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.
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?
For assessment, this led to five criteria by which to evaluate preaching. The first two relate to content, the last two relate to delivery, and a middle criterion relates to the bridge between them—how the content relates to context. 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.
(First published in January 2015.)
Much of my work is done on a freelance basis. If you have valued this post, would you consider donating £1.20 a month to support the production of this blog?