Do we know what good preaching looks like?

There is a general nervousness about assessment, evaluation and feedback amongst those in public ministry, particularly amongst those who are ordained, but also for anyone engaged in doing things ‘up front’ in a ministry context. This is natural and understandable; in many contexts, being involved in public ministry often requires that you (literally) stand apart from others and so feel slightly separated from them. And doing this is a risky business, since you cannot always tell how people are responding. (I think the issues here were exacerbated by the shift to online activity during the pandemic, since you are then even more isolated from natural, human feedback.) And when we ask for feedback (if we dare!) it is often not given well. (Here are my eight top tips for giving feedback well.)

But just because you are not asking for evaluation, it does not mean that people are not evaluating you! And I think we might be in for some surprises when we do start meeting again together, as I suspect a lot of people will have voted with their virtual feet, and we will find our congregations configured quite differently from where we were last February.

In some ways, preaching has become more prominent in online services, since other parts of our gatherings are diminished in the medium on online services. Can we know what good preaching looks like? Can we hope to offer useful evaluation to others, and receive it for ourselves? There are, of course, distinctive elements to online preaching, which I have explored previously—and people continue to watch services online, so-called ‘stay-home church’. But I think the core of preaching, in person or online, remains largely unchanged.

When I was teaching homiletics (preaching) in a theological college, I used to start by exploring the issue of what good and bad preaching look like. I did this indirectly—not by asking the question ‘What does a good sermon look like?’ since this could easily have led to theoretical answers. Instead, I asked in turn for the group to think of a sermon that, for whatever reason, they would consider a ‘good’ sermon, and then to describe what that sermon was like, before quite separately asking them to think of a ‘bad’ sermon, and then describing what that one was like. (They were allowed, in either category, to think of sermons of their own or of others!)

Several striking things always emerged. The first was that there was a remarkable and surprising unanimity around what both good and bad sermons look like—regardless of theological tradition, experience or temperament on the part of the listeners. This suggests that the characteristics of good preaching transcend the specific details of theological commitments on the part of both preachers and listeners.

The second was both mundane and equally striking. No-one had any hesitation in being able to identify what ‘good’ and ‘bad’ looked like. For some reason, we instinctively seem to know whether what we are listening to is worthwhile. Of course, this will vary from person to person in relation to any particular sermon; within a congregation, people will respond differently to the same sermon they have heard preached. But over time, consistent things seem to emerge.

This raises a profound question: if we know what a good sermon looks like when we are listeners, why is it that (to put it bluntly) when we stand up to preach ourselves we don’t do a better job? This implies that self-awareness is a key attribute for good preachers; a key challenge is to translate what we know when we are hearers into what we do when we are speakers. We need to be able to imagine and understand how we sound to others—to see and hear ourselves as others see and hear us—if we are going to grow into being effective preachers. (This is why watching ourselves preach is an essential part of improving our preaching—and with services continuing to be broadcast online, we are now without excuse!)

The third issue related to the detail of the answers given. Over nine years of asking and answering this question, a very clear trend emerged. When talking about good sermons, people almost uniformly focussed on the content of what was being said—there was a good message, it was rooted in the Bible [perhaps reflecting the tradition of the college in which I taught], it related to my questions, it gave me something to think about. There was very rarely any comment on the delivery of good sermons.

By contrast, when talking about bad sermons, the majority of comments focussed on this issue of delivery—it was monotone, the preacher had some annoying habits, I couldn’t hear clearly, it was repetitive and didn’t go anywhere…and so on.

In other words, content and delivery function in quite different ways in relation to preaching (and probably in relation to other acts of communication). When delivery was done well, it disappeared from view, so the focus then was turned to the content. But when delivery was done badly, it drew attention to itself, and distracted from whatever content (message) was there.

This in turn implies something key about developing as a preacher:

  • If I want to be a good preacher, then I need to work on the disciplines which will allow me to reach the point of having something worthwhile to say.
  • If I want to avoid being a bad preacher, then I need to work on the disciplines that will allow me to deliver what I have to say in an effective way.

