What is it, really, that distinguishes a good from a not-so-good sermon? Is it the condition of our own heart or our personal taste? Or is it something independent from us within the sermon itself? And I recognize that a sermon one might not like can be used of God in a powerful way, if not in our lives than in the lives of someone else. But aren’t there some qualitative differences identifiable, one sermon to the next?
There’s another major consideration I haven’t addressed before: the speaker’s personality and/or personal gifts. It seems logical to me that we’ll rank a sermon higher on our scale of rhetorical and spiritual beauty if we like the person delivering the message. And/or we’re likely to rank a sermon higher if the person sharing the message is a gifted speaker, talented platform presence, and/or polished presenter (“performer”?).
But our heart matters and preferences, the speaker and his or her persona aside, it still seems to me there are a few things we could list that distinguish the good from the not-so-good sermon.
Here’s my list:
--Are we listening to something new, or is this the “same sermon, different text”? In other words, while the speaker is delving into a different passage of Scripture is he pretty much giving you another summary of what he’s said numerous times before? Repetition per se is not a bad thing. In fact, it’s a tool of good pedagogy. But then again, if you’re hearing the same themes over and over it’s likely a sign the speaker hasn’t or isn’t studying new material.
--Is the sermon just a recitation of the same themes: be a good boy or girl, don’t do bad things? Now is this wrong or injurious counsel? Of course not, but if the speaker has presented basically this same refrain ad infinitum, than you’re not going deeper and you’re not likely maturing in the faith.
--Sermons focusing upon personal-behavior-only can fairly be described as pietism. Much of this approach isn’t hurtful in itself; in fact it’s good. But if this is where the sermon stops than the speaker is missing an opportunity to teach a Christian worldview, to integrate Scripture in contemporary life and culture, to demonstrate how Scripture not only enriches and blesses our inner faith and personal life but also offers enormous positive reinforcements for our culture—“way of life”—whether social, political, economic, civic, artistic, and more.
--Is the sermon simply an elaboration of a Scripture passage? We have to be careful here. The Word of God, simply read, is in itself a great sermon. God promises his Word will not return to him empty or without impact. What I’m noting, though, are the times a speaker reads a passage of Scripture than simply works back through it telling you what it means. Again, this isn’t a “bad thing” in itself. Perhaps this method is needed to assure understanding. But I think far too many commonly presented passages are repeatedly presented, talked about, and that’s it. Something’s missing.
--Does the sermon lack illustrations? This is what’s often missing in the previous scenario: a lot of Scripture but no illustration from contemporary life painting a picture of what the passage means and how it might change your life. I’m amazed how often I hear sermons that make no connection to life, to news, to what’s going on in the world outside the church.
--Similarly, does the sermon lack application? It’s one thing to read the Word and understand what it says. It’s another thing to be able to apply it in your life. I think I’ve met young people who can tell you the story of Daniel in the Lions’ Den but have no idea what the story means for them in 2012. They can talk about miracles but someone missed the opportunity to teach them about the sovereignty of God. Here again is the opportunity to get outside the church—apply doctrine in a real world.
Well, this is enough. I think a good-to-great sermon rightly divides the Word of Truth, illustrates it, and draws upon a Christian worldview to apply it to or “integrate” it in both our personal lives and culture.
© Rex M. Rogers – All Rights Reserved, 2012
*This blog may be reproduced in whole or in part with a full attributionstatement. Contact Rex or read more commentary on current issuesand events a www.rexmrogers.com or follow him at www.twitter.com/RexMRogers.
What’s the difference in a good and not-so-good sermon? Is it us, you, me? Is it our own hearts and attitudes more than the details, construction, or delivery of the message? Perhaps, but for now I’ll leave that thought for another day. I’ve been thinking about “What makes a good sermon?”
Have you ever listened to a sermon and thought it was one of the best, most moving you’d ever heard? Or maybe you heard a sermon that you thought was a masterpiece, constructed in a way that hit a spiritual and maybe an oratorical home run?
