I discussed preaching in my last post. But what is preaching? Luther is supposed to have said:
“When the preacher speaks, God speaks. And whoever cannot say that about his preaching should leave preaching alone.”*
If he’s right, that God speaks when the preacher speaks, then it would make sense that preaching is an important element of worship. From an historical point of view, preaching is also a way the Christian church expresses continuity with the first century synagogue (where teaching and preaching were prominent) as well as with the Old Testament Church (where prophets spoke for God to the people).
Preaching is essentially proclamation–that’s partly why there are at least two overlapping words for preaching in the Bible, one of which focuses on “teaching” and the other on the work of a “herald.” Therefore, while I believe that preaching with powerpoints, videos, and charts/graphs/diagrams is not forbidden, it can tend to draw some of the power away from the proclamation of the Good News of the Gospel.
But this takes work; especially in a media-saturated society, it is hard work preparing a proclamation from the Bible every week. Because of this, here are five guidelines which I’ve given in different forms to the people of this congregation about what I expect from them in terms of engagement with my preaching.
1. Feedback. If you’re a member of a church, and especially a leader, whether male or female, it is my firm conviction that you are in a position to provide honest feedback about what you think of the pastor’s preaching. If married and female, that feedback may be direct, but it is also appropriate, in light of apostolic teaching, to provide that feedback in and through conversation with your husband. I do not think this is a strict prohibition , however, but reflective of a lifestyle or mindset.
Regardless whether you are male or female, if you’re a leader in your congregation and you’re you’re not prepared to provide honest feedback to the minister of the Gospel, you should ask yourself whether or not you’re in a position to be an effective leader in the first place. This is especially true of elders, who have a unique role in the oversight of the Word preached from the pulpit.
2. Evaluation. In terms of evaluating the pastor’s preaching, consider evaluating the sermons you hear in terms of the below categories. For the record, these are categories that my wife and I use for myself:
- Is the Word preached encouraging, challenging, and practical–all three?
- Is it both theological and winsome, simple yet profound?
- Do you sense the leading of the Holy Spirit not only in the pastor’s selection of the text for the sermon but in his delivery?
- Is there real danger involved in the pastor’s preaching, or is he always playing it safe? Do you sense courage coming from the pulpit? Risk-taking?
- Does the sermon capture the story of God in the text, and not just grab some isolated themes?
- Is the pastor transparent and honest without being inappropriate? Likewise, is he preaching things that I make sincere efforts to live out? How does your “hypocrisy meter” register?
- Do his sermons touch on issues of the day without being “issue driven”? Are they contemporary without being trendy? Does the preacher avoid modern issues out of fear?
- Are the people getting a steady diet of both the Old and New Testaments? At the same time, is Christ exalted each Sunday and do the sermons “naturally” lead to the Lord’s Supper?
- Does he bring humor and illustrations into the sermons he preaches, without being irreverent or distracting? Both humor and preaching with illustrations offer some relief to the ear as well as the mind and heart, and can give some space for people to reflect on what has already been said. They can also serve to “shed light” on what has been said and make it more practical.
- Does his preaching make you want to invite your friends (believing and non-believing) to hear what “the Spirit is saying to the churches”? Similarly, are your wife and children growing as a result of the preaching? If not, why not? Is it the pastor’s fault; if so what can he do? Or is it your fault–can you do a better job in helping them to be prepared to hear God’s Word each Sunday?
These may not be your criteria for measuring a sermon but they are generally speaking the way I measure my own preaching.
3. Growth. Without capitulating to cultural expectations of a “moving speech” (eg., the sermon is not a 12 minute TED talk) does the pastor aspire to be a better preacher than he currently is? What books does the pastor read to improve his speaking skills? Here’s a list of books I’ve read recently on preaching.
- Kruschev’s Shoe (on public speaking)
- Os Guiness, Fool’s Talk (on Christian persuasion)
- Story (a book about the structure of writing a screen play)
- Saving Eutychus (on the mechanics of preaching and general guidance; also has some checklists in it on what makes a good sermon, or for sermon evaluation)
Additionally, Bryan Chapell’s book on preaching and his approach to outlining and delivering Christ centered sermons is worth reading, and then re-visiting from time to time.
4. Example. Leaders should set an example—a high example—of what it means to come prepared to benefit from hearing God’s Word. It is true that honest feedback is important–see points one through three above; but so too is humble, submissive hearing of the Word. If we didn’t need to “hear” someone speak to us (which by definition since the resurrection and ascension of Christ is someone who is a sinner) then we wouldn’t need a church; the Bible would be enough. Thus, in emphasizing the importance of the Word, the Westminster Shorter Catechism says “but especially the hearing of the Word,” showing the central place that listening to sermons ought to play in the believer’s life.
The Shorter Catechism also says we should reverence the hearing of the Word of God by coming to Church on Sunday morning having shown “diligence, preparation, and prayer” toward that morning’s preaching portion. This example is important for the whole congregation.
5. Ideas for Personal Preparation. What does this example look like? Here are a few preparation questions for you to consider.
- First, consider whether or not you’re well-rested.
- Second, ask yourself: do I arrive on time? Do I encourage my family to arrive on time?
- Third, do you bring your Bible to church.
- Fourth, do you have a notebook in which to take notes, so that you can discuss the sermon with your family later, or with friends, colleagues, or relatives who were not present? (You can also use such notes to write your own Bible studies and so multiply the work done in preparation for Sunday’s sermon by the pastor.)
- Fifth, if you have children, do you train your children to listen well to God’s Word preached? Give them a handy notebook they can use. Encourage them to get ready early enough on Sunday morning so that such things like their Bible and sermon notebook are not forgotten. Consider speaking with them quietly during the sermon, asking them if they know what a word just mentioned meant; helping them to find a reference in their Bible that the pastor mentions from the pulpit, or even giving them candy to start each point as they do in the Dutch Reformed Tradition.
- Fifth, in talking about the sermon after church, take care to not ignore it and not mention it; but also not to speak with disrespect. There is a saying that in some older communities what was served for Sunday supper was “roast preacher.” While there’s nothing wrong with dissecting a poorly preached sermon over a meal with your family or with friends, there is a sacred honor that is attached to the sermon in a church which should give many church members pause before uncritically venting their frustrations about the sermon to anyone who might happen to listen.
It should go without saying that this preparation also includes reading your Bible throughout the week devotionally, and as mentioned already, perhaps reading the sermon text in advance of Sunday’s sermon.
In conclusion, I’d encourage you to use these guidelines for your own church, your own pastor, and your own soul as you engage with the Word which is preached each Sunday.
A final word of warning: if you’ve tried to carve out an identity as a “Christian” without sitting under the preaching of the Word, I will say very bluntly that you are a rebel and you need to repent of neglecting this important means of grace which God the Son has given you through the continuing apostolic ministry of the Preacher in His Bride, the Church.