What makes a sermon good?

Posted by on May 20, 2016 in Blog | 4 comments

The last post asked if preaching has a future. I guess many would answer – ‘depends on the preaching. There is no future for shabby preaching, but good preaching, bring it on.’ Fair enough, but what is a ‘good’ sermon? I came up with these seven ideas (I like the ‘one for each day of the week’ concept) – and am interested in others that you would add to the list (perhaps we’ll get to one for each day of the year!) Lest you think, ‘but I am not a preacher, so have nothing to say on this topic’ – it is as important that we hear from both preachers and listeners. If you are a listener, what helps you grow? What do you think makes for a good sermon? Here are my seven…

  1. A good sermon does good. Simple, but in its own way, profound. What do we mean by ‘does good’? In my time at Vose Seminary I have learnt the importance of asking the four ‘h’ questions of each sermon – how does this impact the head (what we think), the heart (what we feel), the hands (what we do), and the holy (how we experience and encounter God). At the very least, a good sermon will make a difference in one of these realms – better sermons will impact two or three, amazing messages will tick all four of the ‘h’ boxes. And a truly amazing sermon will do that not just for one or two of us, but for the church community, so that we collectively leave with more biblical knowledge (which over time will translate into wisdom), a greater love for Jesus, a commitment to act in a constructive way (and to tangibly do some things differently), and with a sense of awe and wonder that the God of the Universe has just met with us…
  2. A good sermon communicates biblical truth accessibly – whilst giving pointers to its greater depth. From the perspective of communication, preachers have a tough challenge. How do you engage listeners who have significantly different levels of knowledge of the Bible, different intellectual capacity, different learner styles, different ages, different degrees of spiritual maturity and so on? It isn’t an easy gig. Simply state the obvious things about the Bible passage you are speaking on, and those who are listening to their one hundred and eighty seventh sermon develop a glazed look in their eye that says very clearly – ‘I have heard this all before… so many, many times before’. Try to plunge in too deeply, and those converted in the last few months look bewildered – their eyes saying ‘I have no idea what you are talking about’. At the same time we can make it sound more difficult than need be. In the first instance, good sermons recognise that the primary text being considered is the Bible, and then try to unpack its message responsibly, usually communicating at two levels -for beginners, outlining the simple and straightforward meaning of the text, while for those further along providing pointers to the more complex issues raised without necessarily elaborating on them. Thus good sermons are accessible whilst also providing some tempting tasters to those who wish to go deeper.
  3. A good sermon discovers the preaching point of the passage. Preaching isn’t just about the head. Indeed there are great dangers when we reduce it to an exercise of the intellect, as though the Christian faith is primarily about having the right thoughts, rather than about following Jesus. When it comes to preaching, some people like to get onto the ‘reduce it to a memorable slogan’ bandwagon. I am not convinced that we have to be quite so formulaic – but yes, if you can’t communicate the key idea/s you have been trying to get across in a sentence or two, it is unlikely that people will remember much… though again. It isn’t really about what is remembered – it is about whether we have helped listeners to follow Jesus more closely – and we don’t usually follow Jesus more closely simply because we can articulate a key sermon idea clearly. Perhaps another way of saying this is to acknowledge that good sermons give room for the Holy Spirit to move, to encourage, to convict, to inspire, to guide… to make a difference. They take some risks. They expect God to be at work. They are sermons to be preached, because they are intended to make a difference.
  4. Good sermons start a conversation in your head. You find yourself engaged in the questions the sermon raises and the new worlds of possibility it opens up for you. You find yourself starting to think ‘well perhaps I could’ or ‘wouldn’t it be great if’ or ‘I wonder why’ or ‘thank you, thank you Lord. This is exactly what I need to hear right now’.
  5. Good sermons are authentic. How long does it take to prepare a good sermon? Answers differ, but I’d back anything in the 5-10 hour range. Less than 5, and you’ll have something dismally thin, and find yourself waffling to fill the time. Worse still, waffle starts to become a pattern, and you will find it takes longer and longer to say less and less. More than 10 hours and you’ll fall into the trap of making the sermon a lecture instead of a message – finding it irresistible to include too many interesting but essentially irrelevant pieces of information that you have tracked down. But while a specific sermon may take 5-10 hours to prepare, in another sense, it takes a lifetime. All that has gone before goes into the preaching process. It is why authentic preachers who are genuinely deepening their love for Jesus usually become better preachers as they age – they’ve followed Jesus for longer, and have reflected on that journey in the light of the biblical story, and now have something of substance to say. Listeners are not fools. They quickly differentiate between what is authentic, and when we are simply prattling words for the sake of words.
  6. Good sermons remember the 3 p’s – pace, pause and pitch. And good preachers remember to vary them. This is about presentation. Good sermons remember to win attention over and over. They win it by relevant content, by biblical truth, by varying pace, by using appropriate pauses, by sometimes being loud and sometimes soft and often somewhere in between. They will remember that preaching is about ‘enlarged conversation’ – and so will speak to the crowd as though they are one person – and yet will remember that they are not – so being a little larger and a little more animated than if it were simply a one on one. Usually good sermons don’t preach at – they discover with – and they discover winsomely, not aggressively.
  7. Good sermons point to Jesus. I remember a piece of advice I was given many years ago – and which I now try to communicate to my own students. Finish each sermon pointing to Jesus. How do we know if we have? Simply ask, ‘if communion follows immediately after the message, can I in one sentence transition from how I have finished into the communion service?’ If not, I have finished too far from the Cross and need to work at a different ending.

Well, those are 7 quick pointers – I don’t doubt there are many more. Why not add some that come to you?

As always, nice chatting…

4 Comments

  1. Thanks Brian – very timely give we have just had a discussion at our Teaching Team meeting from Church about what good preaching is.

  2. Thanks Brian. I guess I can add a little pointer here. Good sermon taps into audiences’ emotions. It connects to the audiences mentally and emotionally so they can understand God and feel God. One way to do this is to tell a relevant and emotionally intriguing story at the beginning of a sermon. So often people cannot absorb the thematic message of a sermon because their emotion is not ready. By telling a good story, it can open the lock in the audiences’ head and allow the message to sink into their head and heart. There is good research evidence in Neuroscience to demonstrate how powerful story telling is in communication. Good story triggers the brain to release biochemical substances that can raise the audiences’ interest and concentration. Indeed, the best storyteller is the one above who has been telling stories since the beginning.

  3. All really helpful thanks, Brian. One thing I would add (although I think you have already said these in a different way) is a good sermon, ‘grabs attention and leaves a deposit of spiritual fruit’

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