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What makes a good sermon?

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, 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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8 Responses to What makes a good sermon?

  1. Chris Bishop January 23, 2015 at 6:53 pm #

    When i was doing my (Baptist) theological training the most important thing emphasised to us was that you could not really preach an effective sermon unless it was based on personal conviction and experience.

  2. Dave January 23, 2015 at 8:02 pm #

    Excellent, insightful and very much on target like a laser guided missile, Ian. You are absolutely right to point out that listening to ourselves preach is painful since we put ourselves in the place of our hearers and see what we’ve subjected them to.

    One thing I’d like to ask you is that when I’m listening to a preacher, and then afterwards I talk with those around me afterwards, I’m sometimes left wondering if we’ve heard the same person! I mean they loved it, whilst I’m thinking, about the delivery, content or both and thinking that wasn’t all that great. However I wanted to ask, do you think that as preachers we’re harder on others; either to protect our own feelings, insecurities or/and we’re harder on them because we’re also hard on ourselves? Just be interested if you’ve found this to be the case and if its just me?

    Thanks Ian

    Dave

    • Dave January 23, 2015 at 8:03 pm #

      Argh, wish I could edit my grammar after seeing what I wrote, sorry about that.

      D

      • Ian Paul January 23, 2015 at 8:33 pm #

        I’ve made some corrections! (I suspect you could copy, delete the original, paste into a new message, and edit there…)

    • Ian Paul January 23, 2015 at 8:32 pm #

      Yes, there is no doubt we are harder on other preachers—but not out of malice.

      Learning to preach involves being made aware of things that you weren’t aware of previously, and this then makes you aware of it in others. Preaching courses have one guaranteed outcome: you will rarely be content with any sermon you listen to in the future!

  3. pk January 23, 2015 at 9:05 pm #

    Thanks Ian – another really thought-provoking piece.

    During the course of my (nearly) 10 years in ordained ministry, I have constantly been aware of the way in which one’s preaching must be grounded in one’s pastoral ministry both amongst members of the congregation(s) and in the wider community, as well as the importance of being fully acquainted with the local ‘culture’. This helps to ensure that the content of the sermon is as relevant as possible to the listeners and that an appropriate method of delivery is achieved.

    • Ian Paul January 23, 2015 at 9:39 pm #

      This all makes being a guest speaker (which I often am) all the more challenging…!

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