Quite a lot of discussion about and teaching on preaching focusses on the second issue alone—possibly in response to students’ lack of experience in delivering this kind of formal oration. But for my pattern of teaching, this realisation suggested two main focusses for the course. The first sessions focussed on the issue of having something to say.

  • What is preaching about and why are we doing it?
  • What is the role of Scripture?
  • How does the issue of hermeneutics (biblical interpretation) relate to the function of homiletics (the task of preaching)?
  • What kinds of illustrations are going to communicate content?

The second set of sessions then looked at issues in delivery.

  • How do we structure what we say?
  • What is the role of rhetoric in preaching?
  • How do we engage with issues of context?
  • What special demands are made on particular occasions?
  • How do we develop the core skills of projection, modulation and choreography?

The shape of this teaching, which then leads to the shaping of our evaluation of preaching, is rooted in what we think God is like and the role of preaching in relation to that. It is perhaps worth reminding ourselves that the church, and any particular congregation, is a gathering of Christians, that is, those who trust in Jesus as Lord (Romans 10.13. 1 Cor 12.3) and seek to follow him. But this Jesus is the one who points us to his Father, and he pours out the Spirit on us so that we too can cry ‘Abba, Father’ as brothers and sisters of Jesus (Rom 8.15). Our preaching then needs to reflect and engage with the activity of God as Father, Son and Spirit.

If we are to grow in our life as disciples, then we need to grow in our understanding of Jesus, and the first way we do this is by reading and understanding the Scriptures, which (in the OT) were the Scriptures of Jesus in which he believed God spoke, and (in the NT) the apostolic testimony to Jesus. These are ‘God-breathed’ in the sense that the Spirit of God carried the word of God in and through what the human authors wrote. But the Spirit of God is still at work, speaking today in and through these Scriptures, and when these are rightly interpreted, we can still hear the Spirit of God speaking to us today. (If God is ‘one’, then it would be odd to suppose that God is saying something different from what God said in the past—but the God’s word in a previous context needs to be translated into the contemporary context.) Rooting ourselves in Scripture, with its apostolic testimony, is central to what it means to be part of the (one, holy, catholic and) apostolic church, and so it is no surprise that Church of England services consistently place the sermon as immediately following the readings from Scripture.

We might therefore summarise the task of preaching as answering the question:

What is God saying

to these people

at this time

through this text?

How can we hear the Spirit of God, speaking today to these particular people in this particular time and context, through what the Spirit of God has spoken in the apostolic Scriptures in the past, to people in a different time and context (though sharing with us the same faith in God)?

There is a real danger here that we might think that what God does solely depends on us, and that the most important thing is our competence. That is not true! God is speaking, and at work (assuming we allow God to do this), and very often we find that God has spoken a powerful word into someone’s life in spite of our poor ‘performance’. And yet God constantly calls us into partnership in this ministry, and the opposite danger is that we think it does not matter what we do.

(I remember being a Pentecostal service where the service leader said: ‘Let us sing one more song whilst I think about what God might want to say in the sermon to day’. This approach certainly saves preparation time—but I would not commend it.)

This then leads to the question of assessment, and my thinking about preaching outlined above leads to five criteria by which to evaluate preaching. The first two relate to content, and in particular engagement with Scripture as our starting point and source for preaching content; the last two relate to delivery and the way that the preacher engages with the audience; and a middle criterion relates to the bridge between them—how the content relates to context.

I developed this framework for formal assessment as part of an academically validated university programme. But I offer it here as a resource—for assessment of preaching by others, and for reflection by preachers of themselves. If we are to hear ourselves how others hear us, one of the painful and demanding disciplines is to get into the habit of listening to ourselves—audio recordings or even video—and matching what we hear with these aspirations for good practice.

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(Parts of this article were published previously.)

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77 thoughts on “Do we know what good preaching looks like?”

  1. In my view preaching (evangelizo) is about proclaiming the gospel to unbelievers.
    Teaching (didasko) is about teaching truth to believers.

