Monday, April 29, 2019

What are the criteria for a good sermon? Here are four.

God, I have sat through some boring sermons. I don't know if it's me or the preaching really is insipid, dry, and incoherent.

I sit there and wonder to myself, "What is the point? Why is the preacher telling us this? What am I supposed to do with this information? How does this message apply to my life, to our life, to the world? Why don't I feel spiritually nutured? Why am I annoyed, angry, struggling to pay attention?"

And then I wonder if this church is for me. Maybe I should seek out another group, another church, where the weekly messages are more relevant, more inspiring, more informative, more challenging.

So, I have been thinking a lot over the last year or so about what makes a good sermon. I went on the web and looked for articles that address this question and didn't find anything that seems really satisfying to me,so I thought I would write some of my own ideas.

First and foremost a good sermon has to be articulate and coherent. I can't tell you how many times I am listening to a sermon and 7 minutes into it I wonder what in hell the preacher is talking about. I ask myself, "What is the preacher's point?" and for the life of me I can't figure it out. There is something wrong with such a sermon. A good sermon should be making 2 or 3 good points - no more and no less. If at the end of 20 minutes, 75% of the congregation can't say what the main points of the sermon are, the sermon failed.

Secondly, a good sermon has to be relevant to the audience. I can't tell you how often I felt that the sermon was a form of intellectual masturbation. In Unitarian Universalism there is the tradition of the free pulpit, but this doesn't mean that sermons are a sole exercise for the amusement and edification of the preacher. They should be relevant to the congregation. They should resonate with the congregation. There should be a rapport and a connection with the congregation. You can measure this by the congregation's attention and nonverbal reactions. I look around at my fellow congregants and they look either dead or like Mona Lisa with a wan smile and I wonder to myself what they are making out of the what the preacher is saying. A good sermon should provide a message of utility that the congregant can apply to his/her life, to his/her family life, work life, community life, national life. Platitudes and cliches can be familiar, amusing, and recognizable, but I often don't find them terribly applicable in any way that I haven't discovered before. So, I wonder if the preacher is being lazy, hasn't thought too hard about how the message being delivered connects with the congregation and is relevant to their lives. I often feel annoyed and frustrated when I hear myself, saying to myself as I am listening to the message, "Yeah, so what!?" or "OK, that's nice, what am I supposed to do with that?" If at the end of the sermon, 75% of the congregation can't say how the message is relevant to their lives and their relationships with others, the sermon has failed.

Third, a good sermon should be spiritually nourishing, inspiring, motivating so that I can become a better person, and want to make my relationships more righteous and satisfying, and I am encouraged to make the world a better place. We have learned in psychology that intellecutal insight itself doesn't lead to change. Intellectual insight can be satisfying to a certain extent, but it can also be dry and lack any heart. A good sermon is full of heart and love. If there is no heart and no love it is, as St. Paul said in Corinthians 13: "...just a resounding gong, or a clanging cymbal." People go to church to be spiritually fed, to have their spirit and their souls nourished. As Emerson said in his Divinity School Address, if the preaching is dry, is dead, there is no life and without life, things die. If at the end of the sermon, 75% of the congregation does not have an increase in energy rather than a decrease, or the same that existed at the start of the service, the sermon has failed.

Fourth, a good sermon is not safe but challenging. It pushes the congregants a bit out of their comfort zone. People should come away from a good sermon reved up, with their energy boosted, with a new determination to become a better person, to live a better life, to love others and the world with a renewed determination and increased effort. A good sermon is not satisfied with the status quo, is not afraid to go against the grain a bit, to enlarge the congregations view and comfort with the existing world as they know it. Growth requires challenge, it requires that a person and/or a group desire to be and become a little more than they are now. To play it safe, to protect the status quo, to validate existing norms which are unjust, dysfunctional, ineffective, discriminatory, or allows people to simply tolerate injustice, ugliness, oppression, and inequality does a disservice to the congregation even if it does promote job security for the preacher and a certain comfort level for the congregation that employs the preacher. If at the end of the sermon, 75% of the congregation don't feel challenged to change their lives and their world in some positive way, the sermon has failed.

Sitting through church services where sermons are incoherent, irrelevant, dry and boring, and unchallenging is not only a waste of time and effort, but damaging to the soul of the church for without vision and leadership the people will fail, the church will die. For churches without liturgy, without a sacred book, the cornerstone is good preaching. Without good preaching the church is in peril of survival. What are the criteria you use to determine whether a sermon is good or not? Leave us comments, please.

For a video with comments click here.

1 comment:

  1. These four components are qualities to be aimed for by any preacher. Success or failure is in the hands of the audience. I enjoyed writing this article and learned a lot in articulating them. Anything any one would add?

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