Last Sunday’s Sermon: Was It Any Good?

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After preaching last Sunday, I started to think about whether my sermon was any good. I don’t know why I started to cogitate about it—perhaps my own insecurity. And, yes, there’s a problem when I call it my sermon. On this particular occasion, I thought the sermon went pretty well. Whenever I have misgivings about the sermon, however—well, then, it was God’s sermon after all.

And then there’s my wife, Jeanie, bless her. I always go over my sermon with her just to bounce some ideas around, and she usually has an opinion or two—some of them are occasionally helpful.

But she isn’t always enthusiastic. So when I get up to preach, I look for Jeanie. If she’s sitting up front, I am encouraged. That’s a good sign. She’s eager to hear how this is going to go. If, however, she’s sitting in the middle area, halfway back and in the middle of the pew, I know that she expects trouble and is seeking anonymity in the midst of the congregation. Why else would she sit in a middle seat? But if she’s way in the back corner, I know she wants nothing to do with this sermon. She has washed her hands of this mess. On these occasions, she’s likely to volunteer with babies in the cry room.

Sometimes, she even stays home. “Honey, I’ll be prayin’ for you today.”

Actually, I’ve only had one time in my life as a preacher when someone approached me after the service and flat-out told me that the sermon was awful. I’m sure that there are many times when people don’t think my sermons have been stellar, but, thankfully, they keep their opinions to themselves. On this occasion, this dear lady of about 65 years of age said to me, “That was the worst sermon I’ve ever heard in my life.” And then she tottered away.

Most of the time I get comments like, “Thanks, pastor,” “Appreciate the sermon today, pastor,” “Great sermon, Timothy”—stuff like that. It’s sort of a throwaway comment designed to make nice conversation and be kind and pleasant, and I appreciate that.

I guess that happened this past Sunday. I thought the sermon went well—very well, actually. A few people affirmed this opinion. But I had doubts. And thus the dark hours I’ve spent ruminating on this subject. It comes down to this: Is there any objective assessment tool by which to declare that a sermon was effective?

My conclusion? Yes, there is.

When speaking of a sermon, generally two components are involved: the content of the sermon itself, and the delivery of the sermon to the audience. Let’s agree on this for the sake of argument.

I’ve come to the opinion that sermons cannot be judged effective or ineffective based on the content or the material of the sermon alone. What is great content to some is not so great to others. Remember, some in our audience are nonbelievers, some are still drinking milk and some are gnawing on T-bones. If you share my experience, you’ve had those times when someone has remarked to you how “lately, pastor, your sermons have really been going deeper. You’ve really been feeding us the meat of the Word.” Well, no. Maybe you’ve been going deeper, but nothing’s changed in my sermon planning and methods of preparation.

So, we can say the content was great, or not so great, or awful—whatever. But in every case, these comments are opinions. You might say, “Ah, no, Timothy, we can apply the test of faithfulness to Scripture! Is the pastor’s sermon faithful to the Bible, God’s word?”

Wrong. Regardless of how you answer that question, it’s still an opinion. Sorry.

So that leaves us with the delivery of the content, whether the content is subjectively good or bad. Here’s how a sermon can be measured objectively as being effective: Did the preacher capture the attention of the audience and hold it from start to finish?

I think every pastor, if she or he is honest, can answer that question objectively. Simple observation is telling. No one is sleeping. No one is whispering. No one is counting the tiles on the ceiling. Everyone has their eyes on me. Even those who don’t want to listen to me, are listening. They are hooked, and I am going to keep them on this 10-pound test line for the next 20-25 minutes and reel them in like a Minnesota walleye. If they slip off the line, I will know it.

If my audience is listening to the sermon, then I have achieved what I wanted to do.

You say, “Well, you can’t ignore the content of the sermon.”

That’s a given. Why would I go to the trouble of setting up an elegant place-setting complete with candles, bone china, sterling silver, crystal goblets and fine linens if I then was going to serve gruel? Of course, the content is going to be the best I can offer.

Here’s the thing: If I cannot compel the audience to listen, then they cannot hear the Word, and if they do not hear the Word, they cannot be obedient to the Word, and if they are not obedient to the Word, they cannot in any way be disciples of the Word.

Therefore, the first priority is the delivery of the content—understanding the principles of effective oral communication. It is of paramount importance that we preachers get the content of the sermon into the ears of our audiences. When that happens, there’s a chance the Holy Spirit can get it into their hearts. If we don’t, there’s no chance whatsoever for transformation.

But, here’s something interesting. Have you noticed that when people praise a pastor’s sermon, they never praise the delivery? Seriously. They praise the message or the content itself! The delivery has disappeared.

On the other hand, have you noticed that when people complain about the preacher’s sermon, it is always about delivery? “She reads from a manuscript.” “He preaches in a monotone.” “She’s always going off on tangents, and never seems to have a point.” Et cetera.

If we preachers work harder to be more effective in the delivery of God’s word, people won’t notice the delivery. They’ll notice the Word.

Isn’t that what we want?

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Timothy Merrill is the author of The Temporary Typist and The Count of Chartres: The Reluctant Crusader. Ordained in the United Church of Christ, he has served congregations in Minnesota, Oregon and Colorado. He is currently an Associate Minister at Trinity Church, Shanghai, China. He is the Executive Editor of Homiletics a resource for clergy; the Founder and Editor of HomeTouch. He is also the author of books published by Abingdon Press, Chalice Press and CSS Publishing. His wife, Jeanie, is a high school counselor at Shanghai American School. He and Jeanie live in Shanghai, China.

1 COMMENT

  1. Thanks for the insights. One of the questions I have come to ask related to the content and the delivery is, “what did people feel?” Emotions drive human behavior more than information. Stories, art, images and music convey meaning with emotional energy. There is always the danger of emotional manipulation, but if the goal is to help people be transformed and change their heart and behavior, we must touch their emotions. When John Wesley described his Aldersgate experience, he didn’t say, “I had a great idea.” He said he “felt his heart strangley warmed.” As you mentioned, the goal is to touch people’s hearts. Another way to evaluate delivery and content is to ask, “what did people think?” and, “what did people feel?” The final test of effectiveness may then be, “What did people do because of that sermon?”

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