What makes for a good sermon?

During my travels this summer, I have attended Sunday worship in one Episcopal Church and three congregations of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). The four preachers I heard (all of them women, well-established in their careers, and accomplished) have prompted me to think again about what makes for good preaching in progressive churches of our time. I liked these preachers because they were:

Personable: It felt as thought they were talking with and to the people who were in that church on that Sunday, including me, guest for the day as I was. Clearly all of these preachers were working from what seemed to be complete manuscripts, which means that their sermons were tightly constructed, with a sense of movement from beginning to end. Yet, the preachers looked at congregants more than they looked at the paper. Their carefully constructed sentences took life in the immediacy of semi-extemporaneous delivery. Although their personalities were distinctly different from one another, each of them had leaned a communicative method that softened the personal idiosyncrasies and allowed their transpersonal message to shine through.

Biblically focused: Each of these preachers paid attention to a text from  the Bible that had been read earlier in the service. Here they differed from many preachers (some of whom I hear gladly) who make little effort to illuminate the biblical texts or to show the connection between the ancient Word and the contemporary words of the sermon. They also differed from many preachers whose sermons focus so much on ancient times that it is difficult to see any connection with life in the world in which we live.

Oriented to life today: These four preachers spent time early in their sermons highlighting some part of their texts so that the ideas therein contained would illuminate and support the message for today that the preacher was prepared to deliver. An example is one of these sermons, which in the worship folder was entitled “Family Values.” It was based on Luke 9:41-62, especially the last portion where someone wanted to delay following Jesus until after saying goodbye to family. The preacher explained how important deference to family was in that time and then indicated the radical character of the challenge that Jesus brought. Even our highest personal and social values are to be aligned with those of the coming age.

She used Dorothy Height, long-time civil rights leader who died recently, as an example of someone who embodied deeply held family values but moved beyond them during her long and illustrious life. The preacher also noted that all of us face the question of where do our family values and our greater values converge. She gave immediacy to the issue by reporting one conversation in which the person had stated “Being gay is not a choice. Being Christian is.” (The very next morning, I fell into conversation at a coffee shop with a woman who has had to struggle with this very issue in her own family and, with little help from her own church, has come to resolution similar to the one implied in the sermon I had heard the day before.)

Appropriate to the liturgical setting: These four sermons were part of full services of Word and Sacrament. Their purpose, in part, was to describe the world the way God wants it to be. In the eucharist that was tightly connected with the sermon, congregants were given a momentary experience of that world. In the family values liturgy, the sermon prepared people to meet one another at the table of God’s family, a table that is broader, more generous, and finally more satisfying than any of the lesser family tables around which we would be gathering later in the day. These sermons came in two sizes: short (nine and eleven minutes) and longish (nineteen and twenty-one minutes). Yet all of them seemed just about right. It seems clear that sermons are only as long as they seem to be.

I’m a hard listener to please, especially on Sunday mornings. Thanks to four good preachers, in Virginia, West Virginia, and Indiana, who have helped me hear the Word this summer.


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6 Responses to What makes for a good sermon?

  1. Thank you for sharing this. I thought the class I had with you at CTS was your last, but class is still in session, and I’m loving it!

    • Danny, I remember our time together at CTS with pleasure. You are right in interpreting my new online presence as in some sense the continuation of the classroom. One of my purposes is to use these weekly columns as a way of putting forward some of the things I’m thinking about these days and inviting response, through the blog, by e-mail, exchange of materials by mail, or conversation by phone or in person.

  2. Bob Cornwall says:

    Keith,

    I think the struggle today is that we’re increasingly moving away from an oral culture. I look at sermons that were preached by Edgar Dewitt Jones. He was one of the great preachers of his day, but if the printed versions are close to what was delivered, they we would be perceived as rather dense (and long).

    How do we give a monologue in a way that is engaging, true to scripture, and that connects the ancient to the present. Not an easy task.

    • Bob, I haven’t read Jones’ sermons, but he had the reputation of being a prince of the pulpit. I have read many of Henry Ward Beecher’s sermons–many of them 6,000 words long. A group of business people from New York established a new church in Brooklyn, renting a theater for the first meeting place, specifically to provide the platform from which Beecher could preach these messages. Clearly, Beecher and Jones in their respective times, were dealing with a far different populace than preachers today confront. I hear now and then of preachers in some megachurches who command large audiences for long sermons (maybe as long as those by Beecher and Jones), but I can’t imagine this happening in progressive churches such as those you and I support. Even so, a serious engagement with ideas and issues is one of the factors, I believe, in developing strong, liberal churches.

      • Bob Cornwall says:

        Keith,

        I realize that Jones was, in his own way, as was Beecher, a performer, but the models of much megachurch preaching is derived from stand up comedy. I remember when everyone was trying to emulate Letterman’s Top 10 List. My sense is that most of us, should keep our sermons south of 20 minutes and not try to offer stand up.

        Thanks for the reflections.

  3. […] pastors today is to provide that interpretation. In an earlier column, I have described the kind of sermons I like to hear. In my next column, I will continue this discussion of proclaiming a faith-filled word in Christian […]

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