No minister wants to be a boring preacher. No minister likes to think that his parishioners look forward to each of his discourses with a sort of resigned foreboding. No minister wants to admit that his expositions are muddled and hard to follow. But the sad fact remains that such is indeed the case in more instances than we would care to admit.
And this sad state of affairs persists in spite of the fact that many of us have (to our credit) spent no small amount of money and time to acquire and read books on how to improve our sermons. Yet the techniques and suggestions that we anticipated would revolutionize our presentations somehow fall short of our expectations. It is not that the suggestions are not valid. But as busy ministers, we have difficulty remembering—let alone implementing—the myriad do's and don'ts we encounter in our study of the "how to" books. And because we are busy, our ready-to-deliver sermon is often judged on the single criterion: Is this a "good" sermon?
Such a nonspecific, qualitative analysis may be better than no critical evaluation whatsoever. But it would be far more beneficial if every minister would take the time to establish in his own mind just what are the most significant and the most basic criteria applicable to any sermon, be it doctrinal, devotional, evangelistic, philosophical, expository, or apologetic. This does not ignore the multitude of fine-tuning details whereby any sermon can be significantly improved. But it does guarantee that every sermon will be critically examined to see that it contains at least the basic qualifications of a good sermon. Such a procedure takes relatively little time, but it can do wonders in improving one's sermons.
The criteria by which I attempt to construct and evaluate my own sermons are six simple yet vital questions. I have divided them evenly into two categories: content and construction. The following three points are the basis upon which I evaluate the content of the sermons I prepare:
1. Is the sermon Christ-centered? Jesus said, "And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me" (John 12:32). Verse 33 makes it clear that He was speaking of His death on the cross. However, it is no less true that if Christ is lifted up in the pulpit, He will draw men unto Himself. Where Christ is not uplifted, the people will perish for lack of the nourishment and refreshment He alone can provide. Every sermon, whether an Old Testament exposition, a presentation on Christian stewardship, or a prelude to Communion, must be Christ-centered.
To make a sermon Christ-centered does not necessarily mean that we must talk about Christ by name—although we certainly do not talk about Him any too much. Rather, to make a sermon Christ-centered means that it must be a portrayal of God's love in Christ, even if the topic is the destruction of sinners, and it must be presented in the context of the salvation that is freely offered in Christ. When Christ is thus brought into every discourse, even the most volatile subjects can be handled in a way that does not antagonize or alienate listeners.
2. Does the sermon present the "abundant life"? Jesus said, "I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly" (chap. 10:10). John expressed the hope in one of his epistles that our "joy may be full" (1 John 1:4). In fact, absolutely everything that God asks of us He does so because it is intrinsically superior to the alternatives.
Too often we have told people what they should do—do it or face the consequences; do it or else! Such an approach may have worked, or at least appeared to have worked, in the decades and centuries gone by. But it is hopelessly out of touch today. We need sermons today that bring out the beauty of every facet of God's truth. From the joy derived through sharing our means, to the fitness and fulfillment of healthful living, to the symbolism expressed in baptism, all of these are intrinsically beautiful and fulfilling and should be presented as such. The abundant life is a far more effective form of motivation than the fear of being lost. Today's preachers should be the world's best salesmen—not the world's most demanding taskmasters.
3. Have I personally experienced what I am speaking about? When told to refrain from preaching or face the consequences, Peter and John stated without equivocation, "For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard" (Acts 4:20). There is something about personal experience that gives the speaker an enthusiasm that cannot be quelled. Both John and Peter emphasize in their Epistles their personal association with Jesus. And until we as preachers can stand in the pulpit and commend to our listeners what we know to be true from personal experience, there will be no authority and little life in our discourses.
