What does good preaching actually look 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 have been 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 (online) 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. 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.

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 previously published in 2015 and 2018.)

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9 thoughts on “What does good preaching actually look like?”

  1. ‘ you (literally) stand apart from others and so few slightly separated from them’ Something strange has happened to the verbs here, Ian.

  2. I always remember the comment made after one of my offerings, ‘Thank you for your lecture’. It wasn’t sarcasm… But I kept it as a warning for the future…

  3. Over the course of more than fifty years I have listened to far more bad sermons than good sermons. Some of these would have been viewed as good sermons by others. A number were certainly eloquent and entertaining but for me they did not unpack the passage that was read, show me what it was revealing about God and how I should respond and live in the light of the teaching.

    I have tried to compensate for bad preaching by reading the passage before the sermon, trying to see the big picture, main teaching and how it applied to me. If the preacher added to or clarified these, I was thankful. If not, I still gained much benefit despite the bad sermon. Sometimes what the sermon left out actually highlighted the most important matters that the preacher overlooked.

  4. As I read this, I find myself reflecting that often when I hear a preacher highly emphasising/using rhetoric that there is often a weakness in the content being preached.

    This leads me to wonder if delivery can be used to mask poor content?

    Does this seem a fair reflection?

    • Oh, very fair! And that is precisely what some claimed about with the sermon of Curry above.

      But what was interesting when I asked the question in class was that these rhetorical flourishes were not the things that stayed with people in the long term. Can you remember what Curry left you with, other than a sense of experience?

  5. Really interesting reading these comments. I work with folk in Scotland looking at the delivery element of preaching. In some ways, I am a “professional pew sitter”. Although not ordained, I have studied theology and am often struck in homiletic teaching how little focus is given to exploring how as embodied beings we are called to use the gifts of voice and body to help others connect with the message being preached. Totally agree with the comment that all style and no substance is no way to preach, but far too often the way we deliver the word is seen as somehow “beneath” us to consider. Its also striking to see when folk are learning alongside long ordained folk that unfortunately they are told to “do it the way I do it” (perhaps in not so many words) rather than – what works for you and your listeners so you can both connect through the sermon with the word being preached. So I very much welcome your blog! Thank you.


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