We hear it all the time, “Pastor you really preached this morning. That was a GREAT sermon!” But, was it really a great sermon? How can we tell? Many times people make statements like this because the message addressed an issue they were currently dealing with. That’s one of the great blessings of the Word of God — it is living and it touches us right where we live. However, that leaves a great deal of subjectivity when it comes to analyzing the merits of the transmission of the message. Quite honestly, it is entirely possible to have a great message and a terrible sermon. The sermon is the vehicle the preacher uses to transport the message God has given to him or her, and the preacher must be careful not to allow the vehicle to get in the way of the message.
One of the opportunities the Lord has blessed me with is to serve as an adjunct professor at Carolina Christian College, where I teach courses in the field of homiletics. Homiletics is the art and science of preaching. Preaching is an art form. God uses all of who He created us to be in the preaching process. That’s why you will never find two sermons that are exactly the same — because there are no two people who are exactly the same. However, while preaching is an art, it is also a science. In other words, there is (or at least should be) some methodology to the preaching process.
It is extremely important for the preacher to engage in the process of regularly evaluating his or her sermon … because the congregation already is! For every person who says, “Great sermon, pastor” there are five who walk by thinking that it was the worst thing they ever heard. That should not discourage the preacher, but should inspire him or her to continually strive to improve and develop his or her craft. Preaching is a life-long call, and it involves a life-long process. Any preacher who is not seeking to improve his or her ministry is doing the congregation (and ultimately, the call) a disservice.
When it comes to evaluating the sermon, there are six key elements that form a rubric from the acrostic: PREACH.
One of the most important elements of a sermon is time. Great sermon content can be easily overshadowed by poor time management. When it comes to time management, err on the side of caution. Oftentimes, less is more. Of all the thousands of sermons I’ve heard or have preached I can count on one hand (with fingers to spare) the times I’ve heard someone complain that the sermon was too short. As the old adage goes, “The mind can only absorb what the behind can endure.” People in the audience no longer want to suffer through hour-long sermons of preachers proving how smart they are and how much they’ve studied. You don’t have to preach the whole Bible in one sermon. The good thing about Sundays is that they come every week. Save a little for the next one.
As stated earlier, people are moved by the message when it speaks to where they are. The goal of preaching is contemporizing timeless truths and making them relevant to the audience of today. This does not in any way involve changing the timeless truths, but it does involve packaging them in such a way that the audience can understand. It is, in essence, what Jesus did. Jesus used parables as a way of packaging the principles of the Kingdom so His audience could grasp them and apply them to their context. A perfectly constructed sermon that lacks relevance is merely a lecture. Preaching must connect with the audience.
Exegesis simply means exploring and interpreting the text. Far too many sermons have no biblical foundation. The Bible remains the road map for every good sermon. If the preacher does not follow the map, the audience is bound to get lost. Preachers must stay true to the biblical text if their message is to maintain any substance. The role of the preacher is not to preach his or her opinion, but to preach God’s opinion, and God’s opinion is found in His Word. I’m very leery of preachers who consistently ignore the Word or just read it as a formality at the beginning of the sermon and spend the entire sermon talking about everything but that scripture. Good preaching is biblical preaching.
You may be wondering what appearance has to do with a good sermon. The reality is that people see you before the hear you, and your appearance can either help or hinder the sermon. You never want your suit to get more attention than your sermon. Don’t be too flashy, and certainly don’t be too shabby. Your appearance must be appropriate for your audience. Also, for God’s sake, please use an iron. It’s hard for your audience to hear you talk about “a church without spot or wrinkle” when your clothes are full of them! Watch your appearance … because the congregation is.
The greatest sermon has no effect if people don’t understand it. Sermons must be CLEAR in order for people to HEAR. Some preachers treat sermons like doctoral theses, but sermons are designed to reach the “least of these.” Like my pastor, Bishop Alfred Owens, always taught me, “We must always remember that we are feeding sheep … not giraffes.” The goal is not to be high and lofty in our preaching, but to preach with clarity and simplicity so the sheep can graze on the Word.
Preaching must be done with passion! This is not a matter of style, but it is a matter of conviction. The preacher must preach like he or she believes the message…or no one else will. When we preach with conviction … the message is convicting. The purpose of preaching is to produce a change. When we bring the heat, we are stirring the congregation toward positive change. Listless preaching leads to lifeless congregations. Preach with passion, and God’s power will manifest!