I have heard a lot of preaching. As a Youth Pastor, I trained multiple interns to teach the Bible and listened carefully to all their messages. As a Professor, I teach a course on teaching the Bible where I evaluate dozens of students’ teachings each semester. As a Christian, I listen intently every week to my pastor open and expound the Scriptures. If sermons were cake, I’d be fat.
Not only have I heard a lot of preaching, I have heard a lot about what people think about preaching. In the youth room, the classroom, the church, or out in public, many people have shared with me what they thought about certain sermons or preachers. By listening to these sermon evaluations, I’ve come to realize that many people have very different standards for sermons than I do.
To stimulate faithful thinking, I thought I’d share the most common ways people evaluate sermons and then share my own.
The Most Common Ways People Evaluate Sermons
Without giving too much comment, here are the most common ways I have heard people evaluate sermons they’ve heard.
“Was It Funny?”
Lots of folks want their preachers to be comedians. They aren’t looking for sermons to be edifying as much as they are entertaining. If it makes them laugh then it was worth the time.
“Was It Uplifting?”
Did I walk away with a positive outlook on myself or my life? Did I feel like I was given new vigor chase my dreams or fulfill my duties? Or, did the sermon make me feel negative or bad? The better I feel about my self and my life or the more Tweetable quotes I’m given, the better the sermon.
“Was It Engaging?”
In this mindset, no sermon should ever take any effort to listen to. I’ve heard many celebrate a sermon because the speaker was passionate (i.e. he yelled a lot) or attention-grabbing (i.e. he flailed around a lot) or earnest (i.e. he walked around a lot) or reletable (i.e. he told interesting stories) regardless of what he taught or how he handled the Bible.
“Was It Emotional?”
Recently, I heard a student evaluate a camp speaker by saying, “He was OK, but he didn’t make me cry.” She had nothing to say about what he taught from the Bible or even how he taught it. She just wanted to feel emotions. Since he didn’t lead her to #thefeels, #hefailed.
“Was It Short?”
People are almost personally offended when someone preaches more than 30 minutes. Apparently, many folks have much more important things to spend time on than hearing God speak (that was snark, but I make no apologies).
“Was It New?”
Just like I hate watching the same movie twice, many people can’t stand to hear a truth said more than once. They think the preacher’s responsibility is to bring some brand new idea they never heard before each time. The true is upstaged by the new.
I think it is helpful to note that, though I don’t think these are the best ways to evaluate a sermon, none of these are intrinsically evil. I appreciate a good sense of humor or even someone that knows how to say a lot with few words. However, I think there are better ways to evaluate sermons that have more to do with the nature of preaching and the responsibilities of a preacher.
Three Ways I Evaluate Sermons
There can be much more said here, but in light of what I know about preaching and the preacher’s responsibility, here are my three main questions I ask of any sermon I hear.
“Was It United?”
I ask this question for two reasons: helpfulness and faithfulness. First, scattered sermons are just plain unhelpful. Even when a preacher unpacks true, biblical ideas, if the sermon isn’t united under one controlling thesis, no one will remember it. If they don’t remember it, they won’t be changed by it. As Spurgeon once quipped, preachers must give their people a loaf of bread to carry home, not a field of wheat to leave behind.
Second, sermons that are united by one controlling idea are faithful to the Bible. God is not a scatter-brain and his Word is not scattered. Therefore, sermons that are disjointed, scattered, or littered with disconnected rabbit-trails are standing in the way of the united and coherent Word of God. They’re hurting, not helping. In order for a sermon to be faithful, it needs to highlight the one controlling idea of a passage and not obscure it.
“Was It Faithful?”
Did the pastor actually say what God said in the Bible? Often times I have witnessed pastors open a text, read a text, and preach some other idea that is decidedly not in the text. It’s like being spiritually Rick Rolled. Or, for those not saavy to internet-humor, it’s a bait & switch. We’re told that we’re going to get one thing and then given something different. Even worse than this are the preachers that only ornament their sermons with random texts, indifferent to their contexts, so they’ll fit what they want to say.
When I sit to hear a sermon, my one demand of is this: tell me what God has said. Other things are fine as long as they don’t obscure or upstage the Living Word of God. Why do I demand this? I can answer with Peter’s words to Jesus, “Who else has the words of eternal life” (John 6:68)? Jokes can make me laugh, but that can’t make me live (1 Peter 1:23). Emotional stories can cause me to have feelings, but not faith (Romans 10:9). Engaging tricks keep my attention, but they don’t change my heart (Ezekiel 36:26-27). Only God’s Word can do those things. Time is too precious and life is too short to have sermons filled with Man’s words rather than God’s Word.
“Was It Christian?”
Jesus taught that the entire Bible points to Him. He alone fulfills all the Law of Moses, the prophets, and the writings (Luke 24:44). All the Scriptures testify about Him (John 5:39). Therefore, any sermon is not organically connected to the person and work of Jesus as foundation or focus or finale of our faith is not a Christian sermon, let alone a good sermon.
My pastor offers a good example of this done well. Currently, our church is working through the book of Proverbs and each week is focusing on a theme that is substantially unpacked therein. In the second week, he preached on the topic of the heart. He showed how Proverbs teaches the heart is the source from which all our words, feelings, desires, and actions come from and then he showed how Proverbs continually says our hearts are broken and rebellious in nature. Then, as he helpfully worked through those points, he finally led our church to the incredible truth that we cannot change our hearts but Jesus can through the gospel. It helped all of us understand the nature of our hearts and the hope given us in Jesus. It was faithful both to the book of Proverbs and the gospel of Jesus. My church family was both instructed for earthly life and encouraged by eternal life.
This last point can be summarized fairly easily in this: if your sermon could be well-received in a synagogue, then it missed the mark. A Christ-less sermon is an unChristian sermon and therefore a bad sermon. We must grow to demand our preachers to preach Christ or go home.
There are definitely more evaluations to be considered in sermons, but I would argue that there cannot be less. In order for a sermon to be truly good it must be united in thought, faithful to the Bible, and centered on the Person and Work of Jesus Christ.
This is good! William Willimon also had a good question that went something like, “Did Christ have to die in order for this sermon to be true?”
That’s an excellent question!