On the flip side, ever listened to a sermon and wondered what the speaker was trying to say? What was his point anyway? After awhile, do you even care? Or have your ever listened to a sermon and wondered what the speaker was thinking when he put it together?
Now I’m not a theologian or a preacher. I’ve not attended seminary and I’m not ordained. So maybe I’m not one to address the question “What makes a good sermon?” On the other hand, I’ve listened to thousands of sermons and I am a speaker, having presented a few hundreds of sermons along the way—hopefully a few good ones and undoubtedly more than a few not-so-good ones.
But before I dive in, I must acknowledge two other considerations that get in the way of an unbiased evaluation of sermon quality. It’s possible that, along with the heart matters I mentioned earlier, determining what makes a good sermon is a matter of taste or preference. Like everything else, I suppose there are some things about a sermon that makes it likeable and appreciated by one but not another listener. If this is so, than what I’m going to say suggests more about my preferences than about the independent merits of a given sermon.
Finally, there’s the possibility that the whole question of the “likeability” of a sermon might be the wrong question. Certainly it’s possible, in fact I think I’ve experienced it, that a perceived "un-liked" sermon can indeed be a needed, convicting, and beneficial one in the providence and work of the Holy Spirit.
So with all that, heart matters, taste, and the spiritual potential of “un-liked” sermons, it seems like I’ve talked myself into a corner that admits to no criteria for identifying a good from a not-so-good sermon. But still, I don’t think so. What do you think?
© Rex M. Rogers – All Rights Reserved, 2012
*This blog may be reproduced in whole or in part with a full attribution statement. Contact Rex or read more commentary on current issues and events at www.rexmrogers.com or follow him at www.twitter.com/RexMRogers.
Megachurches qualify for the designation when attendance tops 2,000 people. The term was first used by megachurch researcher John Vaughn and later popularized in his 1993 book entitled Megachurches and America’s Cities: How Churches Grow. Now we’ve got the inelegant term gigachurch, a congregation of 10,000 or more in weekly services.
Now several churches top 20,000. Actually, Joel Osteen’s Houston-based Lakewood Church is listed at about 43,500. Next in the list is Second Baptist church, also Houston, at 23,659; North Point Church with Andy Stanley in Alpharetta, GA at 22,557; Willow Creek Church in Chicago with well-known megachurch leader Bill Hybels at 22.500; Lifechurch.TV in Oklahoma at 20,823; and West Angeles Cathedral in L.A. at 20,000. Purpose-Driven Life Pastor Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church just misses the 20,000-attendee club at 19,414.
There are now well over 1200 churches in the United States with weekly attendance figures regularly over 2,000, and most are growing. Before we get carried away with these grand numbers we should note that in South Korea some churches claim 250,000 regular weekly attendees. Mind-boggling.
So what should we think of this?
I’m not a megachurch researcher, much less an expert. I’m not necessarily “for” or “against” megachurches. I just get into some of them, see them as I travel, and witness how some of them present facilities, personalities, missions, etc.
As far as I can tell there’s nothing “wrong” with a church that attracts a large attendance. In one sense, they are simply outcomes of our age, along with “big box stores” like Walmart and Home Depot, huge businesses, again like Walmart, or Google, Apple, or Microsoft. “Big” is an attribute of our lives in part because there are more people on the earth than ever before, some 7.3 billion and growing.
I believe in liberty, i.e. that one can make one’s own choices, and I believe in free enterprise, i.e. that one is free to invest talent, time, and effort, create a service or product, and build something worthwhile. Churches can do this, or at least their attendees and leaders can. People choose to go where they get what they want, where what’s presented is presented well, if not excellently, and where it’s convenient or affirming for them to go. One reason churches grow is because they have a speaker that hits the ball and people choose to come back time and again. Nothing odd or “wrong” in this, unless of course the speaker or the church preach or teach theological error.
