What does a good sermon look like?

istock_000005485447medium-pulpitWhen 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.

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(First published in January 2015.)

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16 thoughts on “What does a good sermon look like?”

  1. Hi ian,

    It’s probably worth distinguishing a good sermon from an effective one. A message can be intellectually or emotionally stimulating and informative, while leaving its hearers unchallenged.

    In your Preaching Assessment Criteria, excellence in the aim, clarity and structure of a sermon is achieved through a highly effective structure that supports and delivers the rhetorical aims of the sermon’.

    In the widely praised Allyn and Bacon Guide to Writing, we read of six key rhetorical aims, namely, to express, to explore, to inform, to analyze and synthesize, to persuade, and to. re?ect.

    Out of these aims, I would suggest that the ability to persuade is most critical. A preacher can fail to convince of the need for change, despite demonstrating a firm grasp of the breadth of contrasting views on a subject, while presenting the congregation with surprising and interesting facts which might have never otherwise considered. All of this makes for a good, but unconvincing sermon.

    In many cases, in attempting to bolster intellectual credibility with modern audiences, preachers can focus on logos, but at the expense of ethos and pathos.

    This year, I’ve preached on occasions in which ethos and pathos became far more important than maintaining intellectual credibility: https://www.facebook.com/BBCSouthNews/videos/1381350298622223/

    As I wrote on a previous blog post:
    George Whitfield, the great 18 C preacher, memorised his sermons, so that he could concentrate on delivering them with the pathos needed to move his hearers to repentance and faith.

    At 19, after transferring to Florida Bible Institute, Billy Graham would often paddle his canoe to a small island in the river, where he would practice preaching in isolation.

    In comparison with this work ethic of the most celebrated preachers, the Experience of Ministry Survey 2015 revealed that, on average, compared to 17.92 pc of time spent on ‘admin and organisation’, the participants spent 9.36 pc of each week on ‘preaching and teaching, including preparation’.

    Considering the apostolic calling, inherited by the clergy, to be ‘teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you’, 4 – 5 hours a week is a paltry investment in the preacher’s art (cf. Acts 6:2)

    • Thanks David….

      As one small caveat…’effectiveness’ might be a long term ‘result’. As in Blaimires ‘The Christian Mind.’

      Perhaps a much larger caveat is that ‘truth’ (if I might be binary’) can be resisted. The responsibility is to be the prophet. How do we measure effectivenss in this. Is it by creating a moment of crisis?

      • Hi Ian,

        I’d agree that effectiveness would need to include, as you say, a long-term result and, unfortunately, this is difficult to evaluate during training.

        Broadly speaking, sermon effectiveness is the extent to which the message achieves the intended, foreseeable and decisive outcome. This can be for or against the truth.

        As a case in point, Stephen’s address in Acts 7 was pointed and was also, in places, downright inflammatory. He practically accused them (through Amos 5:25-27) of rank idolatry. His aposiopetic quote of Is. 66:1,2 ensured that the Council mentally recited their condemnation in Is. 66:2-4.

        Nevertheless, his uncompromising message was effective in exposing the Sanhedrin’s corrupt and lawless hostility which lay not far beneath their shallow veneer of religiosity.

        Despite costing him his life, Stephen’s sermon clearly achieved its intended and foreseeable decisive outcome (cf. Matt. 23:32 – 36; 2 Cor. 2:16)

        • Hi David…. I agree with all that. The core is that a sermon must have an explicit purpose in mind. What is is varies (or it should in a situation where one is a ‘resident’ preacher.) How long one needs to do that is (almost?) entirely dependant on the issue.

          I disagree with James (below). Brevity is no more a trump card than lengthy. I think a look at some of the good preachers in any age blows that out of the water. It can be right but we are not always delivering a uncomplicated message to a simple question. Short might also assume no interaction with the listeners …apart from the time for them to hear 500 words (5 minutes). Space, quiet, questions, moments to pray….all can play a part. I dont see it as mere lecture.

          ‘There’s always a simple answer to every complex question…which is also wrong’ ?

          • “I disagree with James (below). Brevity is no more a trump card than lengthy. I think a look at some of the good preachers in any age blows that out of the water.”

            Crucial point: “good preachers.” Most aren’t the next Charles Spurgeon, which is why the discipline of a concise sermon can prove invaluable. Even great preachers can benefit from having their words refined in the crucible of brevity: some of the most memorable homilies I’ve heard have come in well under the 10 minute mark.

            On the flipside, if there’s a method to improve all those hour-long sermons, its success would make the worship music industry pale by comparison!

          • Hi Ian,

            A classic example of complexity in sermon delivery is ‘Accidents, Not Punishments’ by Charles Spurgeon (http://www.romans45.org/spurgeon/sermons/0408.htm)

            However, an admonition and an exploratory question form the axis of his message:
            1. Let us take heed that we do not draw the rash and hasty conclusion from terrible accidents, that those who suffer by them suffer on account of their sins.
            2. What use, then, ought we to make of this voice of God as heard amidst the shrieks and groans of dying men?

