Everyone wants to hear–and some preach!–a good sermon. But what exactly is a good sermon? Certainly you know one when you hear one, but pinning down the details can be difficult: preaching is an interesting mixture of theology (what we’re saying) and rhetoric (how we say it). Yet when a sermon includes the following seven central elements, and when the Holy Spirit is present, something happens–the word comes alive and people come to faith.
In brief, a good sermon engages the biblical text, proclaims the gospel, connects God’s word to the lives of God’s people, is well organized and easy to understand, captures the imagination of the hearers, is delivered well, and orients people toward life in God’s world.
1. A good sermon engages the biblical text
Historically, the Christian sermon has always followed the reading of Scripture. In a very real way, the sermon is a response to the Scriptures read. In the Scriptures the preacher has heard God speak in such a way that she must say something back, first as she works on her sermon and then to her congregation that Sunday. To think of the sermon as response takes seriously the nature of the Bible as God’s word, a living witness that still provokes a response from those who hear it. Therefore, good preachers strive to engage the biblical passages seriously, in a manner that is interesting, inspiring and relevant.
2. A good sermon proclaims the gospel
Wait a second. Isn’t preaching the Bible the same as preaching the gospel?
Yes and no. Certainly our sense of the gospel (in brief, what God has done through Jesus Christ for us and all the world) emerges from the biblical witness. At the same time, though, there is some value in realizing that we cannot simply equate the two. Luther had a nice way of putting this. The Bible, Luther said, is like the manger in which the Christ child rests. So while we should flee to the Bible to find Christ, Luther counseled, we should avoid falling on our knees to worship wood and straw. To put it another way, we value the Bible so highly precisely and primarily because it contains the gospel.
The preacher’s primary task in dealing with any biblical passage, therefore, is to say a word about what God has done and is still doing through Jesus Christ for us and for all the world. Our task as biblical preachers is to approach passages of Scripture (be they parables, wisdom sayings, passages from Old or New Testament) with two tasks in mind: a) to hear the particular confession of faith being made in the passage and b) to relate it to our overall sense of what God is up to in our lives and the world through Jesus. That is, whatever you’re preaching on, somehow it relates to the ongoing work of the God we have come to know most fully through Jesus Christ.
3. A good sermon connects God’s Word to the lives of God’s people
Part of the significance of the Christian
doctrine of the Incarnation is God’s commitment to be accessible, to speak a divine word in human form, to take on our lot and our life. Preaching is an incarnational word, one that reaffirms God’s commitment to meet us where we are.
To put it another way, we might go so far as to say that there is no universal gospel apart from the way it manifests itself in the particular and concrete aspects of our actual lives. To talk about “God’s love” or “forgiveness” or “grace” in general makes very little sense without pointing to specific examples and instances of love, forgiveness and grace in our lives and the world around us.
Preaching that is generic or universal in character and does not struggle to relate God’s word to our actual lives is boring, irrelevant, and gives the impression that God does not really care about what’s going on in our lives and world. On the other hand, preaching that is only “relevant”–focusing on the latest perceived need, trend or tragedy in the community without viewing these issues from the perspective of the gospel–is at best therapy and at worst mere pandering.
4. A good sermon is well organized and easy to understand
As we all know, if the message isn’t clearly thought out and presented, it just doesn’t matter much what’s being said. If I can’t follow it, then I can’t appreciate it and certainly can’t be moved to faith by it. Likewise, preaching that is unclear, poorly organized or difficult to understand is ineffectual.
5. A good sermon engages the imaginations of the hearers
One of the most significant insights of mainline preachers over the last two generations has been that the gospel is more than a head-trip. That is, the gospel is more than thinking a certain way. It is not just cognitive, but experiential, deals not only with our rational side but with our whole selves–feelings, desires, needs, heart, soul and so forth. Preaching, we have come to realize, speaks to the whole person, and to do that we need to engage the imaginations of our hearers.
6. A good sermon is delivered well
To preach is to communicate. Therefore, it must be delivered effectively so that we may hear the message. In order for that to occur, two things need to take place:
a) The preacher must deliver the sermon with the appropriate affect. If you’re excited, bursting with good news, and think what you have to say really is good news, then your facial expression, body gestures, and voice should express those emotions.
b) The preacher must deliver the sermon with passion and integrity. People should know that you believe what you say, that you have something at stake in this message, that it is true for you, and that it matters. Insincerity is easily detected by most listeners and greatly undermines preaching.
7. A good sermon orients hearers to life in God’s world
Christian worship is the gathering of the faithful so that they may be renewed in faith and sent once more into the world as the people of God. Preaching, as a central part of that worship, has the responsibility not only to proclaim the gospel so that hearers may come once again to faith, but also re-direct those same people to the world as the arena in which they live out their Christian callings to be God’s people, and even God’s partners, in the world. God has chosen to use human means–the abilities and opportunities of our people in the various roles and dimensions of their everyday lives–to help sustain the world God loves so much.
For this reason, preaching that does not seek to orient hearers to their active lives as God’s people sent to care for God’s world risks engendering an inwardly focused, even self-centered version of Christianity that betrays God’s love for and commitment to God’s world.
The next time you are listening to or preaching a sermon, look for these seven marks. And later, when the appropriate opportunity presents itself, talk about the sermon with your pastor. Most preachers welcome, even crave, honest feedback. This outline of the seven marks of a sermon may give preachers and their hearers some guidelines to talk about what makes good preaching.