    And just to be even more controversial, I think preaching / teaching in church services has been an outmoded, out of date approach for at least the last 20 years.
    A psychological assessment tool called VAK shows from empirical research that:
    Approx 75% British people prefer to learn / take in information by Visual means.
    Approx 20% prefer Audio, and
    Approx 5% prefer Kinaesthetic.

    Preaching / teaching is audio / listening to someone talk – but only 20% of us have a preference for this.
    Most of us prefer to read it or at least watch eg a power point presentation.

    So I would campaign for much less preaching / teaching and much more small groups, bible study, workshops etc.

    • I believe the whole piece about learning styles has been debunked in the academic literature as part of the “replication crisis” in psychology, but still persists as an urban myth. From memory it has been demonstrated that the best learning style is the one that best fits the content being delivered, and that remains true for everyone. When a diagram is the best way of presenting the information everyone learns it better in diagram. Etc

      If that’s true (I could be wrong! Can someone confirm?) then it might it make sense that a Speaking God is best attested by a Speaking Priest rather than a PowerPoint presentation?

      • Hi Luke—yes, I agree that the popular learning styles assumptions have been debunked—and in fact many people learn best when pushed outside their preferred style.

        Having said that, slides that include either a summary, verses being discussed, or visual aids to the point being made can always help. These days I only used slides about half the time.

        Without them, the language needs to be carefully crafted; I think many preachers need to pay more attention to rhetoric—both large scale in terms of the shape of what they say, and small-scale in terms of crafting the language that is used.

        • Hi Ian, sorry for my slow reply. I couldn’t agree with you more. In my circles of the church I love the attention often paid to faithfulness and accuracy, but lament how people seem so suspicious of rhetoric and delivery.

  2. It would have been interesting to have the Dean of Windsor’s evaluation of Bishop Michael Curry’s sermon at the marriage of Harry and Megan!

    • Anton – yes, I remember, in a sermon, James Philip pointed us to an article in a Church of Scotland Magazine which he had found outrageous, where the author (a C. of S. elder) had stated that sermons should be restricted to ten minutes at most. He told us that he had telephoned his brother George Philip in Glasgow to get his opinion on it, who had replied that with most sermons, 10 minutes was probably long enough ……

      • Jock

        This has prompted me to think of another common problem, when preachers are sending sermons to themselves, but not the majority of the congregation. I don’t know the context of the anecdote, but why do people in the congregation need to hear that sermons ought to be short?!

        • Peter – in this context, they had to hear about the issues that were being discussed in the C. of S. (since it was a C. of S. congregation) where length-of-sermon seemed highly important and content-of-sermon didn’t get a mention. The context being that most sermons were so dismal that 10 minutes was quite long enough.

          (I’m quite sure that if ‘The Lord of the Rings’ movie had been limited to 10 minutes then (a) most people attending it would have come out wanting an awful lot more and (b) they would have felt cheated having rolled up to the cinema and only getting 10 minutes of movie. They would have felt that the subject matter warranted more than 10 minutes).

      • Oh well, if you don’t like the term ‘sermon’ because you don’t see it in this context, you could try ‘preachment’ instead to describe the words spoken by ‘someone preaching to them’, to quote Romans 10:14, which makes the importance of preaching quite clear – so you can’t dump the sermon, no matter what you want to call it.

    • “If you don’t strike oil after ten minutes, stop boring!”
      Very few preachers, I think, could speak fruitfully and hold attention for 45 minutes. Maybe they could in the 18th and 19th century when attention spans were longer and the preacher had les competition.
      But the three-point sermon that we make wry jokes about has a good empirical basis in how we naturally absorb information and how long we can listen until transition to another point. If it takes 6-7 minutes to expound with illustrations and apply one point, then a “good evangelical sermon” goes something like this:
      1. Introduction – 2 minutes
      2. Point 1 – explain with illustration/story – apply to our lives – 6 mins
      3. Point 2 – as above – 6 mins
      4. Point 3 – as above – 6 mins
      5. Summation with prayer recapitulating points – 2 mins
      All done in 22-25 minutes.
      Nota Bene: Not every point need begin with a ‘P’. But mnemonics are helpful as long as they are not cringeworthy.
      Nota Melius: Any preacher who begins ‘I wonder what you think about X’ is always met by my sotto voce ‘I bet you don’t!’

