Seven Marks of Great Preaching

Everyone wants to hear a good sermon. But what exactly is a good sermon? Certainly, you know one when you  hear one, but pinning down the details can be difficult; preaching is an  interesting mixture of theology (what we’re saying) and rhetoric (how  we say it). Yet when a sermon includes the following seven central  elements, and when the Holy Spirit is present, something happens—the Word comes alive and people come to faith.

In brief, a good sermon engages the biblical text, proclaims the gospel,  connects God’s Word to the lives of God’s people, is well organized and  easy to understand, captures the imagination of the hearers, is  delivered well, and orients people toward life in God’s world.

1. A good sermon engages the biblical text
Historically, the Christian sermon has always followed the reading of  Scripture. In a very real way, the sermon is a response to the  Scriptures read. In the Scriptures, the preacher has heard God speak in  such a way that she must say something back, first as she works on her  sermon and then to her congregation that Sunday. To think of the sermon  as response takes seriously the nature of the Bible as God’s Word, a  living witness that still provokes a response from those who hear it.  Therefore, good preachers strive to engage the biblical passages  seriously, in a manner that is interesting, inspiring, and relevant.

2. A good sermon proclaims the gospel
Wait a second. Isn’t preaching the Bible the same as preaching the gospel?

Yes and no. Certainly, our sense of the gospel (in brief, what God has  done through Jesus Christ for us and all the world) emerges from the  biblical witness. At the same time, though, there is some value in  realizing that we cannot simply equate the two. Luther had a nice way of  putting this. The Bible, Luther said, is like the manger in which the  Christ child rests. So while we should flee to the Bible to find Christ,  Luther counseled, we should avoid falling on our knees to worship wood  and straw. To put it another way, we value the Bible so highly precisely  and primarily because it contains the gospel.

The preacher’s primary task in dealing with any biblical passage,  therefore, is to say a word about what God has done and is still doing  through Jesus Christ for us and for all the world. Our task as biblical  preachers is to approach passages of Scripture (be they parables, wisdom  sayings, passages from Old or New Testament) with two tasks in mind:

  • to hear the particular confession of faith being made in the passage and
  • to relate it to our overall sense of what God is up to in our lives and the world through Jesus.

That  is, whatever you’re preaching on, somehow it relates to the ongoing  work of the God we have come to know most fully through Jesus Christ.

3. A good sermon connects God’s Word to the lives of God’s people
Part of the significance of the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation is  God’s commitment to be accessible, to speak a divine word in human  form, to take on our lot and our life. Preaching is an incarnational  word, one that reaffirms God’s commitment to meet us where we are.

To put it another way, we might go so far as to say that there is no  universal gospel apart from the way it manifests itself in the  particular and concrete aspects of our actual lives. To talk about  “God’s love” or “forgiveness” or “grace” in general makes very little  sense without pointing to specific examples and instances of love,  forgiveness, and grace in our lives and the world around us.

Preaching that is generic or universal in character and does not  struggle to relate God’s Word to our actual lives is boring, irrelevant,  and gives the impression that God does not really care about what’s  going on in our lives and world. On the other hand, preaching that is  only “relevant”—focusing on the latest perceived need, trend, or tragedy  in the community without viewing these issues from the perspective of  the gospel—is at best therapy and at worst mere pandering.

4. A good sermon is well organized and easy to understand
As we all know, if the message isn’t clearly thought out and presented,  it just doesn’t matter much what’s being said. If I can’t follow it,  then I can’t appreciate it and certainly can’t be moved to faith by it.  Likewise, preaching that is unclear, poorly organized, or difficult to  understand is ineffectual.

5. A good sermon engages the imaginations of the hearers
One of the most significant insights of mainline preachers over the last  two generations has been that the gospel is more than a head-trip. That  is, the gospel is more than thinking a certain way. It is not just  cognitive, but also experiential, deals not only with our rational side but  also with our whole selves—feelings, desires, needs, heart, soul, and so  forth. Preaching, we have come to realize, speaks to the whole person,  and to do that, we need to engage the imaginations of our hearers.

6. A good sermon is delivered well
To preach is to communicate. Therefore, it must be delivered effectively  so that we may hear the message. In order for that to occur, two things  need to take place:

  • The preacher must deliver the sermon with the appropriate effect. If you’re excited, bursting with good news, and think what you  have to say really is good news, then your facial expression, body  gestures, and voice should express those emotions.
  • The preacher must deliver the sermon with passion and  integrity. People should know that you believe what you say, that you  have something at stake in this message, that it is true for you, and  that it matters. Insincerity is easily detected by most listeners and  greatly undermines preaching.

7. A good sermon orients hearers to life in God’s world
Christian worship is the gathering of the faithful so that they may be  renewed in faith and sent once more into the world as the people of God.  Preaching, as a central part of that worship, has the responsibility to  not only proclaim the gospel so that hearers may come once again to  faith, but also to redirect those same people to the world as the arena in  which they live out their Christian callings to be God’s people, and  even God’s partners, in the world. God has chosen to use human means—the  abilities and opportunities of our people in the various roles and  dimensions of their everyday lives—to help sustain the world God loves  so much.

For this reason, preaching that does not seek to orient hearers to their  active lives as God’s people sent to care for God’s world risks  engendering an inwardly focused, even self-centered version of  Christianity that betrays God’s love for and commitment to God’s world.

The next time you are listening to or preaching a sermon, look for these  seven marks. This outline of the seven marks of a sermon may give  preachers and their hearers some guidelines to talk about what makes good preaching.

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