As one who regularly preaches and teaches in a local church, I am almost daily working on some aspect of sermon preparation. There are certain crucial elements that I want to make sure are contained in each message that I share. Occasionally I will have opportunities to work with other (usually younger) men as they also prepare to speak God’s Word to his people. As I guide them, I will help them to ensure that their messages possess these characteristics as well. More recently, I have been asked to serve on a “Theology Panel” as our local church seeks to fill the role of senior pastor. One task involved with being on that panel has been to evaluate sermons preached by some of the candidates. As I listen, I am assessing the sermons for these qualities.
One Danger to Avoid
Because this type of critique is somewhat normal in my current line of work, it would be easy and natural for me to only be evaluating the sermon (as though I were the instructor needing to grade the student) and never learning from the sermon (as a rescued sinner who needs regular Scriptural exhortations). The best defense against this is prayer. I must pray both in my preparations for my own sermons (that my work in the text will not be a merely academic exercise but a Spiritual feast for myself and my hearers) and as I sit under the preaching of others (that the truth of what is preached would open my eyes to the greatness of God, would convict me of besetting sin, and would cause me to exult in Christ and the gospel).
Sermon Evaluation, Missions, and Church Membership
What does all of this have to do with missions? Not all missionaries will be pastors or church planters, but all missionaries should be churchmen (and women) who can discern between true biblical exposition and theological fluff from the pulpit. The members of churches bear some of the responsibility for ensuring that there is sound teaching for the congregation. There are some very simple ways to do this.
Call pastors who demonstrate a commitment to sound teaching
When you want to create a pattern for sound teaching, a good place to start is by only putting people behind the pulpit who show the ability to rightly divide the word of truth (1 Tim 32; 2 Tim 2:15). This does not mean that churches only appoint “professional” expositors. No doubt, many pastors grow into more capable preachers after years of experience in working through God’s Word week after week. But all preachers, regardless of experienced or how “polished” they are, must regularly submit to the right presentation of the text.
Pray for your pastor to preach soundly and encourage him when he does.
Just as the pastor should pray his way through his sermon preparation, you should pray for him as he studies the Bible in order to teach it to the church. Similarly, pray for yourself and for the whole congregation to be prepared to hear from God each Sunday. And when the pastor faithfully expounds the Scripture and feeds the sheep from its richness, honor him by thanking him for doing so and encouraging him to continue in such work.
Confront your pastor when he strays from sound teaching.
There are plenty of very bad ways to do this, so rather than describe them, I will try to explain a right way that this could and should be done if necessary. Not every sermon a man preaches will be a “home run.” So the pastor shouldn’t be bombarded with criticism for one less-than-stellar message. But if a pattern emerges in which a pastor’s sermons are not featuring the qualities promoted here, the congregation should be on alert. This probably means that some trusted friends should investigate why such a practice has been adopted. It may be that the pastor has become too busy or distracted to devote the appropriate amount of time to sermon preparation. If this is the case, the church should ensure that other ministry responsibilities are covered so that the pastor can devote the necessary time to examining the scriptures and properly preparing the sermons. It may be that there is something more serious going on in the pastor’s mind or life. The point is that the church need not settle for a regular diet of sermons that are not truly nourishing.
The Characteristics of Healthy Sermons
Healthy sermons are almost always preached by pastors who are spiritually healthy. They contain six key ingredients. These are those “crucial elements” for which I am looking as I prepare my own sermons and as I listen perceptively to the sermons of others. When a sermon checks all six of these boxes, it is almost assuredly a healthy sermon.
1. A healthy sermon is expositionally accurate.
Others have made the case for why expository preaching, rather than topical, should be the main diet of a church. This point is not to oppose all forms of topical preaching, but simply to say that even topical messages must be expositionally accurate. That is, a verse or passage of Scripture should probably be making the same point in a topical message that it would make in an expositional sermon focused on that passage.
