I’ve been a believer for almost 30 years now and I’ve been a member of 12 churches across 3 different denominations, so that means that I have heard a few sermons. I never really thought about, until now at least, what makes for a good sermon. Great sermons are rare, bad sermons are plentiful, but what makes for a good one? I guess that in order to answer the question we need to look at what separates the three.
A great sermon is that once-in-a-lifetime sermon that changes your life. It could be the one that brought you to Christ, saved your marriage, or broke some stranglehold on your life. Not to say that a bad sermon or a good sermon couldn’t do that, but that really great sermon is the one that you keep reflecting on, the one that you might have on a old cassette tape or an mp3 that, whenever you’re in a doldrum, you pull out and play.
A bad sermon is that sermon that just turns you off. There’s just something about it, either in presentation or subject that causes you to look at the one preaching it in a way that makes you wonder what in the world that he was thinking. A bad sermon can be misrepresentative, abusive, or downright incompetent. Does that mean that God cannot use a bad sermon to do good things with? No, God can draw a straight line with a crooked stick, to borrow a phrase from someone.
The inherent problem with differentiating between a bad sermon and a great sermon is that there is a great deal of subjectivity involved. You might hear the worst sermon in your life, but the person next to you heard the greatest sermon in their life. It ultimately comes down to the heart of the matter, more importantly, the condition of the heart of the person listening to the sermon. But what is it then that makes the good sermon? What is it that has the potential to either be a great sermon or a bad sermon? If I had to identify just a few points, points that could help a person analyze the sermon in a meaningful way, what would they be?
First, a good sermon is drawn from the text of Scripture. I’ve heard a lot of sermons over the years and the good ones always come from the Bible. This is not to say that I haven’t heard some good topical sermons, but the good ones take even the most innocuous texts of scripture and make a relevant application. Sometimes it’s necessary to preach on a topic, such as the doctrine of the Trinity, or in regards to same-sex marriage, but the bad ones will always abuse the text or make misapplication. Good sermons make the text the roadmap and follow it.
Second, a good sermon deals with issues with the text. What do I mean by “issues with the text”? If you have watched my video where I deal with questions about transmission and translation of the text of Scripture, or if you’re a fairly knowledgeable person with regards to the Bible, or you’ve paid attention to textual notes in your Bible where alternate readings or differences are mentioned, or if you’ve ever wondered why readings vary between translations, then you probably would wonder about this. Since most Christians take issues like inspiration and inerrancy seriously, a good sermon should not only recognize when these instances occur, but should be taking them into consideration and helping the person in the pew work them out in making the application.
Third, not every good sermon should be a salvation sermon. I’m a good Southern Baptist, and church wouldn’t be church without an altar call, but I’ve seen really good sermons take a nosedive into incoherence when the preacher would try to shift the focus onto evangelistic outreach. Every sermon, though, should be focused on equipping, edifying, and bringing about the unity of the church.
Lastly, a good sermon gets to the point. It’s one thing to do a lot of setup in order to get to the heart of the text, but its a whole other thing if the setup lends nothing to a coherent explication of the text. Good sermons are prepared sermons. Every now and then a preacher can pull one off the cuff, that’s one of those Spirit of God things, but good sermons are those where you can see that the preacher has had to wrestle with the text, or even wrestle with themselves in order to be true to the text. Sometimes there’s history or accepted positions that make you want to minimize the clear meaning of the text, sometimes it’s a difficult subject, but the truly good sermons show preparation in dealing with the text or subject in order to make the point.
Anyway, these are the points that I have come to consider what makes a good sermon. Ultimately what makes a sermon great or bad is the person hearing the message and the Spirit working in them.