Beyond this I confess some megachurches make me uncomfortable. One reason is simply the facilities they require. Enormous, and I mean humongous, edifices—no, multi-edifices on campuses rivaling small universities. Having led one of those small universities and done a bit of fundraising I can say these facilities cost tens of millions of dollars and other millions to operate them. Some are nothing short of opulent. Is this “bad” or “wrong”? I can’t quite go there, at least not as a generalization. But I also know that facilities like this go well beyond what’s necessary for basic worship and fellowship. They absorb funds that could indeed go for a variety of other fund-starved needs and ministries.
Megachurches aren’t all good or all bad. Their appropriateness and effectiveness trace to the people who lead and attend them.
© Rex M. Rogers – All Rights Reserved, 2012
A spate of articles hit the media this week reporting that Dr. Robert H. Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral filed for bankruptcy protection. Church leaders blamed the economy, drops in attendance, and a large mortgage debt, some $30 million left over from building expansion. According to the church leaders, then, the church has problems and money is the culprit.
But money isn’t usually an organization’s primary problem. Money is more of a symptom than a cause. Sure, some organizations or corporations can truly be caught in the unpredictable vagaries of the marketplace, but imoney is generally a secondary issue.
It’s not unlike couples telling marriage counselors they’re having sex-related problems in their marriage. Again, could be, maybe; perhaps there are genuine, discrete problems rooted strictly in sex. But not usually. Experienced marriage counselors know there’s almost always something else, some other breakdown in the couple’s life or relationship, a primary problem that generates a secondary or contingent sex problem. Money problems in marriage and in organizations are like that too.
The real issue at the Crystal Cathedral is not money but leadership. I visited the Cathedral last winter and wrote about my impressions at the time. I think what I said then holds true today. Dr. Robert H. Schuller didn’t know when to let go. I doubt he was clueless on these mathers—he’s too gifted for that to be the case. No, he either didn’t want to or couldn’t let go.
Dr. Schuller, to give him credit, tried to leave in 2006 when he transferred leadership to his son, Robert A. Schuller. But it didn’t work. Son was gone less than three years later. Despite news coverage no one’s quite sure why. But whatever the surface issues the real problem was leadership again.
At the time, rather than conduct a national search for a pastor capable of leading the church, Dr. Schuller returned and stayed long past a time when he, because of age, could be effective in the pulpit and in leadership. He didn’t change, apparently didn’t let his son change things, and didn’t respond to cultural shifts in the Christian community.
None of this is intended as disrespect for Dr. Schuller. He’s a pastor who accomplished many good things, and whom he is and what he seemed to do in mishandling leadership are all quite human.
But the issue is still leadership. Great leaders know when to leave. Unless God removes them in some way, great leaders leave a legacy to build upon and they leave with their head up.
In football, Tony Dungy, formerly of the Indianapolis Colts, is an example of a great leader who knew when to leave and left gracefully. Bobby Bowden, formerly of the Florida State University Seminoles, is an example of a good leader who didn’t know when to leave, was eventually forced out, and left a legacy of public bitterness and ungraciousness in the process. It’s too bad, because in almost every other way Bobby Bowden is a good man of great achievements.
Dr. Robert A. Schuller is a good man of great achievements, but he didn’t handle well the leadership succession imperative that comes to every leader. Rev. Jerry Falwell planned well, and when God called him home, the plans worked perfectly for the good of the ministries Dr. Falwell led. Rev. Billy Graham planned well, and when advancing age began taking its toll, the planned transition to son Franklin worked admirably.
Money is the great equalizer, so if leaders misstep the mistakes sometimes show up in the bottom line. The Crystal Cathedral needs funds to continue operation, but what it needs more is a vibrant, visionary new leader. Here’s hoping those who care for the Crystal Cathedral ministry realize this and launch not a fundraising campaign but a leadership search.
