I’ve been thinking a bit lately about what makes for good preaching. This has largely come about as I’ve listened to various sermons from various preachers and wondered what it is that did or did not resonate with me from the sermon.
I must admit, first of all, that when someone asks me who my favorite preachers are, I don’t have an instant answer. Actually, what is most often the case is that my favorite preachers are very rarely ones that most people have heard of (with a few exceptions).
This is because there are only a handful of preachers that I find to be really engaging, interesting, thought-provoking, and gospel-centered. This sentiment, no doubt, has much to do with the fact that – as with any profession – preachers are often the toughest critics on other preachers. It also has to do with the fact, however, that, from my perspective, very few preachers I have listened to really, truly grasp the new covenant gospel, in all its beauty – recognizing the one “theme” that must swallow up every other in our preaching and proclamation (“Christ our righteousness”).
Of course, this attitude probably betrays a chauvinism and conceitedness on my part – as if I have it all figured out. But I don’t write this as one who has arrived. My reflections on what constitutes good preaching are as much a “teaching moment” for me as I seek to implement some of these principles into my own preaching.
So here are a few thoughts from my perspective on what resonates with me, as someone who occasionally sits in the pew – or, quite often, stokes up the iPod. These are, of course, just one person’s perspective – no doubt shaped by my biases, culture, and presuppositions. I would love to get your feedback as well!
1. Give me the Bible. By this I don’t mean that I want to hear a whole bunch of Bible verses spouted off, or what every commentary under the sun has to say about a particular passage (though it wouldn’t preclude these). What inspires me is when a preacher is grounded in the Word in such a way that I can tell he or she has really wrestled with Scripture; that the passages being discussed have actually become a part of the preacher and has reached him or her on a heart-level.
An exposition of the Bible cannot simply be an academic exercise either. I want to hear how the passage(s) being discussed relates to the great themes of Scripture – the love of God, the Great Controversy, etc.
2. Give me the cross. Every sermon must be presented within the context of God’s self-sacrificing, other-centered love. This doesn’t mean that every sermon must be exclusively on the cross, but every sermon needs to be presented in light of the cross. In other words, if you are preaching about the Sabbath, tell me – in part of the sermon – how the Sabbath relates to God’s other-centered love.
Ellen White put it this way:
The sacrifice of Christ as an atonement for sin is the great truth around which all other truths cluster. In order to be rightly understood and appreciated, every truth in the Word of God, from Genesis to Revelation, must be studied in the light that streams from the cross of Calvary. I present before you the great, grand monument of mercy and regeneration, salvation and redemption–the Son of God uplifted on the cross. This is to be the foundation of every discourse given by our ministers. (Gospel Workers, p. 315)
This is, sadly, where the bulk of sermons that I hear are lacking.
3. Give me “present truth.” What we need to hear right now – as has every age – is “present truth.” This is not different than #2, by the way, but an extension of it. Present truth today as it relates to the gospel and God’s other-centered love is richer and fuller and more beautiful than it was in 1820 or 1520. It’s also different than what the bulk of Christianity is preaching today (no offense to them). An Adventist preacher has not been called to preach a Baptist or Pentecostal or Catholic or non-denominational gospel (as great as those gospels may be).
Thus, we need to hear the three angel’s messages – how God’s love is expressed through the sanctuary, the great controversy, the Sabbath, the state of the dead, prophecy, and, yes, the health message and standards.
But this present truth, of course, can never be divorced from the cross. This is why Ellen White would always talk about the “truth as it is in Jesus.”
4. Give me something fresh – but not just for the sake of being fresh or different or novel. This is mostly related to #1, and how a preacher needs to wrestle with Scripture. The sermons that impress me the most are the ones in which I learn something from the preacher, or when he/she shares a perspective with me that I hadn’t thought of before.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that the information is all that different (though it’s an extra-bonus when it is), but that it is presented and constructed in a way that is fresh. The late Bill Lehman was the master of this, from my perspective. When I listen to his sermons, at least once or twice in a sermon he says something in a way that I say, “Wow, that’s how I’ve felt but didn’t know how to verbalize.” I like to say that there is a “profound simplicity” or a “simple profundity” to his sermons.
Good preaching, like good music, simply uses the notes that we’ve always had (no new notes are being discovered), but composes those notes in such a way that we hear the notes in a different way. Bad preaching takes those notes and constructs them in a way that we’ve heard before, or in a way that is predictable, such that you know the ending of the song long before it arrives.
This idea is also very much related to #1 because there is so much of Scripture that is untapped. This is, partially, why I have a bias toward the Old Testament: there is so much of the Old Testament that has been largely ignored or overlooked – in favor of the Gospels or Paul’s epistles (as much as I love these). When was the last time you heard a sermon from Obadiah or the Song of Solomon or Lamentations? When I study these books for myself, I feel as though I am encountering something practically new. It’s such a joy!
5. Give me something real. I want to hear how the message you are sharing has personally changed your life. In other words, share your testimony – not just your general testimony of how you came to the Lord when you were 16; but how the topic you are covering changed your life last week.
6. Give me substance; you can keep the style. I really don’t care if you can turn a phrase if what you’re actually saying isn’t all that substantive. So you can keep the rhyming and the alliteration and the fancy phrases.
What I don’t want: I don’t want comedy (though this doesn’t preclude the use of humor at times); I don’t want screaming; I don’t want a bunch of advice, divorced from the gospel. The sermon is not a time to encourage human-powered, behavior modification (whether that is standards or social activism). Yes, every sermon must include an appeal and an invitation to engage in some type of behavior, but this invitation must always be presented within the context of God’s self-sacrificing, other-centered love.
So there’s my list! Again, I don’t write it with any pretention. I very rarely achieve all – or even many – of these ingredients in my preaching. By God’s grace, however, I strive to achieve it. And, my use of “give me” for each point was not meant to imply that a sermon should be all about what I – or any audience member – simply wants to hear. I used the term simply because I felt it was stylistically (!) the best way to express what I perceive to be the best ingredients in preaching.
Lastly, who are my favorite preachers – who most often come closest to meeting the above criteria? At the risk of excluding some who deserve to be on this list – who I simply don’t know about yet or have heard only a few sermons from – these are the preachers that I would probably say I would most want to hear if I could hear anyone: my dad; Arnet Mathers; Bill Lehman, Ty Gibson, Richard Davidson, James Rafferty. There are others who could be added to this list, but, as I said, I probably haven’t heard them enough to know whether they consistently deliver the goods! The ones I listed, however, seem to always hit a “home run.” And, what’s even more fortunate, is that they are all featured on a sermon website I administrate: InVerity.org. So check out the links that are attached to their names.
What about you? What do you think makes for good preaching? And who are some of your favorite preachers?