From The Pastor At St. Paul's UCC, Freeburg, IL

What Makes For A Good Sermon?

During our 150th anniversary year, we’re having guest preachers speak – folks who’ve served St. Paul’s in the past. I don’t often get to listen to live preaching – I hear John Piper, Mark Dever, and a few others plenty but they’re on mp3’s, not live. Listening to our guest preachers, I began to wonder – what makes me think a sermon is good?

Theological orthodoxy makes a sermon good IMNSHO – I’ve had more than enough of sermons that try to push the envelope into new theological territory. Personal contact makes a sermon good – if I have the sense that the speaker is a real human being rather than a talking head or highly paid professional. Humility, showing quirks, self-deprecation are all factors in that. I’d also add humor (though as I think of it, Piper’s sermons are very rarely humorous) – because it keeps me from taking myself too seriously. If the gospel is really true, then we should be laughing – at least sometimes – in a sermon.

Your thoughts on what makes for a good sermon?

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13 responses

  1. Good post, yes, I like what you said about just being real when you preach. I think that the hearers also sense if it is a word from God or from the preacher too. In other words, did we meet with God before we me with our hearers?
    Just a thought.
    Thanks for your post,
    Mark

    May 12, 2008 at 5:11 pm

  2. Teresa

    To me – it has to be personal. I need to feel like the speaker is talking to me. A little quoting from scripture or another source is interesting. I like scripture explained or put into a different perspective. I need something I can relate to in my life experiences. A dull, monatone voice will cause me to drift off.

    May 15, 2008 at 11:56 am

  3. From the preface of John Piper’s The Supremacy Of God In Preaching:

    People are starving for the greatness of God. But most of them would not give this diagnosis of their troubled lives. The majesty of God is an unknown cure. There are far more popular prescriptions on the market, but the benefit of any other remedy is brief and shallow. Preaching that does not have the aroma of God’s greatness may entertain for a season, but it will not touch the hidden cry of the soul: “Show me thy glory!”….It does not matter if surveys turn up a list of perceived needs that does not include the supreme greatness of the sovereign grace of God. That is the deepest need. Our people are starving for God.

    May 20, 2008 at 7:14 am

  4. Dale

    You know a good sermon when you hear it!
    For myself I recall some of your sermons where I was almost moved to tears and hoped no one around me noticed! While I cannot recall any specific times, it seems that what moved me was examples of average Joes or Janes going beyond the routine and doing larger than life “right things”. While perhaps I should be just as moved by hearing of Christ doing these things; I just don’t get hit the same way. Perhaps it is because we expect Christ to be Divine and as Divine doing the larger than life things is expected.
    We seem to have been stressing Christ’s Divinity more lately. I don’t know if this is because there have been more readings from John or if there are other current theological influences or if it is just my own struggle discerning the human vs Divine nature of Christ.
    So back to the topic; a good sermon has examples (for our own inspiration) of average Joes and Janes filled with the holy spirit doing the bigger than life work of Christ today. These good sermons are delivered with passion! But what a risk for the preacher especially as you look out and people do not appear to be moved. Yet if it is coming from the heart and truth as you discern it; then it should not make a differnece if we parishioners think it is good or not. Perhaps the answer to your post is “does the message feel right with your understanding of the Word”? If it meets that criterion then it is a good sermon!

    June 14, 2008 at 12:18 pm

  5. Thanks, Dale, for your thoughts! I hope you’ll comment some more in the future. You’re on to something going on, at least in me. I’m becoming intoxicated with the glory of God, to use somebody’s phrase. Glory! I’m becoming more and more aware that it’s not just us in our life. Average Joes or Janes sometimes do “larger than life right things” – because Christ is at work in them, thru them, with them. IMNSHO that end of the balance has been lacking at least in the preaching I heard growing up. It was pretty much us – we should do this, we ought to be like that.

    And you’re right about truth coming from (I’d say thru) the heart and so it really not making much different what parishioners think. It’s when I start focussing on the congregation, and watching for their responses (are they asleep? lost in wonder, love and praise? wondering what the hell this sermon is about?) that I get away from God and His glory. I really have to watch that – doing and saying things to get a response. Then it becomes about you and me, not us and God.

