KEY ELEMENTS OF A GOOD SERMON
When I was a theological student there was a preacher we used to call ‘Chloroform’, which calls for no explanation! Then there was ‘Springboard’ who announced his text and then dived into a series of ideas that bore only the remotest connection to the text. But thankfully there have also been many faithful, excellent and exciting preachers that I have learned from. So from years of listening to sermons and working hard to produce them myself what do I think makes a good sermon?
There are at least eight key elements in my view:
- The right attitude in the preacher
- Solid preparation
- Grounded in God’s word
- Christ centered
- A commitment to intelligent orthodoxy
- Delivered from deep conviction
- Application to peoples lives
- Follow the rules of good spoken communication
Let me develop these:
1. The right attitude: Unless you believe that there can be no greater privilege and responsibility than speaking, teaching, explaining and applying Gods word to people’s lives then don’t do it.
2. Solid preparation: Haddon Robinson says that “Every time you preach someone suffers – either you suffer in preparation or the hearers suffer!” Preparation in prayer, in study of the text, in research, in the construction of the sermon is non negotiable. My average when I was preaching weekly was about 12 hours per sermon.
3. Grounded in God’s Word: Jesus said “We do not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” All preaching whether expository or topical must be from the scriptures, we are ministers of The Word. The preacher’s primary task is to understand what the text means and how it applies to the life of the people and his own life. The systematic exposition of the Word of God is the spiritual bread of the Church. The various ways of approaching this we will comment on in point eight.
4. Christ centered: Of course not every text mentions Christ specifically but the preacher should always have in mind the central theme of the bible – God’s grace to us in the saving work of Christ. The preacher must consider how this theme comes to bear on all exposition and every human need. This is the frame that sets every passage and topic in its right perspective. Scripture is a unity and its revelation ultimately has a singular focus – Christ.
5. A commitment to intelligent orthodoxy: In a culture hostile to the Christian faith there is a tendency in the contemporary church to “conformism”- the radical adapting and reducing of creedal Christianity to fit the prevailing plausibility structure – what people find believable today. At the other extreme is the reaction of fundamentalism. What is desperately required is intelligent orthodoxy where thoughtful preaching engages the current intellectual idols and challenges and critiques them with the historic faith. This requires reading, study and hard thinking.
6. Delivered from deep conviction: The Bishop of Dublin in the late 18th C said to his clergy “Preach, not because you have to say something, but because you have something to say.” It is very clear to the listeners when a preacher speaks out of deep conviction and when they are just going through the motions. One is compelling the other induces apathy. Conviction can come with a quiet intensity or a forthright passion, both are arresting. If you have nothing to say then please don’t inflict it on us!
7. Application to peoples’ lives: A sermon without practical application is like being given a new task without being given any instructions in how to do it, very frustrating!
Sermons that exhort or inform but have no application to peoples lives eventually have a de motivating effect. If you regularly exhort me to pray but don’t give me any practical tools or guidance in how to pray more effectively the exhortations begin to wash over me.
In application the questions we need to answer as preachers are: How does this teaching affect my life, my work, my relationships? How do I respond to this now and next week? If this is true what transaction do I need to make with God this morning?
8. Follow the rules of good spoken communication: Peoples ears are not just USB ports that you can plug a data stick into and download a whole lot of information to their brains. Communicating with people is more complicated than that. Here are some rules:
(a) Ask, who are the listeners? The closer your language, idiom, humor and culture to that of the listeners the greater will be the attention, understanding, learning and acceptance of what you say. Of course the opposite of this is equally true. To give it its fancy name, be‘culturally contextualized.’
(b) Start where people are. Start with their issues, questions, needs, challenges. The Jewish psychotherapist Irvin D Yalom lists four universal challenges that all of us face at some time in our lives. He calls them the ‘Existence pains.’ First: The inevitability of death for each of us and those we love. Second: The freedom to make our lives as we will. Third: Relationships and our ultimate aloneness as individuals. Fourth: The absence of any obvious meaning or sense to life. Around these four areas cluster most of our inner concerns and anxieties as we try to cope with the harsh facts of life. They echo the book of Ecclesiastes.
(c) Rapport established, the preacher will then try to take people with them on a journey of discovery as they unfold the questions and uncover the wisdom of Gods Word. A journey of discovery, an unpacking of a mystery is far more engaging and involving than assertions and announcements from on high – ‘The preacher, six feet above contradiction!’
(d) Someone said ‘the stairway of abstract argument is necessary but tiring to ascend.’
The preacher must use illustration, example, metaphor and story to aid understanding.
Research on listeners’ attention shows marked jumps when a story is introduced. It also jumps up when personal experience and appropriate humor is introduced.
(e) The other challenges for contemporary preachers are people’s intense subjectivity, shorter attention spans and their highly visual culture. Ravi Zacharias has said “How do you reach a culture that hears with its eyes and thinks with its feelings?” In 2007 the title of the international cutting edge festival of graphic art, The Venice Biennale, was “Think with the senses, feel with the mind.”
Part of the answer is to ‘speak visually’, to tell stories, to use visual media where possible and to not avoid emotion.
Bret Whitley once said that “painting is a struggle between form and content”. The same could be said of preaching, but without that struggle there is no great preaching as there is no great art. The preacher’s primary task is to help the listeners ‘hear’ Gods Word to them, but ‘hearing’ involves more than making peoples’ eardrums move!
( The following resources are very helpful: “Inductive Preaching – Helping People Listen” by Ralph and Greg Lewis, Crossway Books 1983. “Preaching to a Post Modern World” by Graham Johnston, Baker Books 2001. “Why don’t People listen?” (Republished as “The Good Listeners”) by Hugh MacKay, Pan MacMillan 1998)