To preach from personal experience does not mean, of course, always to be telling personal experiences. Sermons should lift up Christ, not self. Rather, preaching from personal experience means that we will have wrestled with the issues ourselves, that we will have come to the point where the light has shone through, and spurred on by the joy that we have experienced, we will turn to the waiting congregation to share "what we have seen and heard." Every doctrine, every Biblical biography, every exposition, must first have touched the life of the preacher if it is to be preached in such a manner as to touch the life of the hearer.
These, then, are my criteria for judging the content of my sermons. They are simple yet, I feel, essential. But whatever criteria you may develop, as they become more familiar, they become not only a basis for critical evaluation but also a formula for proper sermon preparation. Before long, sermons quite naturally satisfy the prerequisites laid down.
Yet merely having something of significance to say does not mean that it will automatically come forth in a form that can be easily assimilated by your people.
Careful attention must be given to the construction of the sermon. These are the questions I ask of my sermon's form:
1. Do I have a clearly defined goal, an attention-attracting introduction, and a strong, concise conclusion? Every sermon should have a clearly defined purpose. The minister is not under obligation to fill a specified time in the worship hour. He is, however, under obligation to feed the flock. He must have a goal, and every aspect of his sermon must be ever moving in the direction of that goal.
Not only must a preacher know where he is going, but he must take his congregation with him right from the start. People usually decide whether a speaker is going to be worth listening to in the first few minutes of his address. Very careful thought should be given to how to introduce the sermon in a way that will capture the imagination and interest of the greatest number of listeners, young and old, members and visitors, committed and uncommitted.
Most important of all is the conclusion. Good preachers spend what may appear to be a totally disproportionate amount of time preparing the last two or three minutes of their sermon. But those preachers know that unless the conclusion is emphatic, concise, and moving, the sermon will have been preached largely in vain. It is often helpful to have the conclusion written out word for word and carefully studied, then when it is presented, certain carefully chosen words and phrases flow forth more freely, stirring the congregation to make the desired response.
2. Have I chosen a topic that I can adequately handle in a single presentation, and have I discarded all unnecessary baggage? Mark Twain observed that very few sinners were converted after twelve o'clock! Sermons should be short and to the point. However good the presentation, there is limit to how much the congregation can digest in any one sitting. Some homiletics teachers insist that every minute preached after twelve o'clock undoes the effectiveness of two minutes preached before twelve; and by the time the speaker has gone ten minutes overtime, he has all but nullified his entire sermon.
Obviously some topics require more time than others. An exposition of some complicated doctrinal passage may require more time than a devotional sermon. But if the preacher, knowing exactly what he wants to say, aims for the target and does not allow himself to be diverted by nonessential details (however interesting), he can cover a great distance in a relatively short time. If the preacher sees that he will still be short of time ; even though the sermon is free of unnecessary baggage, he should then probably plan to present the topic as a series rather than a.s a single unit. And his congregation will be greatly blessed for it—not to mention that they will greatly bless him!
3. Is the sermon in a logical and easily remembered sequence! Clear organization on the part of the preacher is a prerequisite to quick assimilation of the details on the part of the listeners. If point A does not naturally and obviously link up with points B and C, few listeners will waste- their time unraveling the mystery. Furthermore; that which is carefully structured is likewise more easily remembered both by the preacher and by the listener.
I remember listening to a high school commencement address some eleven years ago, and can to this day remember every point presented. The points were not exceptionally profound, nor was the presentation exceptionally dynamic. The key to my remarkable recall is the clarity of the speaker's organization. He made only three points, but he drove them home so forcefully that they are with me to this day.
As preachers we may not be the world's most profound thinkers. We may not be the world's greatest orators. We may not be able to remember—let alone implement—all the do's and don'ts of proper sermon construction. But if we establish for our sermons a system of quality control., a simple system that can become the working policy of our sermon preparation and the basis of our own critical evaluation, and if we ruthlessly adhere to the criteria we ourselves have deemed essential, our preaching will take on a new tone, our discourses will be given a new power, and hungering, thirsting seekers will be led to Christ where their souls will be satisfied.