I was chatting with somebody recently about what makes a good sermon. I have had similar conversations over the years with different people. To some degree, good sermons are in the eye of the beholder, everybody having their own opinions on what makes one good.
Truth be told, for most of us, we are just hoping to be competent. But we have to ask ourselves, what makes a competent sermon? We have all heard some pretty terrible sermons and can usually pick them out when we hear them. But what are the bare essentials of a competent sermon?
I think there are two basic things every sermon must do. I would argue, if you have done these two essential things, then your sermon has at least been competent. It might well be better in a whole host of ways, but do these two things and your sermon is doing essentially what a sermon ought.
First, your sermon must go some way to explaining the passage in front of you. What does the thing we have just read actually mean? That is your first goal. If you fail to explain the passage, your sermon can rightly be considered incompetent. I think the most legitimate complaint of any sermon is when someone gets to the end and the people in front of them are no clearer what the passage means. A competent sermon must explain the passage and be understood by the people in front of them.
I have sat through sermons where the passage was no clearer to me than when we started. I have sat through others where I knew what the passage meant, but it seemed to me the preacher didn’t. If the sermon cannot tell what is happening, cannot explain the main ideas or summarise what is going on simply, they have not explained the passage. For the most part, I think evangelicals are okay on this. Typically the passage is explained and people can understand, at the end of their sermon, what this particular passage means.
However, if we stop there, we still haven’t preached a competent sermon. In my experience, most evangelical sermons go awry because that is all they do. They spend 30 minutes restating what is in the passage, explaining the text or showing us their exegesis, and then they end. They have missed the other vital element of a competent sermon.
Second, the sermon has to apply the passage to the people in front of you. It is not enough to just explain what the passage means, or what is going on in it, the preacher has to apply it to the lives of the people listening. After all, that is why most people are in church listening to a sermon. They want to know what they are supposed to do in response to what this passage means. Preaching, by its very nature, is calling people to something, aiming at change, seeking to get people to respond to the Word. But if we don’t show people how they are to respond to the Word, they might understand the passage, but they’ll miss what the passage is specifically calling them to do.
The other legitimate criticism of any sermon is when, having understood the passage in front of them, people leave effectively asking, ‘so what?’ If they have no idea what they are supposed to do with the passage they’ve heard explained, we might have taught them what it means, but we haven’t shown what it means for them. Failing to appropriately apply the passage to the people in front of us means our sermon is not competent.
These two things, I think, are the bare essentials of a competent sermon. You might like more or less illustrations. That’s okay, they can be good. But they aren’t essential. You might like a bit more animation from the speaker. That’s fine, but it’s not vital. But the two questions you should be able to answer after any sermon are these: (1) what does that mean? (2) what does that mean for me? If you can answer those, I think you can say it was at least alright.