What makes a sermon good?
Seeing as how sermons constitute such a large percentage of our periods of worship, at least in regards to time, it seems sensible to understand what makes for a good sermon. God has only given us so much time in this world, and a poor sermon not only wastes the time of the participants but is, by its very nature, detrimental to the spiritual health of those same listeners who might be tempted to think the preaching better than it is and act accordingly. If we are going to engage in the activity of listening to the preaching of sermons, an activity both commended and by implication commanded in Scripture (cf. Acts 6:2, 10:42; Romans 10:14; 2 Timothy 4:2, etc.), then a basic grasp as to the purpose of the preaching as well as an appreciation for the basic necessary ingredients of good preaching, can only aid us in the pursuit of that activity.
It seems unfortunately true that many who are destined to listen to sermons, week after week, have opinions as to what constitutes a good sermon which are both misguided and wrong. These individuals judge the sermon by how pleasing it was to their senses, how enjoyable it was as an activity, and whether they left feeling better after the sermon than before. One must wonder how such listeners would feel about the preaching of the apostle Paul, who though he could be eloquent, purposefully avoided those oratorical tricks which made for “good listening” as he did not want his listeners to miss the whole purpose of the sermon (cf. 1 Corinthians 2:1-5). Likewise, when one considers that the preaching of the apostle Peter on the day of Pentecost, contained not a single humorous anecdote or illustrative story, one must wonder how well his preaching would be received today in many congregations. And would people today think that the preaching of Jesus, the master preacher, was satisfactory if they had to sit and listen to Him preach His Sermon on the Mount, or would they want something different? What does it say about what we desire in a sermon if the sermons of Jesus, Peter and Paul do not satisfy?
A related pitfall is that temptation to seek from the sermon a confirmation of prior biases, especially when such confirmation allows for some feeling of spiritual superiority, creating gratitude that we are not like those poor, deluded souls who are on the wrong path. Paul called such an attitude towards preaching, “itching ears (2 Timothy 4:3)” and Jesus warned against such spiritual sentiments (cf. Luke 18:10-14).
In all things spiritual, our opinions as to what is desirable or good should be based not upon our own inclinations or opinions, but upon God’s revealed truth, and so too it is with discerning what constitutes a good sermon.
A good place to begin in analyzing the quality of any given biblical homily or spiritual discourse is that advice given to the young preacher Timothy by the apostle Paul: “I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching (2 Timothy 4:1-2; ESV).”
Paul had little to tell Timothy about how many points each of his lessons should have, or about how to make his sermons more interesting through the use of humor. Rather Timothy needed to focus on the substance and the purpose of his preaching. Concerning the substance, Timothy needed to make sure he was preaching the Word. His sermons needed to be focused on and filled with the message of God for man, and the truth of the Gospel of Christ. Anything else would be a disservice to his calling. Concerning the purpose, Timothy was to use his moments spent teaching to prepare men for Christ through reproval, rebukes and exhortations. He was to tell instruct them in those areas in which they needed to improve and encourage them in the things they were doing right.
Still today, the purpose of Biblical preaching remains the same as it was then, and we should seek preaching and sermons which fulfills God’s plan for the activity. We should desire to hear lessons which are built upon God’s word, and which instruct us in how to be pleasing to God. Sermons which fail in these regards, no matter how pleasing they may be in other ways, are squandered opportunities.
Jonathan McAnulty is minister of Chapel Hill Church of Christ. Viewpoints expressed in the article are the work of the author.