© Rex M. Rogers – All Rights Reserved, 2010
*This blog may be reproduced in whole or in part with a full attribution statement. Contact Dr. Rogers or read more commentary on current issues and events at www.rexmrogers.com or follow Dr. Rogers at www.twitter.com/RexMRogers.
Today, I attended morning services at both Crystal Cathedral with Robert H. Schuller and Saddleback Church with Rick Warren, about 20 miles-but-worlds-apart in worship format. It was an interesting peek at different segments of evangelical Christianity.
Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California is best known for its distinctive glass architecture creating an impressive aesthetic experience both within and without the structure. Inside is a huge pipe organ which along with the facility’s acoustics made the 45 member choir sound like ten times that many. The choir sang traditional hymns and Dr. Schuller’s daughter, Rev. Dr. Sheila Schuller Coleman, emceed the program. The auditorium was maybe two-thirds full with seemingly one-half the women and some of the men dressed in bold Valentine’s Day red. More interestingly, I was close to being the youngest person in the service. While a few younger adults attended this was very much an older audience.
Dr. Schuller is 83 years of age and still preaches with a degree of energy. But he also evidenced his age today by making mistakes in three separate statements. The program was constructed around today’s celebration of the 40th Anniversary of Dr. Schuller’s television and radio program, “Hour of Power.” While the service had its high points, in particular the choir, the overall experience of the service seemed lethargic to me and even a bit forced. I found it uncomfortable and wondered if others did as well.
It wasn’t long ago, within a few months, Dr. Schuller installed then removed his son, Dr. Robert A. Schuller, from heading the ministry and the flagship program. According to press comments, attendance and donations had been dropping and the ministry was drifting. But this was happening before Jr took over and is apparently continuing because recent staff cuts and program airtime reductions have been implemented. Dr. Sheila Schuller is now heading the ministry and as I noted today’s service. She seems nice, but she is not an inspiring speaker and at times lost her place or her pace in the program sequence. I’m not sure I understand why she’s been anointed to step into leadership. Not because I have anything against a female leader, but because I believe the ministry would be better served by announcing and completing a search for the next qualified senior pastor of the church.
I mentioned the service seemed “forced,” meaning it felt like they had a brand they had to keep promoting. And they do, it’s Robert H. Schuller and Positive Thinking-Possibility Thinking, so every few minutes someone emphasized the word “positive” or “possible” in a way that didn’t work for me. God or Jesus was mentioned from time to time, and when they were it was done in a biblically appropriate manner. But Schuller’s legacy, which was mentioned, and being positive and having hope were the bold print part of the message.
Saddleback Church with Rick Warren was a substantially different experience. The service on the main campus, one of five now plus the online church, was packed into a relatively modest-number-of-seats auditorium with the feel of a black box theater, music was lively, the congregation was vibrantly engaged, and all but a couple of choruses focused upon Jesus by name, the blood, forgiveness, or God’s love. The service was amazingly diverse with every age represented from crowds of children and young families on the campus going to their own facilities to the elderly in wheelchairs or literally on oxygen in the worship center. The congregation was as racially or ethnically mixed as you’re likely to find anywhere including sports events.
Rick appeared twice on video—today was his day to visit the outlying campuses—and a guest pastor spoke. This was not a big disappointment to me because I’ve heard Rick before. The message by a guest speaker was thoroughly grounded in Scripture—people were encouraged to open Bibles—and focused upon God’s forgiving us, thus making it possible and essential for us to forgive others, i.e. “Jesus’ pattern should become our practice.”
If I had to guess which church ministry would survive the sudden loss of its senior pastor I’d say Saddleback, despite Rick Warren’s national persona. At Crystal Cathedral, you can find huge paintings of Dr. Schuller on the visitor center wall, his quotes scripted on those walls, and people in the program or even the ushers repeatedly mentioning his name or what he said. Nothing wrong with paintings or quotes per se, but again, it’s become the brand.