    June 17, 2008 at 7:57 am

  6. Dale

    What is your basis for the “intoxicated with the glory of God”? Is it based on reasoning or a more mystical understanding / evolution of your journey with the Holy Spirit? Furthermore, how does that make a difference in the here and now?

    June 21, 2008 at 9:19 am

  7. The basis for my awareness of the glory of God, and so my becoming “intoxicated” with it, is both my experience and my continuing study of Scripture. Ever since I was a kid I was so aware of something BIG, Glorious, Wonderful around me. I used to lay out in the back yard looking up at the clouds and pondering it, wondering what “it” was, and what it might have to do with me. In my rebellious teen years it was a sense of outrage and injustice at what I would now call the “ways of the world” – that sense of transcendent justice that will not, ultimately, be denied. More recently its been based on my study of Scripture, and a growing awareness that that big, glorious “it” has a name and a history and a people. I’m struck that Jesus is so often (at least in the gospel of John) described as Light – not doctrine – like light at the sunrise after a bad night, beautiful, beckoning, glorious light!

    What difference does it make in the here and now? I think it does two things: it makes the here and now both less important and more important. Compared to the glory of God, all this world (and I include myself in this) is just shadows, weak reflections, NOT ultimate. Therefore I try not to take myself, and what I think is “oh so important”, less seriously. At the same time, that transcendent glory is revealed and made known to us, and changes us, only through the “things of this world”. In other words, if I truly love God, have sensed and am drawn to his glory, I will also love His people and be drawn to them with the purpose of reflecting His glory as they reflect His. Matthew 25 makes it pretty clear that our ultimate destiny in the next world is shaped by how we treat others in this world. But we love others not for their own sake, but for the sake of God’s glory – that it be better displayed, better known, better loved.

    June 21, 2008 at 12:47 pm

  8. Dale

    I think a sermon should reflect a “how to” or be a guide. I know “how to get” intoxicated. But I don’t know how to get intoxicated on the Glory of God. We look for that quick fix … this study stuff takes so much time and competes with all the other demands of life. We are aware of the “shoulds” but somehow they just don’t get chosen as priorities. Perhaps sermons should more explicitely guide us in a rational reason for making God a priority. Can we have a Step 1, 2, 3 etc that relates the sermon topic into the fabric of our life? Lay it out for us explicitly. We need a take home message to remember “amid all the noise and confusion of the world”

    July 4, 2008 at 10:23 am

  9. Teresa

    Well said, Dale. I agree. After all, a sermon is supposed to be expounding on the Bible which is our “how to” or guide.

    July 10, 2008 at 12:01 pm

  10. Earl

    So be honest here – have the sermons in the last few years been satisfying in terms of giving concrete steps in living your life? You won’t hurt my feelings, honest feedback would only help.

    July 10, 2008 at 1:18 pm

  11. Earl

    On further thinking, if you want specific step-by-steps from Jesus, you might try Mt. 5:21-48, or 6:15, or 19:21, or Luke 9:23, or 12:33. Or you could try John the Baptist’s steps in Luke 3:7-14. Or Paul’s offerings in Galatians 5:16-24, or 6:1-5, or (one of my favorites!) Ephesians 5:22-33.

    I think preaching should not be so vague it has no application in a person’s life, not foothold or handhold to grip on one’s way up the mountain. OTOH, the gospel that’s preached is precisely that we can’t save ourselves: we can’t be good enough, we can’t climb the mountain of holiness. We can, however, hang on to the back of the One who can, and who has.

    Wow, there I’ve just started preaching…

    July 10, 2008 at 3:40 pm

  12. Teresa

    MOST sermons I find something that applies to me personally or at the very least, something that makes me think “How does this apply to me?” You don’t necessarily get specific, but I think you give us a good idea of what Jesus wants us to do.

    August 21, 2008 at 9:51 am

  13. I find if I get specific with myself, then get general with people, they’ll pick up something for themselves. IOW, if it doesn’t convict me, why should it convict you?

    August 21, 2008 at 10:21 am

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