What Makes a Good Sermon? Five Questions to Ask
Over the years I’ve heard a number of sermons that have moved me to tears, and yet, upon closer review, I discovered that significant elements of a good sermon were absent. Despite all my training, I recently realized I didn’t know a good sermon when it smacked me in the face.
I recently discovered this glaring flaw while listening to a number of our pastoral interns preach. I created a rubric with important elements of a good sermon to give thoughtful feedback to students on how to improve. I noticed that occasionally I’d hear a sermon that I categorized as “not that good” merely on feel. But once I began considering the elements of a good sermon, I recognized some “below average” sermons were actually quite helpful. My instincts alone had simply failed.
DO YOU KNOW A GOOD SERMON?
So what about you? How do you know when you’ve just heard a good sermon? Did it make you feel really good or really bad about yourself, others, or God? Can you trust your feelings? Do those feelings ever lie to you? How do you know when to trust your feelings?
Or maybe it’s not your feelings that cause you to categorize a sermon as helpful. Maybe it’s your impression of how others—like your non-Christian family—might receive it. You know they need a message that’s funny enough to take the edge off but clear enough to call them to repentance and faith in Jesus.
Or perhaps you just have a really good gut that tells you when you’ve heard a “word from God” as opposed to all of those lesser words that are just posers.
Are you sure you know a good sermon from a bad one?
DEFINITION OF “GOOD”
First of all, I suppose I should define “good.” I’m using that flexible adjective as a placeholder for sermons that will mature and strengthen your doctrine and life over time, sermons that will sanctify and transform both individuals and churches—perhaps not after just one Sunday, but almost certainly after years and years of Sundays.
Just to be clear, only God can create “great” sermons and “great” preachers. God alone creates the unique kind of responses Charles Spurgeons preaching evoked, and we should celebrate these unique movements of the Spirit. But we should also support and celebrate faithful pastors who work hard, preach faithfully, love their people, and endure with patient faithfulness. Most pastors are more like Charles Simeon than Charles Spurgeon, whose early years of ministry included tomatoes to the face and empty pews. Both preached faithfully; only one received adulation.
With that in mind, here are five important questions to help you detect a good sermon.
1. Is God’s Word the most important part of this sermon?
I’ve recently heard a number of sermons that were rhetorically strong but theologically weak. As you listen, be careful not to trust your emotions too much. Not only have I initially labeled a good sermon bad, I’ve also found myself gripped by a rhetorically strong but man-centered message that upon closer inspection espoused unbiblical theology.
I’m not saying that ethos and pathos mean nothing. But Paul says pastors are to preach the Word, not move the soul, heart, or mind. So it’s worth asking the question: is the Word what drives your appreciation for a sermon? Are you more interested in the preacher’s stories than you are his God? That may sound obvious but do you really treat it that way experientially when you’re evaluating the significance of the preached Word?
2. Do you leave understanding the main point of the text?
In other words, do you understand your Bible better because you heard this sermon? And do you see that the pastor crafted his message in such a way that the main point of his message was the main point of the Scripture he is preaching from?
Maybe you sense that he missed it. But did you sense that he labored to understand the meaning of that text in its particular context and to make God’s agenda his agenda rather than vice versa? Good preaching elevates God’s Word above man’s ideas. Good preaching—predominately but not exclusively—is expositional. Good preaching goes verse by verse through books of the Bible in order to reveal the whole counsel of God. Too many preachers preach ex cathedra, like the bishop of Rome offering authoritative pronouncements, expecting people to trust their words rather than pointing them to God’s.
3. Did the preacher preach Jesus?
I hope this question sounds strange to your ears. What evangelical church would leave Jesus out? Well, over my recent sabbatical, I listened to a number of sermons on Old Testament texts preached in large, conservative, evangelical churches where Jesus’ name was not mentioned. A sermon preached in Christ’s church failed to mention Christ. It would have fit neatly into any local synagogue. Would you notice if Jesus wasn’t the hero of the story week in and week out?
But we should not only ask if Christ was preached, we should also ask how Christ was preached. Were we exposed to the biblical Christ from both Testaments in a way that doesn’t treat Jesus as an obligatory appendage to an otherwise good Jewish message? Did the preacher make it sound like Jesus came and died so that you could have a better marriage and more obedient kids?
Christians and non-Christians both need nothing less than the resurrected and living Christ. This seems to be how Philip responded in Acts 8 to Ethiopian eunuch reading Isaiah. It seems to be what Jesus himself did on the road to Emmaus as he opened up all of the Scriptures and showed how they spoke of himself. In fact, just read through the New Testament and see how tenaciously Christ-centeredness its authors are.
We need preachers who preach like Jesus, Peter, and Paul.
4. Did the preacher apply the sermon to my life?
Conviction is the work of the Holy Spirit. But the Holy Spirit gifts preachers and teachers to help Christians apply God’s Word. Did you sense that the preacher prayerfully seeks to know you? What about the other Christians in the room who might be different than you?
Christ is building his church with diverse people from all walks of life. Does the pastor only speak to and about middle-class families? Or does he take into account non-Christians and nominal Christians, old people and young people, black people and white people, rich people and poor people, single people and divorced people, married people and widows?
The list could go on, but the point is simple: Is the preacher thinking pastorally through the text about specific ways God’s Word matters to diverse people in his context? Or does he preach past the congregation he has to the congregation he wishes he had? Does his application reveal a Spirit-driven care for the souls he shepherds? Or does it reveal something else, like laziness or narrow-mindedness or thoughtlessness?
5. Does he speak as one who knows God or knows about God?
Notice that up until this point I’ve spoken almost entirely about presentation. That’s because communication matters. But it can also be overdone and distracting.
On this question, it’s crucial to remember that preachers will act differently in the pulpit because preachers come from all different kinds of people. Some will have big and bombastic personalities, while others will be more restrained. Some will tell jokes, while others will not. The point here isn’t to be prescriptive on those matters of preference. Rather, I simply want to make the general recommendation that preachers should use the appropriate emotion for the appropriate text. Does he communicate joy when he’s talking about good things and sobriety when he’s talking about horrible things? In other words, does he describe the Christian experience as though he’s only heard about it in a book, or does he express it as one who has actually walked with God?
I’ve included the evaluation sheet to help you listen better. I suggest you read the questions on the questionnaire first, then take notes as you listen, and only fill out the evaluation form after the sermon is over. I would also encourage you not to use these every Sunday. They are best used to help you develop healthy categories to help you appreciate faithful pastors or to help you choose a healthy church for you and your family.