      • James – well, clearly the length is not the important feature, it’s rather the content. Romans 10:14 – is the message getting across? Baalam’s donkey gave a great sermon in a single sentence, which hit the mark. So a sermon that is ‘short and sweet’, but really hits home and delivers the gospel message is wholly OK.

        On the other hand, when the sermon is not the main feature of a church service, when it is relegated to something that is ‘short and sweet’, I wonder what the purpose of a church service actually is. The sermons I listened to when I went to church were usually approximately 45 minutes long (I posted an example above, given in July 1988).

        One thing I don’t understand is why people seem to have a good enough concentration span in other things, while at the church services they attend, they really want the sermon to be short. For example – my ‘day job’ is that of university teacher, where I’m expected to give lectures that last for 90 minutes (so I pick up the chalk at 8.30 am and put it down at 10.00 am). I then give them the tutorial 10.15 – 11.45 am. So somehow 3 hours of applied maths (with 15 minute break halfway through) is fine, but note that if the preacher oversteps the time limit when preaching, then people throw up their hands in horror.

        So when people want the sermon to be ‘short and sweet’ (and presumably fill up their church service with other things), I’m inclined to think that the problem is actually a moral issue (it’s not an intellectual issue or a concentration issue). There is something about being hit full force with the moral issue, our need for repentance, what Christ has done for them and why it was necessary, that bothers people.

        • “I wonder what the purpose of a church service actually is.” – corporate worship, including prayer and Eucharist.
          Church services in the evangelical end of churches are increasingly “cold play concert + TED talk”.

          • Paul – I’d probably agree with your assessment of what passes for evangelical, although I have no idea what ‘cold play concert’ is or what ‘TED talk is’ (and a cursory glance at the internet using google search didn’t inform me). My preference for singing is for 5 or 6 decent hymns, of the style of Charles Wesley and Isaac Watts accompanied by organ – the accompaniment kept simple.

            But doesn’t a decent exposition of the Word form part of your concept of a church service? Shouldn’t this be the focus, with the hymns chosen to underline the theme? People are prepared to watch movies of inordinate length – so why are they so keen to see the church sermon reduced to 10 (or 22 minutes – see James below) in length? Is this because the preachers can’t preach? Or is it – perchance – that the Word is challenging (at a moral level) – and people (even church-goers who pretend to be Christians) don’t want to hear this moral challenge?

            I’ve seen both – situations where the preacher should shut up after 10 minutes – and, frankly, should pack it in; situations where the preaching is good – and the hostility comes from an inherent hostility to the Word and our need for repentance.

          • “cold play concert + TED talk” – that’s a wonderful line to describe so many modern evangelical services, and I wish I’d thought of it! But it’s a line that also helps describe why I feel that so many modern evangelical services seem so secular. They’re often even delivered on stage sets that look like the blank spaces in which so many TED talks are delivered.
            But your wider point is important – everything that we do in church should demonstrate Christ and our participation in his life.

          • Church space that looks like a conference hall, power point slide deck with schematics & alliterating points, songs that edify (emotionally manipulate? Foster a sense of unity?) but don’t glorify god…. I’m a recovering “evangelical” I guess…. I guess the sermon on the mount was missing bullet points and a diagram..
            I miss feeling anything transcendent in this style of service..

          • Paul – this is something I strongly identify with. I’ve been in such a church service by mistake – and felt a tingly sensation down the back of my neck telling me that I really shouldn’t be there. I got out fast before Jehu surrounded the place and did his business.

            Recently, the lock-down enabled me to check out the local churches from my armchair without actually going along – and the so-called ‘evangelical’ churches all seemed to be like that, starting with some sort of rock concert (electric guitar, synthesiser). I’m not so keen on the Catholic church or the Jehovah’s Witnesses (we have a JW not so far away), so right now I’m pretty much un-churched.

            The important point is – at least where I am (an Eastern European country), ‘evangelical’ has a nasty whiff of the style you quite rightly object to.

