Most people can recognize a good sermon when they hear one, though they might have difficulty articulating why. For those of us who try to preach those “good sermons,” it is useful to understand what it takes to get those positive responses from our listeners.
Of course, listeners vary and have different things that they are looking for in a preacher. A listener’s theology will determine his or her sense of the sermon. Those who are committed to a high view of Scripture might expect something different than one committed to a more active view of the work of the Holy Spirit. Learning style is a factor in considering the effectiveness of a sermon. Some listeners learn best through reflection; others prefer a more active and participatory approach. Culture will affect one’s evaluation of a sermon. Where we come from, what generation we belong to, our denomination, our economic situation, and our gender all play a part in determining the kind of preacher we best respond to.
Still, if preaching is preaching, there are certain things that can be said across the board. If the following things are in place, we can be fairly confident that our sermons will be well appreciated and lead to the kinds of responses we expect. These, then, are the factors that result in “good” and maybe even “great” preaching.
A good sermon is rooted in the Bible. A sermon ought to find its footing in the Word of God. Many fine things could be said by a preacher, but if the listener doesn’t feel that the sermon has been helpful in engaging the Bible, it falls short as a sermon. This means that the Bible will be used as more than window dressing or as a jumping-off point. The Bible will govern the sermon and be the source of its big idea if the sermon is any good. Good preachers understand that God still speaks through his Word. The Bible is the one instrument that God has promised to bless. When it comes to good preaching, the Bible is where the power is.
A good sermon helps people hear from God. This is as helpful a definition of preaching as I know. Preachers work to connect people with the voice of God. If a listener does not sense that she or he has been in the presence of God and heard something meaningful from him, then the sermon could not have been that good. As such, the sermon does not have to fit any particular pre-fab form. The sermon as a medium can flex to respond to the interests and concerns of any culture and situation. If it helps people hear what God is saying, it is a good sermon, regardless of the preacher’s style. This underlines, of course, a dependence on the Scriptures.
A good sermon will be easily understood. Some preachers seem to confuse complexity with depth. In my experience, it is the simple truths that are the most profound. Listeners can understand good preaching. Good preachers work to understand the language, the culture, and the interests of those to whom they preach. They work hard to clarify and unify the presentation so that there will be no confusion about what they are trying to say. In most cases, good sermons offer one idea – an idea big enough yet simple enough for listeners to appreciate and apply to their lives.
A good sermon exalts the person of Jesus Christ. We are Christian preachers, which means that every sermon we preach will exalt the person of Jesus Christ. While not every text is directly Christological, I believe that every sermon ought to be. What are we saying that a Jewish priest couldn’t say? What are we offering that goes beyond what people hear on Oprah? At the end of the day, Christian preachers offer Jesus Christ as the hope of mankind. A good sermon will be sure to make that clear.
These four principles apply to any good sermon I have ever heard. A good sermon will integrate the person and presence of God with the person and presence of the preacher. The divine and the human collaborate in the mystery that is good preaching.