone like that. I’m talking about preachers who stand before a crowd of people and seem to preach the Bible to them. They’re not speaking prophecies or describing visions but just preaching.
Usually you have two kinds of fault. There are those who deliberately use tricks because they seek the attention or fame they can bring. Then you have those who unintentionally use some of these while they are endeavoring to preach well. I think the latter group is often the younger, inexperienced preachers. I’m not bashing young preachers. One of the difficulties young preachers face is that they don’t yet know what they don’t know. Unless they have been unusually blessed to come up under faithful expository preaching, they’ve probably heard a lot of pulpit flourish preaching. This type of preaching is popular and well-received in many places. Young preachers are trying to learn how to preach and end up following this style to try to preach well. It takes time to develop discernment but hopefully this post can be helpful. The following is a list of tricks I’ve seen preachers use to misdirect the congregation. I do want to qualify that just because a preacher may sometimes do some of these, that doesn’t mean they’re using a trick. It’s typically when you see a regular pattern that you can discern a greater desire to perform than to preach.
The Old Testament out of context
Beginning a topical sermon in the Old Testament is a way to give the sermon and the preacher the appearance of depth. When a preacher reads an Old Testament text, spends a scant few minutes talking about that text, and then launches into a topical sermon that has little or no connection to the context of Old Testament passage, he is misdirecting to give his preaching more weight.
No dictionary required
Using terms such as covenant, law, priesthood, sovereignty, etc. is a way to make the preacher look intellectual. When a preacher peppers his sermon with high-sounding terms but doesn’t explain nor even demonstrate that he understands them, he is misdirecting to assume intellectual superiority and authority for his sermon.
It happened on this wise
Using real-life experience stories is a way to make the preacher appear experienced and streetwise in the world. When a preacher tells stories of outlandish situations and especially if he tells a lot of stories of events that didn’t happen to him but someone he knows, he is misdirecting to appear more traveled and experienced than what he is.
Using props for “object lessons” or “illustrative sermons” is a way to compensate for lack of content and substance in a sermon. This is done today with objects brought in or even video clips and presentations during the sermon. Object lessons can be helpful when done sparingly and simply, but when preaching turns into a multimedia production it is no longer preaching in the biblical sense of the term. When a preacher relies on props or skits to convey his message, he is misdirecting from a weak sermon and entertaining more than exhorting.
Have you seen the wiggle worm?
Using movement is a way to keep people engaged, artificially inject energy, and make it appear that a lot is happening. This goes beyond hand gestures into theatrics like running, jumping, dancing, and a host of other things. Many consider this sort of thing to be anointed or Spirit-filled, but the work of the Holy Spirit within a man yields the fruit of self-control (2 Timothy 1:7). I’m not suggesting that a man has to stand flat-footed behind the pulpit with hands folded in front of him in order to preach. However, when a man starts behind the pulpit, reads a passage of Scripture, and then moves around all over the place for the next 30-40 minutes without ever returning to the Bible, he is not preaching the Bible. He is misdirecting to make an impression with his “passion.”
It was the best of preaching, it was the worst of preaching
Using clichés, platitudes, alliterated phrases, and clever turns is a way to immediately connect with people and make them think you’re actually saying something. If you can take a cliché and tweak it just a bit, you can appear very clever. The Christian world is not immune from bumper sticker sloganeering. Political speeches are full of applause lines that are meaningless—Hope and change, or, Make America great again. These are meaningless statements but they draw the cheers. When a preacher rattles off Christian clichés without any explanation or meaningful statements, he is misdirecting to get an emotional response and steering clear of offending anyone.
The padded sermon
Using jokes and stories is a way to interest the audience, make them laugh, or build emotional tension and they add filler to sermons, turning a devotional into a full-length sermon. Jokes and stories may be able to convey truth in a memorable way but there is a danger in making truth statements without authority. Jokes and stories are not authoritative. When a preacher relies on jokes and stories to make his points, he is misdirecting from a lack of study and preparation to preach the truth authoritatively from Scripture.
Did you hear?
Using news headlines is a way to connect with people because they have probably heard something about it and give off the appearance of being thoroughly informed and up to date on all things happening in the world and Bible prophecy. I have heard statements such as, “Did you hear about what’s happening in _____ (insert Russia, Syria, Iran, or some other place in the Middle East)? Jesus is getting ready to come back.” Such statements are seldom ever explained. What exactly is happening in that place? What specific prophecy is fulfilled by it? What is the connection to Jesus’ return that that specific event means it is closer? When a preacher makes random prophecy-related, current events statements without any explanation, he is misdirecting to appear at the pinnacle of Bible knowledge for understanding all prophecy.
Using personal stories where you always say and do the right things is a way to appear super-Christianly and a master of wit, knowledge, and personal conversation. When a preacher tells a lot of personal experience stories where he is always the hero, he is misdirecting to appear flawless and enable himself to “humbly” receive all the inevitable praise.
Using the sermons, stories, and work of others as your own is a way to appear more advanced than you are and to shield yourself from risk by using something that has already worked. Much could be said about plagiarism but that will have to be for another time. I’m talking here about straight copying something from someone else and passing it off as your own. Of course, in so doing you receive all the credit and praise that belongs to someone else. When a preacher steals from someone else to present it to others, he is misdirecting from a lack of study and preparation. If he can add in some of the other tricks we’ve considered, his purloined sermon can also appear fresh.
Many of the tricks I’ve listed can be used in a non-trick and legitimate way. However, when you see a pervasive and persistent presence of these things in a man’s ministry, you know he is pulling tricks. You probably also noticed that many of these tricks provide cover for a lack of study and preparation to preach. When a man studies as he ought to study (1 Timothy 4:6-16; 2 Timothy 2:15; 4:1-5), he has no need of tricks and won’t have time for them, because he will have too much Bible to preach to his people. I hope this will be a help to young preachers to take heed how they hear (Luke 8:18). Don’t assume that because something is well received by a group of people that it is of God or good Bible preaching (2 Timothy 4:3-4).