  3. Great post Ian.
    When forced to think about this deeply when I came quite late in life to formal theological education – and at the same time was called to developing a contextual, scalable and sustainable preacher training programme – I came to similar conclusions. However, for grass-roots preachers in the Malawi bush I found it necessary to emphasise the hermeneutic as much as the homiletic:

    – What was God intending to say to the original writer of a passage to the original audience in the original context.
    – How is that purpose and message best communicated to today’s audience in today’s context through this text.

    Understanding text and any present context is obviously iterative for the good preacher but one thing I found critical was to encourage the preacher to let the text speak to them and avoid dreaming up a message from the context and then taking it to the text!

    For this Majority World audience the very visual ‘Scripture Sculpture’ metaphor/method developed by Ramesh Richard (Preparing Evangelistic Sermons, Beker, 2005) proved invaluable.
    I also found that there is much for us in the West to learn from our Majority World brethren if we are to practice expository preaching that truly impacts head, heart and hands in our context that is increasingly attuned to the oral/aural, the inductive and the narrative.

    • Thanks Myles—spot on. One of my sessions in the course I taught was about exploring the relation between hermeneutics and homiletics.

      The Aristotelian triad of ‘logos, ethos, and pathos’ is also helpful in ensuring that all parts of our lives are engaged.

  4. They understood about learning styles in the early centuries of the church — when much of the the congregations were not literate and had not got access to physical scriptural texts. I’ve read some of Augustine’s “Ennarationes in Psalmos” in the original and in translation, and I don’t know what I would have made of them if I had been an illiterate member of his congregation at the time — particularly as I am one of those people for whom oral communication of any length goes in one ear and out the other. But you can see in the choice of mass lections — often taken over at the Reformation into BCP — that you have REPETITION (the cycle being yearly); and the take-away messages are in one or other, or sometimes both, of the FIRST and the LAST sentences of the lection. This seems to me to be as much as I would remember as a lay listener. They must have realised that people were not going to take it all in.

    • Interesting.
      I’m another one who finds it very hard to take it in. My attention span lasts about 10 minutes if the talk / sermon is good; less when the presentation is poor.
      I have to make notes if I want to retain anything – reminds me of uni lectures 50 years ago!

      • Gordon

        Yes! “If you can’t be good, be short!”

        There seemed to be a trend for a while that “good” sermons were long sermons

  5. Good preaching is Good News of Jesus. It is not good information, not good advice but it is Good news.
    There is a grammar to the Gospel.
    1. The indicative mood, what God has done for us in Christ.
    2. The imperative mood.
    Everything we are urged, exhorted, to do is dependant on everything God has already done.
    Faithfulness responds to God’s grace.

    Without Christ a sermon could pass muster in secular society, or a synagogue.
    Over the years I’ve heard many sermons that could be reduced to;
    1 character studies eg, be like A don’t be like A
    2 issues of morality/ethics
    3 But the the underlying message mostly is, “try harder.”
    Spurgeon, prince of preachers, was asked what he thought of a preacher’s sermon. There was much good in it, but he has taken my Saviour and I don’t know what he has done with him, was the gist of Spurgeon’s response. I have the full quotation somewhere, but not to hand.

  6. I’d put openness, honesty and truthfulness in there as well.

    These seem to be a major problem amongst senior leaders in the church so it doesn’t go without saying.

    • What have you done with Jesus?So where is the Good News?
      In whom does it reside? Who is the knowable, relational, Person of transformative Truth?

      • Geoff

        We believe Jesus is the way the truth and the life.

        Unfortunately that doesn’t make everyone who slaps on a dog collar truthful all the time. In fact it seems to be increasingly that senior leaders take an “ends justify the means” when it comes to truthfulness

        • “We?”
          If they don’t believe what publically they held out as believing in their ordination vows, that will affect the content.