            He then identifies two aspects of the answer to this question: inquiry and warning.

            After this, what Spurgeon does so well in this sermon is to empathise with his audience by articulating the introspection that he urges upon them as his own:
            ‘Am I prepared to die? If now the gates of hell should be opened, shall I enter there? If now beneath me the wide jaws of death should gape, am I prepared with confidence to walk through the midst of them, fearing no evil, because God is with me? This is the proper use to make of these accidents; this is the wisest way to apply the judgments of God to our own selves and to our own condition. O sirs, God has spoken to every man in London during these last two weeks; he has spoken to me, he has spoken to you, men, women, and children. God’s voice has rung out of the dark tunnel,—has spoken from the sunset and from the glaring bonfire round which lay the corpses of men and women, and he has said to you, “Be ye also ready, for in such an hour as ye think not, the Son of Man cometh.”

            Billy Graham concluded his ‘Belshazzar gave a party’ sermon in a similar vein of humbling self-scrutiny, while expressing his own desperate need for Christ.

            The worst sermon mistake is to believe that the preacher’s art and gift somehow immunizes us from the desperate need for God’s grace among those who hear us.

  2. I had not thought of this as an analysis but it rings true for me as a reflection.
    “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.”

    I think that preachers can, sometimes, seem more concerned about delivery than content. Perhaps that ‘today’ things must be done like this X ….or not like this Y. I’m not convinced of that as a rule. Sometimes a so-called up to date delivery covers up (or doesn’t ) a lack of biblical content.

    Is part of the issue a lack of trust in ‘the word and the Spirit’?

  3. Foremost criterion of a good sermon? Brevity.

    If you can’t get it said in under 10 minutes, say less: better one or two points hit home than a dozen get lost in the wilderness of boredom.

    Don’t always succeed,* but I always try to apply the three paragraph rule to comments (if it goes beyond intro/body/conclusion, it needs to go elsewhere). Same principle goes for sermons. Perhaps we could start painting TL;DR (or TL;DL) on the rear wall of churches? 😉

    * Or abuse loopholes, like I’m doing now: none of the above applies to “sermons” that are, in effect, standup routines; or academic lectures in disguise, so long as they’re in the right venue.

    • Why? I preached on Sunday for 40 minutes on only six verses. The verses in question were Rev 20.1–6—and the difficult of the text and the weight of a particular interpretive tradition meant that the time was needed to explore all these issues.

      I preached without any notes, though put textual details on projected slides, along with two introductory pictures and three concluding ones. I kept the congregation engaged.

      You might argue that some of that work could have been done in another context e.g. ‘adult Sunday school’ or Saturday session or home groups.

      But the churches which have a tradition of 10 minute sermons don’t have other teaching opportunities. And very often these are churches where people look spiritually emaciate.

      • See the caveats: I excluded those who’re actually good at it. 🙂

        You’re far more qualified than most. For those who aren’t, brevity both raises the odds of staying on-point; or failing that, at least gets things over with quickly.

        As for those in “10 minute sermon” churches being “spiritually emaciate,” even if the homily’s thin gruel (often isn’t, can pack plenty calories into a small bite), the liturgy’s a banquet.

        • ? Actually… You didn’t ‘caveat’ good preachers.

          “If you can’t get it said in under 10 minutes, say less: better one or two points hit home than a dozen get lost in the wilderness of boredom.”

          But granted that some preachers are dire…. (And should be stopped…somehow!)

          It’s the ’10 minutes is everything’ approach that I think, simply and in less than 500 words, is wrong. I’ve once preached to 5000 for 4 minutes, hundreds of times in 5-7 minutes at an early or midweek communion but, much more often 20-25 minutes at a ‘main’ Sunday service….give OR take 5 minutes more.

          Of course it all might have been rubbish….? But I trust not…

          • I’m bracketing standup & academics as good lengthy sermons. 🙂

            So long as it’s not speed preaching (app hitting the store soon!), ain’t hung up on wordcounts. And to be fair, bad liturgy can be guilty of many of the same sins. (At least, unless the minister rewrites on the fly, the more eccentric interpretations are avoided.)

  4. I’m surprised that the type of congregation hasn’t been mentioned. A sermon on the same subject would look very different in a struggling tiny inner-city congregation than in a big well-attended middle-class church. Surely one of the most important aspects of preaching an effective sermon, is first to have listened to members of one’s congregation and to have learnt something of their worldview and the ways they have of communicating with each other. Jesus was brilliant at this, why was partly why everyone wanted to hear him.

  5. A couple of weeks ago I heard a sermon on Jonah chapter 1 which essentially took the narrative as a metaphor for humankind’s propensity to do things our way and not to follow God. The preacher made some good points – notably that Jonah, unlike the sailors, didn’t pray when the storm came – but made no reference to Nineveh, or why Jonah didn’t want to go there, or why a believer might disobey God. Overall I felt that he was shoehorning a classic evangelical Gospel message into the chapter rather than expounding it, although clearly there is an overlap between the two approaches. Where would you see this scoring in your assessment criteria, especially the first one?


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