At Saddleback, you can find Rick’s books in the book store, but the only picture I saw of him was a small one-among-many in the bulletin. Same can be said of the respective websites. Saddleback isn’t marketing Rick Warren. It’s marketing life lived authentically in and for Jesus Christ.
There are at least two additional reasons I believe Saddleback would survive the unexpected loss of its senior pastor better than Crystal Cathedral: leadership and young families. Crystal is still struggling through a generational leadership change that has not yet really transitioned. The leader is in his 80s and either never really let go or had to come back because the ministry has been for 40 years heavily focused on his persona and program. It’s difficult to undue constituent loyalties in a quick or short time. Saddleback, on the other hand, has a long list of pastors on staff and it’s knee deep in deacons who can and do lead an incredible array and complexity of ministries. In other words, Saddleback has a leadership bench to draw from in a time of crisis or transition, and despite what critics have said, Saddleback isn’t of, by, and for Rick Warren. He’s an evangelical star, but at the church the spotlight isn’t on him, it’s on Jesus. The church’s future can also be seen and foretold in those hundreds of families and thousands of children bee-hiving the campus and finding spiritual niches in the programs Saddleback offers.
Visiting both churches in one day was a worthy experiment, and I’m glad I did it. And I should say, I didn’t write this piece to be critical of Dr. Schuller. I respect much of what he’s accomplished for the Lord. But I’m also concerned for the future of that ministry. Saddleback has its own challenges, but leaders and congregants are bent upon meeting those challenges as God directs, which is a great thing to see.
© Rex M. Rogers – All Rights Reserved, 2010
*This blog may be reproduce in whole or in part with a full attribution statement. Contact Dr. Rogers or read more commentary on current issues and events at www.rexmrogers.com or follow him at www.twitter.com/rexmrogers.
Attending church without fear of your life or property is one of the greatest freedoms this free country affords us. Freedom of worship, the ability to honor God and apply his will in our lives, work, and culture, is a First Amendment guarantee, a continuing gift of our armed forces, and our great blessing.
According to Scripture, the Church is the Body of Christ, the “Church universal,” the gathering of all the Saints who name the name of Christ as Savior and Lord. The Church is a worldwide, trans-cultural, trans-racial/ethnic, even trans-historical phenomenon initiated by God in the Book of Acts. The local church is, according to Scripture, a gathering of believers, including the Lord who meets in the midst of them, that come together in a neighboring geographic community. The local church is a subset of the Church universal.
The local church is that place where believers may join hands in fellowship, worship together, pray together, evangelize the lost, celebrate weddings and new births, encourage the living, and honor Saints at their heavenly home going. The local church is where we are held accountable, encouraged, and edified. The local church is a platform from which we can launch a Christian influence upon local culture. It becomes our church home and church family.
Scripture says not to forsake the assembling of ourselves together. We can worship alone, but we must regularly worship together—because God designed us to need and enjoy the experience.
Church signs—marquees—were once a fairly trustworthy source of information about what happens inside the building (which can be any kind of structure…the church is the fellowship of believers, not the edifice). Unfortunately this is not so anymore. Now, whatever the denomination, you need to attend, to see what the pastor believes and preaches, and to evaluate whether the church really is a Bible-believing and teaching church. That’s the kind of church we all need to find and with which we need to identify.
At Cornerstone University we ask our personnel to be “faithfully involved in an evangelical and biblical church.” We believe in church membership, but we wrote this personnel policy statement emphasizing faithful involvement because that seems to be an even higher standard of commitment than simply attending or joining.
Attending church is a privilege. Praise God for his wisdom in ordaining the church and commanding us to participate.
© Rex M. Rogers - All Rights Reserved, 2006
*This blog may be reproduced in whole or in part with a full attribution statement. Contact Dr. Rogers or read more commentary on current issues and events at www.rexmrogers.com or follow him at www.twitter.com/rexmrogers.