How to Tell If a Sermon is GoodJacob Prahlow 2017-08-23
Every week, millions of people around the world situate themselves in moderately uncomfortable seating and listen to someone talk at them for an extended period of time. I am, of course, referring to Christians who attend church services and listen to sermons. While Christian denominations differ on all manner of doctrine and practice, the proclamation of a message is accepted as standard practice by Christians worldwide.
Now, sermons vary quite a bit. They differ in title (sermon, message, homily, lesson), length (from 5 minutes to hours), style (read, Spirit-inspired, off-the-cuff, practiced), emphasis (as the central focus to a prelude to something else), and content (topical, exegetical, series, stand-alone, visionary, reactionary). Furthermore, as anyone who has attended church more than a handful of times can tell you, sermons also vary greatly in quality.
Some sermons are extremely boring, filled with clichés, poor teaching, and dragging on for what seems like an eternity. Other messages are highly engaging, composed of amusing anecdotes, motivational testimonies, and powerful calls to action. Some sermons are theologically rich, rooted in solid exegesis, overflowing with biblical wisdom, and founded on timeless truths. Other times, sermons are theologically destitute, bereft of meaningful insights, rarely referencing the scriptures, and lacking identifiably Christian content.
What Makes a Good Sermon?
Given this great variety, we may rightly ask what makes for good sermon? And how can we tell?
Are good sermons merely a matter of personal preference? Or are there qualities that all good messages exude? Are excellent messages engaging and relevant? Are they truthful or motivating? Maybe good sermons are made up of interconnected stories? Or filled with explanations of Hebrew and Greek? Do good sermons focus on the church? The world? End times and final judgement? Do good sermons sound like someone reading from a commentary? Or perhaps they are like reading the New York Times or Atlantic? Or maybe a good sermon is similar to turning on Fox News or MSNBC? Do good sermons cause internal reflection and meditation? Do they instigate external action and charity? How can we tell if a sermon is good?
Encouraged by Chad Kim’s thought-provoking series on sermons (here, here, and here), as well as my own ongoing search for a fit within Christendom, I offer some principles for how to determine if a sermon is good. These are, of course, my own musings and reflections, not some be-all-end-all list. In practice, I have found that focused reflection on particular aspects of a sermon can provoke meaningful meditation on the message as well as help me stay attentive whilst listening to a sermon, regardless of its length, style, or tradition.
When trying to determine if a sermon is good, I focus on three characteristics: Gospel, content, and presentation.
The focus here is on the proclamation of the sermon—what is its central message? This is often a big picture focus rather than a “did one of the three points mention ‘gospel’ in today’s sermon” approach. Truly excellent sermons proclaim three central messages: God’s story, Christ’s work, and Christian hope. Three questions help us identify these messages with more specificity.
Does the sermon tell the story of God? That is, are the aspects of the metanarrative revealed in scripture (creation, fall, promise of redemption, redemption, restoration) touched on, explained, or emphasized? Do we learn something about who God is or how he interacts with his people or the world? Human beings are story tellers—if a sermon does not tell the story of God, people will place the contents they like into other stories about reality.
Does the sermon proclaim the Gospel? In other words, does at least part of the delivered message focus on the revealed message that Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again, and the necessary response to that proclamation? Our Christian forebears regularly sought to find Christ in every passage of scripture—are we likewise locating Christ in all of our sermonic activities?
Does the sermon emerge from and champion a Christian worldview? God’s story and Christ’s work do not stand alone as abstractions, but instead call adherents to a particular set of values, commitments, and actions. The question here, then, is whether the sermon articulates, applies, and advocates the Christian worldview in a consistent way.
The next characteristic of a good sermon is its content. For the most theologically robust sermons, content is related to and embedded within the larger gospel-context. The key question here is does this message apply Christian truth to Christian life? Here also there are three helpful questions to ask oneself when trying to determine if a sermon is good.