          • Geoff

            I agree. And this is why we see endless news stories of abuse, corruption, hypocrisy and dishonesty by church leaders – many of them, I’m sure, never really believed in the first place

  7. I view speakers much like I do those who read the Lectionary Readings.
    Some are just observing the ritual, some read much as they would a novel; where some read as though they have been marinaded in the text; It flows out of their very being.
    As for preaching, well there are all manner of types too numerous to detail.
    If God can speak through a donkey He can speak through any man.
    Sometimes I have found that God slips a line into such minds to illuminate, even if only to humble me or hide such things from “the wise “who may have dismissed the speaker after the first sentence.
    I was once invited, in my teens, to a Methodist day Convention.
    The keynote speaker was a national orator.
    I was not impressed and felt it was a waste of a Saturday afternoon.
    On taking tea I noticed an elderly spinster, a Methodist lay preacher , a simple soul who spoke with a marked stammer, I perhaps, I don’t know, dismissed her as a simple ladies speaker.
    I looked at her and God just took “the vail” from her.
    Her face shone like an icon of a saint;.
    I said “I want what she has got!”
    I visited her in her meager flat and thereafter every Sunday and formed a lifelong bond ; asking God for a double portion of the same spirit. 2 King 2:9
    A great many blessings have been double portions.
    When we speak of “gifted” preachers what exactly are they gifted with?
    Or “Donkeys” Take the reader of Luther’s commentary how did he read it that John Wesley had his heart “ strangely warmed” enough to perhaps persuade his Brother to read his Galatians Commentary. What ramifications for the Nation?
    Despise not the days of small beginnings Zechariah 4:10 For who hath despised the day of small things? for they shall rejoice, and shall see the plummet in the hand of Zerubbabel with those seven; they are the eyes of the LORD, which run to and fro through the whole earth

    In the New Testament God used a boy’s lunch to feed 5000,

    Jesus says, “He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much: and he that is unjust in the least is unjust also in much” (Luke 16:10).
    According to our Saviour, little things can make a significant impact on the big picture.
    1 Thessalonians 5:21
    Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.

  8. C. H. Spurgeon to his students on facial gestures in preaching:
    “When you speak of heaven, let your face light up. When you speak of hell, well, then your everyday face will do.”

  9. We had someone in our church who brought their cat along every Sunday. It was quite frisky except when l got up to preach and it then would settle down and go to sleep.
    I wondered if God was trying to tell me something..

  10. I think there’s another dimension of good preaching, which is the emotional sincerity and authenticity of the preacher.

    Does the preacher not only know about God and the Bible, but delight in them in a way that pervades the sermon?

    Does the preacher understand and empathise with the difficulties that the sermon addresses, not simply abstractly but out of shared experience of weakness and/or deep empathy with those wrestling with those challenges?

    I really struggle to benefit from preaching that’s simply a well-polished Bible talk or tgeology lecture, without also engaging on a heart level.

    • Yes, I would agree. In the classic Aristotelian division of ‘logos, ethos, and pathos’, the sincerity is part of the ‘ethos’ (is the speaker credible?) and the emotional engagement is part of the ‘pathos’.

    • Our cat was Calvinistic in his belief in us as provider of regular food and shelter, but Roamin’ in practise as he would come back home smelling of incense- or was it hand cream? When he died the street sent us pictures of him on beds, before fireplaces or eating their pets’ food. I think his doctrine was quite flexible. Not so interested was he in sermons, but he did listen out for key words. He knew the difference between a sweet savor and the mere word ‘fish’. He would even pull books off the shelf to make a point if, at 5pm, his supper wasn’t delivered up on time.

  11. Life Down a Rabbit Hole.
    A rabbit goes into a cafe and orders a cheese toastie; the next day a cheese and onion, the next, a cheese and tomato, the last day a cheese and ham, which causes it to stagger, confused to the door.
    What’s up a caring customer asks? Can I help?
    The rabbit groans in desperation: I think I have a terminal case of…mixing my toasties.
    Here we have the terminal ad-mixture of confused and confusing religious pluralism.
    There is only One life-giving-life raising cure.
    John 14:6

  12. Perhaps the reality is that the preacher will never please everyone, so whilst all the above is important, they can only trust that God waters the seed sown in integrity and truth. In a time when I longed for good teaching my vicar delivered 40 minute expository sermons. I loved them and needed them. Many others complained about the length. I wanted more. That’s where I was and I’m grateful that I got it. I am now in a Baptist church many years later where the lead minister is a (professional?) storyteller. Excellent communicator. Just the right amount of humour and not too many detours but what meets me alongside this is that his demeanour and body language is that of someone who is self effacing and humble – he has I suspect, (though I do not know him well) been through some life stuff that enables him to be vulnerable in a natural way as he speaks. At my stage of life and experience that means a lot.

