What is a Good Sermon?
FEBRUARY 5, 2022
by Collin Hansen
As you rediscover church, you may encounter a variety of sermon styles and lengths. You won’t find in the Bible any clear formulas. All of the Bible is inspired by God, but you still get a sense for the different authors’ personalities. Paul doesn’t sound like Peter, who doesn’t sound like John. You may prefer your sermons with emotional fervor. You may prefer your sermons with copious references to Hebrew and Greek. Either or both approaches in the same sermon can be used by God to move us toward love and obedience.
You may also hear preachers debate whether sermons should be topical or expositional. Some situations may warrant topical sermons on an upcoming election, a global pandemic, or racial injustice, to cite just three topics of recent interest. But too many topical messages risks eroding preachers’ authority by tempting them to tweak the Bible’s meaning to make their points. It’s better, we believe, to make the steady diet of the church expositional sermons, which expose the text by making the point of the biblical passage the point of the message. As many a preacher has said, Paul doesn’t command preachers just to preach, but to preach the Word.
Preaching that moves sequentially week after week through verses and chapters of the Bible also lets God, not the preacher, set the agenda. Remember, the preacher is a mail carrier delivering the mail. “This week we’re going to learn whatever God has for us in Romans 1, next week Romans 2, and the week following Romans 3.” When we hear the Bible this way, we discover that God’s agenda does not neatly align with ours. There might be things in Romans, for instance, that a preacher doesn’t feel like preaching. But there the envelope sits, a letter from God, asking to be opened.
After all, whose agenda do we really want—ours or God’s? His ways are higher and better (Isa. 55:9). We should take our cues from him and not from the world. Something special happens when you hear the Spirit speak through God’s Word when, to all appearances, the preacher is just picking up where he left off the week before.
When you rediscover church, you’ll likely also encounter the debate between recorded and live, in-person sermons. Years ago, I had a conversation with an especially gifted preacher. In another life, he would have been a successful stand-up comedian. In fact, he studied comedians in order to learn how to engage with an audience while preaching. He also understood biblical and theological concepts with depth and could explain them with creativity to skeptical crowds. His church had expanded to several locations across the region and even the country by broadcasting his recorded sermons rather than featuring local, in-person preachers. I’ll never forget his rationale. He said it didn’t make sense to give the people a B- preacher when they could have an A preacher like himself. If his goal was to amass a large personal following, I couldn’t argue with him.
But as I reflected later, I realized that his argument proved too much. In the scenario he suggested, he wasn’t competing only against his junior pastors and interns. He was competing against every other preacher, dead or alive. Why not play recordings of an A+ preacher, such as Billy Graham? What if churches across the English-speaking world hired an actor to perform the best of Charles Spurgeon? Maybe we could compile a tournament bracket of the kind used for college basketball playoffs and ask Christians to vote, round by round, on their favorite preacher until we settled on one orator to rule them all. Then no one would be subject to a B- (or worse) preacher ever again. We’d get only the best—if that’s what God thinks is best for us.
But it’s not. The best preacher for you is the preacher who is faithful to God’s Word. Even better if he’s willing to meet you over coffee or visit you in the hospital. There’s a reason we don’t only read Scripture together in each worship service. Preaching brings the authority of God’s Word to bear, through the mediating personality and experience of the teacher, on a contemporary context with particular local and personal demands. The man I just mentioned might in fact be a better preacher than yours, but your preacher knows your church better. And that counts for a lot when it comes to applying the Bible to you and your congregation.
To be sure, pastors can’t know all the intimate details of every person in their hearing. But there’s a reason so many pastors struggled to preach into a camera during the COVID-19 lockdowns. They pray to sense the Spirit’s moving in our real-time reactions to their preaching. When they see us eye to eye, the Spirit calls to their minds comfort for our woes. There are many reasons a church should not dim the lights over the congregation during worship services, as if emulating a concert or movie theater. And this is one of them: so that pastors can respond with sensitivity to the prompting of the Spirit in the act of preaching.
Content taken from Rediscover Church: Why the Body of Christ Is Essential by Collin Hansen and Jonathan Leeman, ©2021. Used by permission of Crossway.