Does the sermon faithfully make clear Christian truth? For many forms of Christianity, this is the exegetical function of a sermon: taking the contents of scripture (and tradition) and interpreting what they mean. Excellent sermons build from essentials, connect the resources of faith, clarify confusion, and offer reasonable speculation on the complex. If you walk away from church thinking, “I understand ______ better now,” the sermon did a good job interpreting and clarifying Christian truth.
Does the sermon realistically explain Christian life? Do the image and expectations of the sermon coordinate with a faithful Christian life? Often this is the most difficult part of a sermon to accurately assess, since human sinfulness draws us toward our depraved status quo. A good check for this question is asking if other (often older) faithful followers of Christ have been able to live in the way that the sermon describes. Messages that cast expectations of temptation free living, easy prosperity, or universal giftings for “true” Christians fail to realistically explain the Christian life.
Is the sermon applicable to daily life? This is the practicality check, the ethics portion of a sermon. Many sermons are historically, linguistically, or theologically rich and then fail to deliver livable insight for their hearers. As James 1:22 reminds us, Christians are not called to merely listen to the word (and so deceive ourselves)—we are called to do what it says. A common criticism of contemporary American Christians is their hypocritical living—knowing and believing one thing (for example, the need to love our neighbors) and then acting differently (such as ignoring the homeless in our communities). A key component of good sermons is admonishing Christ followers to live out the faith that they confess.
The final component of a good sermon is its presentation, the method and manner in which gospel content is delivered. The guiding question here is does a sermon effectively convey its gospel content to the audience?
I regularly hear statements to the effect of, “Well, presentation isn’t really important for a sermon—what’s truly important is the content.” On one level, this is true: the message is more important than the medium in which it comes. But this statement neglects a critical fact: for most people, message and medium are inexorably intertwined. A great story delivered poorly will be received like a poor story; a great punchline delivered at the wrong time does not a good joke make. Presentation matters, a fact that the Apostle Paul recognized. In 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 he makes clear the importance of appropriate presentation, concluding that, “To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.” Whatever Paul’s audience required to hear the gospel of Christ, the apostle took seriously and accommodated accordingly.
In today’s busy, increasingly isolated, social media driven world, presentation is becoming more and more important for reaching, convincing, and retaining people with any message. To gauge the presentation of a sermon, ask yourself the following questions: Is the audience able to follow the message? Do the organization, transitions, speed, tone, and other communicatory information assist in keeping the audience attuned to what is being said and asked? Theologically rich applicable content that cannot be heard or arrives as a disorganized mess does not proclaim the Gospel well. Second, is the sermon memorable? Will people be able to remember the point the message was trying to make next week? Next year? By 6pm on Sunday? It is difficult to get an audience to internalize a message that they cannot remember.
Finally, is the sermon relevant to the audience? A sermon could be nearly perfect—gospel oriented, theologically sound, applicable, well-organized, and memorable—and not be relevant to the audience. Of course, not everyone has or feels the same needs, and thus relevance works on something of a sliding scale. The point here is that an audience either must have a need or be convinced of a need in order for a sermon to truly be effective. Presentation of gospel content matters when it comes to sermons (and in every other circumstance). Truly excellent sermons—and superlative communicators—recognize this fact and deliver their messages accordingly.
Focusing on Gospel, content, and presentation in sermons serves as a helpful rubric for meditating on the message delivered and reflecting on whether it is good or not. The threefold approach is especially helpful for weeding out sermons that focus too much on any one aspect—such as beating people over the head with the “evangelical gospel,” an overemphasis on Greek grammar in every message, or feel good stories surrounded by only a veneer of the Christian worldview. When viewed through the lenses of Gospel, content, and presentation, such sermons come across as clearly lacking, even if they appeal to our individual preferences or interests. My hope is that this outline and these questions help you reflect on and internalize the sermons that you hear.
How do you determine if a sermon is good or not? What are some principles or practices that you look for in sermons?
Image courtesy of Fr. Lawrence Lew.