    • Philippa – yes – I concur wholeheartedly. Above, I posted a sermon which I heard ‘live’ back in 1988, which was part of a series on Romans. When I first came across James Philip, it was a revelation to me and before that I hadn’t understood that preaching could be like this. After I heard this – yes, like you, I found that I loved it and needed it. Moreover, I consider it to be pretty much essential – rather than simply an ‘optional extra’ and I can’t understand the Spiritual mindset of those who, on the one hand claim to be Christians and who, on the other hand react against this sort of preaching. Something – at least to my mind – doesn’t seem to add up – when the same people who complain about a good expository 40 minute sermon seem to be able to spend way more than 40 minutes concentrating on other things (which may be intellectually demanding but certainly aren’t morally demanding).

      I only had the expository preaching for a short time – 1985 – 1988 – after which I left Edinburgh, but the sermons I heard during that period stuck in my mind and served me very well during the last 36 years when I’ve basically had to go without church services which have such preaching.

      • …. in fact, on the rare occasions when I post anything sensible here, it is usually based on what I heard during these sermons. The spoken word seems to be more powerful than the written word – in the sense that it seems much easier to recall something I’ve heard coming from the Holyrood pulpit than something I’ve read. So the spoken word does have a very important place.

  13. I knew a preacher who divided their exposition up into clearly stated headings (usually three ?) and each heading into three unstated mini-sections – explanation, illustration, application. With a variety of material and presentation it seemed to always work well.

    • Yes indeed—threefold structure always works well. I usually have three main points. They can often work as thesis-antithesis-synthesis; ‘this seems so; but there is this reality; and this is how God works through it’ or some such.

      • Three is just warming up, Ian. Look at some of the Puritan sermons from the 17th century. It’s not hard to find some of these online with headings such as “Fourteenthly, it can be said that…”

        • They reminded one of the peace and mercy of God: they passed all understanding and endured forever.
          The three point sermon outlined above by Peter (explain – illustrate – apply) is basically the structure I gave above.
          If each point is given c. six minutes, the whole sermon with intro and peroration lasts about 22 minutes.
          Judicious use of powerpoint should be encourages as well, in my opinion. It’s simply how communication is done today, but a lot of clergy are reluctant to develop this communicative gift. A good powerpoint can deepen any communication (‘One picture is worth a thousand words’ etc), add illustrations (literally) and make it more memorable – and save time. Not many people have the rhetorical ability to hold attention with words alone. Preachers should learn from best educational practice.

          • Christ didn’t bother with PowerPoint on the Mount, but I agree it can help provided that it isn’t overdone.

            But the best way that people learn is to get them to take notes during the talk, as in school, which isn’t a church tradition.

          • One thing l have found very helpful to use just before l preach is if l can, show a relevant visual clip from the Bible Project series which augments the verbal delivery and help set up the text in people’s minds.

  14. Paul evaluated his own preaching not only by factors in his gift: boldness, clarity, full conviction. He looked especially for: ‘power and in the Holy Spirit’ (1Thes), ‘demonstration of the Spirit and of power’ so that his hearers’ faith would rest not in our ‘good sermon’ but in the power of God (1Cor 2:4f). Unlike ‘be being filled’ which lies with us, this Holy Spirit act depends on God graciously doing it. We can prevent it by sin; we can put ourselves in the way of it by a consistent life, the people’s prayers, preaching Scripturally; but in the end of the day it lies in God’s gift. But should we not, like Paul, watch for this at least as earnestly as for the helpful factors in your final table?

