(The following post is a lightly edited version of a pastoral article I wrote for my church a few weeks ago.)
There is something strangely odd about “evaluating” a sermon. Oh sure, we all joke about how the menu for Sunday lunch is always the same… roasted pastor. But are there good, solid ways that we should evaluate preaching?
Both ministers and congregants alike can all benefit from the task of thinking about a sermon through an objective lens. But whose lens should that be?
The Apostle Paul had a stern warning to his young apprentice Timothy. Look with me at what he told him:
[4:1] I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom:  preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.  For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions,  and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.  As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry. (2 Timothy 4:1-5 ESV)
Paul didn’t mince words. A preacher can “sound” good, and be saying nothing at all. At the same time, a preacher can be “saying” the right thing and yet under the hood not believe a word of it. So what can we do? How should we as ministers seek to self-reflect and improve our craft, and we as congregants be reflective and discerning in how we determine what a “good” sermon is?
I want to give some diagnostic criteria for listening to sermons. I have borrowed these from our brothers in the Acts 29 church-planting network. This isn’t an exhaustive list (they never really are). And there may be some you don’t agree with, and there may be other things that you think should be on this list and aren’t. But let’s consider this list as a starting place.
1. The preaching assertions (points) were clearly rooted in the text and squared with the whole teaching of Scripture.
2. The central theme was an illustration of Christ – the message was clearly all about Jesus.
3. The speaker seemed in awe of God, not merely focused upon his sermon and the audience.
4. The speaker avoided moralizing or psychologizing, and distinguished these from the gospel.
5. The goal was to get people face-to-face with God, rather than merely instruct.
6. Christ and His finished work were applied as the practical solution to any problem.
7. It was clear where the preacher was driving – and the progression of points was traceable.
8. The points were presented in a fresh, wise, and striking way as opposed to boring & cliché.
9. At the end of the preaching, the main point was both clear and persuasive.
10. It was clear the speaker understood the hearers’ hopes, fears, problems, concerns, etc.
11. The central metaphor or “hook” was gripping.
12. Jesus was made visible, not just taught about.
13. There was a balance of warmth, love and humility on the one hand and force, power and authority on the other.
14. The notes followed the message and enhanced comprehension.
(taken from the Acts 29 Church Planting Network: http://www.acts29network.org/acts-29-blog/characteristics-of-good-preaching/, accessed 10/18/2012)
So why are these questions important? The point of a sermon is supposed to be moving our hearts to see and worship Jesus. No minister does it perfectly. Some sermons are better than others. But the overall thrust of a preaching ministry must be the marriage of a man and message that are enthralled with the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.
So, if this is true (which I contend that it is):
Theology proceeds from God, teaches us about God, and leads us back to God in worship (Aquinas).—
Burk Parsons (@burk_parsons) May 31, 2011
Why do Christians then run from the word theology as if it is not at all connected to God’s revelation about himself, by himself, so that all praise would be directed back to himself?
For additional reading, check out this blog post over at DG: http://www.desiringgod.org/blog/posts/why-doctrine-matters
Some early church fathers co-opted pagan holidays and turned them into Christian celebrations. Labor Day is ripe for a Christian takeover. A day that had its origins in the early struggles of the labor union movement is now little more than the last long weekend of summer vacation, a final time to fire up the grill before the fall grind starts up again. But celebrating the human capacity to work is an occasion to recover one of Christianity’s most important, yet nearly forgotten teachings; namely, the doctrine of vocation.
Vocation is nothing less than the theology of the Christian life. It provides the blueprint for how Christians are to live in the world and to influence their cultures. It is the key to strong marriages and effective parenting. According to the classic Protestant theologians, our multiple vocations—in the family, the culture, and the workplace—are where sanctification and discipleship happen.
Gene Veith writes a provocative article in WORLD magazine where he argues for a recovery of the reformation doctrine of vocation. He goes on to say this:
Today many Christians have become disillusioned with political involvement and are floundering for ways to engage the culture. Christians struggle as much as non-Christians with broken marriages and troubled families. The stumbling economy and the pursuit of prosperity seem like materialistic treadmills.
Rediscovering the doctrine of vocation could energize contemporary Christianity and show Christians how once again they can be the world’s salt and light.
You can read the rest of the article here, but I thought this was a timely post as I am in the midst of finishing James Hunter’s seminal work, To Change The World, which deals and asks these very questions of how a Christian can meaningfully and intentionally engage and deal with culture.
More to come over the course of the week. Happy Labor Day to you.