For the past couple of years I’ve been asking adult education classes I’ve been conducting on sermon-listening, What makes a sermon a good sermon? I explain that I’m not looking for “the right answer.” Rather, I want to know how thoughtful listeners honestly evaluate the sermons they hear week in and week out. The answers I’ve been hearing are very helpful. They fall into roughly three clusters.
The first cluster of answers defines a good sermon in terms of communicational excellence: “A good sermon is a sermon I can follow. The main point of the sermon is clear. The sermon is well-organized. The preacher doesn’t speak over my head. The preacher doesn’t repeat the same point over and over. The preacher uses images, stories and ways of speaking that keep me listening and move me.”
Indeed, today’s listeners are constantly exposed to the internet, television, and movies that sizzle communicationally. Some preachers used to say, “My job is just to preach the Word. It’s the people’s job to listen.” Few preachers talk that way today because preachers know they must prepare sermons that are not only biblically based but also carefully designed to win a hearing. Communicational excellence is an absolute requirement of effective preaching today.
A second way people define a good sermon is in terms of its biblical faithfulness: “A good sermon is rooted in the Bible. It teaches me something from a text of the Bible. A good sermon is not the opinion of the preacher, it’s a Word from God that has authority because it’s from the Word of God.”
Preachers and churches run into trouble when they forget that preaching is first and foremost a proclamation of Scripture. Pity the preacher whose congregation is satisfied with just hearing a communicationally excellent speech. Congregations must also clearly expect their pastor’s sermons to set forth the Scriptures. And pastors dare not speak, except to proclaim a Word far greater than their own words.
The third way people define a good sermon is in terms of its transformational power: “A good sermon changes me. It challenges me to a deeper obedience. It stretches me. A good sermon brings mecloser to God. It deepens my faith. It makes us a better church. A good sermon makes me a better, more loving person. A good sermon makes me a better kingdom citizen.”
Indeed, preaching that doesn’t call for and lead to transformation is only a noisy gong and a clanging symbol. A good sermon is not the same as an enjoyable sermon. This transformative purpose of preaching reminds me of one of Fred Craddock’s lines: “There are two kinds of preaching that are difficult to hear: poor preaching and good preaching.” Good sermons call us to the cross and invite us into a new life in Christ.
Spiritual transformation of course is not just the work of preachers and worshipers. It is the work of God. Preaching doesn’t change people. God changes people through preaching. Preachers and worshipers must approach the sermon filled with awe, humility, and expectancy that the Holy Spirit will do a great work through this sermon. This involves intense prayer and spiritual preparation on the part of preacher and worshiper without which transformational power is sure to elude everyone.
I find these three criteria for evaluating sermons helpful. And the challenge today is to apply not just one or two but all three criteria as we preach or listen to sermons. Preachers can’t get by with saying, “I think I’ll shoot for two out of three of these marks of a good sermon.” Two out of three does not a good sermon make. In the same way, only when worshipers understand that a good sermon involves all three of these marks are they in a position to evaluate whether the sermon they have heard is a good one. This is another way of saying that worshipers cannot simply sit back and dare their preacher to wow them with a great sermon. Worshipers must lean forward and be active participants in the proclamation of God’s Word, urgently seeking out what word God has for them on this particular Sunday.
I have never heard of a church that didn’t rank good preaching as the most desirable qualification of its pastor. Only as preachers and congregations do everything they can to make the preaching event meaningful and life changing will we be able to speak of “good sermons” in their church.