  15. Preaching is all part of worship. It is worshipping God in and through the sermon.
    Does it mediate the presence of God as worshpful music may?
    In practice, in mangement sessions, there is death by power-point.
    Martin Lloyd-Jones ( lengthy sermons available on line) said he didn’t like people taking notes. When they stopped taking notes it was an indication they were really listening.
    I think he was in the school of revivalist preaching where people are changed there and then (by the Spirit) in small or large ways. You had to be there.

    Are prayerless pulpits widespread?

    • Amen to “preaching is worship”. Listening out for the voice of God.

      For that reason I don’t really like “it” being called a “talk”… Doesn’t sound quite right. Too static. Though “sermon” (which I tend to think should be persevered with) is sometimes viewed as dated.

      • Barth – and Reformed theology generally – had a far more dynamic sense of what the sermon is called to be: nothing less than the Word of God present in Spirit and power, communicating Christ in all his saving, converting, healing energy.
        Let us never settle for less in preaching.

  16. As someone who was involved in training General Practitioners for much of my professional life, videoing consultations was a routine part of encouraging young GPs to hone their consultation skills. This was being done over 30 years ago. Why have the same principles not been applied to those preaching? Yes it can be uncomfortable watching yourself but with the discomfort comes development, increased empathy and effectiveness. Videoing preaching should be a core activity in every theological college and form part of every incumbents annual or biannual discussions with their archdeacon Simon

    • Ian will know more about this, but I am pretty sure videoing of sermons by ordinands for crit is commonplace now – and so easy to do compared to the past. Social workers also use videoing for practice consultations, interviewing etc.

      • Many thanks for the replys Im probably not up to speed as to what is common practice now Do all theological colleges utilise video of preaching now Thanks again Simon

  17. While that indeed may be helpful, to be aware of distracting mannerisms and tics, it is has been remarked by well known preachers that there are times when God has worked powerfully when they were not at their best, and words seem to fall flat on the floor as soon as they left their mouths, but there was an emptiness, unresponsiveness when they have been on top form in full flow, polished.
    Also public preaching differs from pastoral engagement, as does Court advocacy where slickness may be the opposite of effective. It is not a performance from the preacher. Preachers are neither the object nor subject but it is truth through personality is it not? Used of God.
    Easy? Hardly.

    • Pascal says this in his Pensees on the vanity of human beings: “Would you not say that this magistrate, whose venerable age commands the respect of a whole people, is governed by pure and lofty reason, and that he judges causes according to their true nature without considering those mere trifles which only affect the imagination of the weak? See him go to sermon, full of devout zeal, strengthening his reason with the ardour of his love. He is ready to listen with exemplary respect. Let the preacher appear, and let nature have given him a hoarse voice or a comical cast of countenance, or let his barber have given him a bad shave, or let by chance his dress be more dirtied than usual, then however great the truths he announces. I wager our senator loses his gravity.”
      Pascal also makes this comment which can be applied, mutatis mutandis, to clerical dress:
      “Our magistrates have known well this mystery. Their red robes, the ermine in which they wrap themselves like furry cats, the courts in which they administer justice, the fleurs-de-lis, and all such august apparel were necessary; if the physicians had not their cassocks and their mules, if the doctors had not their square caps and their robes four times too wide, they would never have duped the world, which cannot resist so original an appearance. If magistrates had true justice, and if physicians had the true art of healing, they would have no occasion for square caps; the majesty of these sciences would of itself be venerable enough. But having only imaginary knowledge, they must employ those silly tools that strike the imagination with which they have to deal; and thereby in fact they inspire respect. Soldiers alone are not disguised in this manner, because indeed their part is the most essential; they establish themselves by force, the others by show.”

  18. If audiences can happily listen to a ‘stand up’ for 40 minutes or more, why can’t congregations listen to a preacher for more than 10 minutes? Answer, because most sermons arfen’t worth preaching.

    • David – yes, but I’ve seen 40 minute sermons that *are* worth preaching being criticised on grounds that they are more than 10 minutes long. Many listening (who call themselves Christian) do not like the *moral* challenge of the gospel message (while if it were an intellectual challenge – the same people who don’t like a sermon which is more than 10 minutes long can listen to a science lecture for 90 minutes – or watch stand-up for 40 minutes – or watch a movie for 3 hours).


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