As a regular preacher and speaker it is a question I frequently ponder. So over recent months I’ve been trying to note what grabs people and gets positive feedback; either from my own preaching or that of others. Here are some unscientific observations.
1. Tell them about yourself. As someone put it to me, “tell us about what God is doing in your life”. One visiting preacher recently based his whole talk around some of the hard things that had been happening in his life and the congregation really loved it.
2. Make it interesting. OK, so no one wants to listen to a boring sermon; but folk respond more warmly when they have laughed during the sermon. Vivid illustrations which relate to daily life, practical tips they can put into immediate use all keep people’s attention. Being blunt gets a better response that careful nuance.
3. Draw them in. People get sermons when they have developed an emotional connection with you and with the message. They don’t get it if they understand it but don’t feel it. Hearers need to be taken on an emotional journey not an intellectual or logical one.
4. People are nice about sermons which are well prepared and well crafted, but when you ask them which they remember or what they want us to focus on (we spent part of one church meeting thinking about this) the well prepared and well executed aren’t valued particularly highly.
5. Being prophetic is more valued than being exegetical. There is always a warmer response when folk sense that a message is from God for them or for us as a church and which chimes in with what God appears to be saying and doing.
Lately I’ve started to pay much less attention to preparing sermons which work rhetorically and which are crafted so they carry a theme through them. I’ve started to allow them to be a more random collection of points and people seem to respond better to them. Does this matter? Probably not, I suspect it is a reflection of the way communication works in our society where messages are built on discrete blocks of a couple of minutes each rather than a sustained argument.
I’ve also started to be more explicit about the links between my talk and the text. Whereas before I would allow the argument and flow of the passage to shape what I said and the way I said it so that my message would in some way retell the passage, applying it to our current situation I now tend to point people to specific phrases and parts of the passage. Does this matter? Yes and no. One goal of preaching is to open up the Word of God so that it can speak to us, something which takes place on different levels simultaneously. Sermons ought to be seeped in the Scriptures; their messages, thought processes and different world views – and should not be a random collection of proof texts for the preachers latest fad. Preaching which is not theologically literate and exegetically sound is impoverished but preaching that goes over the heads of people most of the time is largely useless. In the end preaching that connects is more beneficial than preaching that's correct.
Is any of this making me a better preacher? I’m not sure, but it is probably making me a good example of ‘how not to preach’ for someone’s homiletics lectures.
What do you think makes a good sermon?
My answer to the question is “one that challenges me to change”. Failing that, one which makes me understand scripture better, or to see something in a new light. The absolute essential is that Scripture is told as it is. But I suspect the answers will vary with the generations.
But I really abandon my usual total disengagement from social media provoked by your first point, (which may in itself be a paradox.) One of our elders, an excellent preacher, said something similar to me about 25 years ago. I demurred, and still do (despite having lifted the veil a bit last Sunday). I think I’m there first and foremost to show people Jesus, and I don’t want to take the slightest risk of standing in front of him.
Like every other sphere of human activity, we can over-analyse these things to death. The real test of preaching is whether or not it bears fruit. Best, I think, to pray for that, and keep saying what, with honesty and integrity, we sense the Holy Spirit has given us to say.