What makes a good sermon?

What makes a good sermon? September 18, 2014

Last week in the Wall Street Journal retired Episcopal priest J. Perry Smith offered an amusing and mostly-right reflection on what distinguishes good from bad sermons. Let me tender my own five rules for good preaching.

1. Explain the text. It’s remarkable how many preachers miss this. Instead, they use the text as a pretext for their own message, often light years from the message of the text they claim to interpret. Most churchgoers, however, come to the sermon wanting simply to hear what the Scripture text for Sunday means. Some would also like to know how the historic Church has interpreted this story or doctrine. They’d also like a little concrete help on how to apply the lesson to their next week.

2. Fewer stories, please. Too many sermons are rooted not in the biblical text but stories and jokes coming from the preacher. These sermonizers forget—if they ever knew—that the best stories are the Bible’s stories! They have far more drama and color than tales the preacher can tell about himself or others or find on the Internet. The preacher’s task is to do the homework to make the stories and teachings of Scripture come alive. As Jonathan Edwards put it, to make what is true become real.

All of us preachers should ask ourselves, When our hearers go home, what do they remember? Our stories . . . or the biblical story?

3. Leave your politics and social justice at home, unless . . .  Rev. Perry rightly complains of sermons that merely repeat what you can find on the op-ed page of your newspaper. Or what you can get from taking a college sociology class on the latest PC nostrums. Why go to church for more of the same? And why should preachers claim to know what they have not been trained to know or called to preach—such as whether the earth is getting warmer or whether minimum-wage laws will help the poor? We preachers should know that top scientists and economists are divided on these questions.

At the same time, most of us would agree that the church should have preached the connection between abolition of slavery and the gospel in the 1850s, and civil rights for blacks as an implication of gospel ethics in the 1960s. That’s because life and death issues to which the gospel speaks sometimes become political issues as well.

I have been criticized for bringing politics into the pulpit when I have preached against abortion or for marriage between a man and a woman. I have told my critics that these are not partisan but biblical concerns. The taking of innocent life is an “abomination” (Prov. 6.17) in the Bible, and marriage is the fundamental metaphor in both Testaments for God’s relationship to his people. If we preachers shy away from talking about these issues in the pulpit, we should not be shocked when our parishioners form their views of these critical issues by what they hear from the media.

Bottom line: there is a difference between moral doctrines at the heart of historic orthodoxy and those that orthodox believers who are experts on these issues disagree on.

4. Don’t sweat the time. Don’t get me wrong, many sermons are too long, as Rev. Perry complains. Many are repetitive and simplistic, and keep on going after the most important point has been made. Or they mistake the sermon for the Sunday School class, confusing preaching for teaching–saying far more than their hearers need or want to know in a sermon. I have been guilty of this all too many times.

But was Rev. Perry right to say that eight minutes should be the maximum? Because people these days don’t have long attention spans? If that is so, then why do many of these same people rave about 40-minute lectures they hear at the local college or online? Would they really want Billy Graham to stop after eight minutes? Or John Piper? Or Ann Graham Lotz?

The point is that what we preachers should focus on is quality not quantity. If our listeners are getting restless after ten minutes, we should check what we are doing and not always assume the problem is elsewhere.

5. Don’t preach same-old, same-old. Rev. Perry rightly criticizes Joel Osteen for sounding like a broken record playing the same line over and over: “Jesus loves you.”

Osteen is right on that, of course: Jesus does love you and me. And this is fundamental. But Osteen is wrong on what he leaves out, such as Jesus’ holy wrath toward sin. Jesus loved the woman caught in adultery, but also told her to go and sin no more.

Many in the pews know in their hearts already that Jesus loves them. But they want to know more. Preachers do no favors to Christians wanting to grow in the faith by repeating the same platitudes every Sunday, and making every text say the same thing—“Come to Jesus” or “You are justified by faith apart from works.”

If preachers take the text seriously, they will find something different in every text, and their hearers might actually go home learning something new that they didn’t know before. After all, Scripture is an infinite ocean revealing the infinite aspects of the trinitarian God. Preachers should expect to find in each new text something which they did not preach last Sunday.

Then the subject at lunch after church might actually be the message of their sermon, not its length.

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