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How Was the Sermon?

Winter 2008
PAGES 3,4, 5
[original publication]

"Nice sermon, pastor," the friendly woman said as she breezed through the narthex door. "That sermon just didn't do anything for me," the disappointed man said as he tugged on his coat and headed to the parking lot. The one comment tells the preacher generally that she may have done a good job; the other tells the preacher generally that something may have gone wrong. But in both cases it's that adverb "generally" that is the problem.

"What exactly did I say that made that sermon so 'nice' according to Lloyd and Sheila last week?" the preacher wonders. Then again, "What exactly did I say that made Alice so ticked?" What's more, how can the preacher be sure that either comment was on target? Whether someone is complimenting or critiquing the pastor's sermon, pastors are better off if they know that the person making the comment has some idea about what a sermon should be in the first place—and therefore has some good reasons for suggesting that a given sermon did or did not hit the mark.

When Calvin Theological Seminary established "The Center for Excellence in Preaching" three years ago, the faculty knew it would serve the church if they came up with some standards by which to assess sermons. The faculty did so, and the four standards they came up with were eventually folded into the Seminary's new sermon evaluation form (enclosed in this issue of Forum). In an effort to help everyone in the church be able to provide their pastors with the kind of informed feedback that is genuinely helpful, the balance of this article will look briefly at each of these four standards of excellent preaching.

Excellent preaching is biblical.

Scripture is the vessel through which and by which the Holy Spirit brings the gospel to light. So the first step in evaluating a sermon is to ask, "Does this sermon reflect a serious engagement with the biblical text? The next time I read this passage, will I be able to remember at least one insight that I gleaned from this sermon?"

For their part, pastors need to approach the text with eagerness and an expectation that they will be startled by what the text reveals. Too often preachers assume too much and so conclude that biblical texts don't have a lot of potential to startle. My colleague Randy Bytwerk, a Calvin University communications professor, says that before Thomas Edison would hire someone to work in his invention shop, he would take the candidate out to lunch for some subtle observation. When the soup arrived, if the potential employee added salt before he tasted the soup, Edison would not hire him. People who assume too much do not make good inventors because they get rid of their best ideas before they bother to try them out.

Preachers should never assume they know how a certain text "tastes" before reading it. Preachers should expect to be startled by the text and then bring that expectation into the pulpit. What's more, preachers should expect to be convicted by the text through their careful study of it. Congregations, in turn, should hear in the sermon not how the preacher "feels" about the text nor what the preacher wants to make the text say. Instead, truly biblical sermons are those that proclaim the truth of the text. Only when the sermon says what the text says can we expect the Holy Spirit to work through that sermon in ways that are fresh, bracing, and startling.

Excellent preaching is authentic.

Some while ago when serving as a guest preacher, I was approached by a woman who said with great enthusiasm, "What I liked most about your sermon is that I can tell you really believe this yourself!" I was glad to hear that but was at the same time troubled. Her comment told me that she had heard altogether too many sermons that did not reveal such transparency between the message and the heart of the one who proclaimed it.

According to Mark's gospel, when Jesus first began to preach and teach in places like Capernaum, the people were properly wowed by his miracles—but what arrested their attention even more was, as they put it, "He teaches as one with authority, not like the scribes and Pharisees." What differentiated Jesus from others was that there was no discernible gap between his message and his own person.

I once heard a charming anecdote about Pope John XXIII. Apparently one day in the 1950s the Pope was having an audience with a number of people, including several mothers of young children. At one point the Pope said to one of these women, "Could you please tell me the names of your children? I realize there are others here who could give me that information, but something very special happens when a mother speaks the names of her own children." I think we know what the Pope meant. When our relationship to and engagement with something or someone is as close as a mother-child bond, then we cannot help but speak of such things with warmth, fervor, love, and commitment.

The more people sense the preacher's own engagement with and devotion to the gospel and the Christ of God who is that gospel's centerpiece, the more sermons will take hold. It's the old "fire in the belly" phenomenon: there can be no substitute for the preacher's own enthusiasm about the things he or she proclaims. When a congregation has the sense that the preacher is bored with his own sermon, how in the world will that message touch anyone? But when a preacher has spent the week engaged with the biblical text in ways that make her eager to get into the pulpit and share the week's findings and discoveries with everyone else, that sermon will take hold almost immediately.

Excellent preaching is contextual.

The Word of God is the unchanging foundation and center of any sermon. Further, God is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow, and so there are things preachers must say today that are identical to what Paul said in Antioch 2,000 years ago. Some things do not change.

But preachers cannot speak even core gospel truths today in the same way John Calvin did in Geneva 400 years ago or Augustine did 1,600 years ago. Preachers need to know their context, their culture, the shape of the lives into which they want to pour the gospel's content. Where and how is the gospel being challenged and questioned and undermined today? How are those peculiar challenges different from what was true fifty years ago?

No, preachers never accommodate the message of the gospel. But to make even that unchanging message intelligible to people today requires a savvy apprehension of the context in which Christ will be encountered today. So preachers need to read good newspapers and magazines, explore the contours of modern life through the works of thoughtful novelists and poets, be judicious viewers of television and films, and be willing to listen to the voices of even those who may count as the church's fiercest and nastiest critics. Congregations have the right to hear a voice from the pulpit that connects with the contemporary situation.

Excellent preaching is life-changing.

The preacher needs to preach with the expectation that something will happen as a result of the sermon. Preaching needs to be eventful. This sense of anticipation has to start with the preacher himself. Sermons never seek merely to impart information but carry with them the expectation that if the sermon is biblical, if the preacher clearly believes what she is saying, if the message is spoken in a contextual way that will be understandable to people in the twenty-first century, then the Holy Spirit is going to do something.

If people listen to this message with prayerful hearts and with a measure of holy seriousness, their lives can change. People come to the faith for the first time because of what they hear in sermons. Others recommit themselves to the faith after a period of doubting and wandering.

Still others who are perfectly solid in their faith will find their pulses quickened and their spirits uplifted by being reminded again of precious gospel truths.

These four standards of excellent preaching provide church members with some pegs on which to hang their thoughts about the preaching they hear. Being aware of these categories can help us move from saying, "Nice sermon, pastor," to saying something more along the lines of, "What I like about your sermons, pastor, is that they are so rooted in the Bible and yet so aware of how Scripture speaks to us today." Or we can move from, "That sermon didn't do much for me," to something more like, "Pastor, I have a hard time being able to tell if you are very enthusiastic about the message yourself."

In the Reformed tradition, preaching has always occupied a central place in the life of the church. That seems unlikely to change, and so also conversations about preaching will continue across coffee tables, around dinner tables, in the narthex, and in the council room. It is our hope that providing some guidelines for such conversations will help make those conversations as fruitful as they can be to the benefit of preachers and congregations alike and to the singular glory of the great God whose wonders we proclaim!