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
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