To ensure this, a pastor must be committed to doing the hard work of exegeting each passage of Scripture in its context so that neither the main passage being preached, nor any cross references used to illustrate or support that passage, are being ripped out of context. As hard as exegesis is, the only other option is to rely on one’s creativity, which is not really any easier and is far more dangerous.
Expositional accuracy also demands that a sermon be linguistically faithful. A pastor need not be an expert in Hebrew and Greek, but given the tools that are available to modern preachers, there’s no excuse for not ensuring that words are being defined and sentences are being explained in a way that is faithful to the intention of the biblical authors who used those words purposefully. Paying attention to grammar, syntax, vocabulary, and even figures of speech will help preacher gain from his text what is there and will strengthen the listener’s confidence in the Bible he is reading.
2. A healthy sermon is biblically theological.
A pastor should not stop examining his passage at the exegetical level. He must also be able to show where, how, and why it fits into the storyline—the metanarrative—of the Bible. He should find out and articulate what contribution the passage makes to that storyline, and how other parts of the story inform his passage.
This practice is known as biblical theology. It ensures that the details of the passage are informing the big picture, and that the big picture is informing the details. The Bible’s metanarrative is quite simple (most understand it along the lines of Creation-Fall-Redemption-Restoration), so a sermon can include a brief (or longer, if necessary) summary showing how the passage at hand fits into the metanarrative. Or it might be that the passage illustrates the whole storyline, and if so, that should probably be highlighted.
Remember that the biblical authors are working together to tell this story, and that many of the later writers borrowed from the earlier ones, and by proxy, many of the earlier writers informed the later ones. So, while we should guard against reading into a passage something that is not there, it is possible (and perhaps likely) that the best way to interpret one passage is to read it in light of other passages, thus letting the Bible interpret itself.
3. A healthy sermon is Christologically centered.
Rightly practiced, biblical theology will lead to identifying and emphasizing the person and work of Jesus as the one who secures redemption for God’s people. Any sermon that does not find its climax in Christ cannot rightly be defined as a Christian sermon. More than likely, a sermon that does not highlight the finished and sufficient work of Christ on the cross will venture into a moralistic attempt, exhorting people to try harder and do better.
A pastor should be showing his people from the Bible how Jesus fulfills the prophet’s messages of salvation and judgment, the priestly practices of the sacrificial system, and the promises of a King who would sit on David’s throne. He should be showing them how salvation in Christ is secured by grace alone through faith in him alone, and how Christ’s resurrection from the dead guarantees the future defeat of sin.
4. A healthy sermon is evangelistically urgent.
The sermon is not primarily for the unbelievers who may be in attendance, but for the believers, and especially for the members of the church. However, the pastor should not mistakenly assume that all his hearers are already converted. Therefore, he should make every effort to clarify the indicatives of the gospel and the imperative to respond with faith and repentance to the good news.
And even if every person in attendance is already a Christian, they are gathered together because of the good news of the gospel, so the pastor should remind his people of what should be “of first importance” (1 Cor 15:3). The gospel should be central to the sermon and central to the church service itself. The gospel should be what is primarily celebrated when God’s people gather for corporate worship. By proclaiming the gospel in each sermon, the pastor will model for his people (1) how to share the good news from all parts of the Bible and (2) that no believer ever graduates from the gospel, but rather grows ever deeper into it.
5. A healthy sermon is doctrinally sound.
Just as each sermon should employ appropriate biblical theology, each must also utilize systematic theology accurately as well. This is true for expositional as well as topical messages. Every sermon will contain at least a hint of the preacher’s doctrinal positions. Not every position needs to be examined to the same depth, as some will be more agreeable and familiar while others will be more unclear and controversial. The shepherd will need to know his sheep well in order to determine how to approach each theme.
Whereas biblical theology asks the question, “How is this topic developed throughout the storyline of the Bible?”, systematic theology asks, “What is the sum total of the Bible’s teaching on this topic?” When the text of an expository sermon mentions a doctrinal topic, it is usually a good idea to articulate one’s stance on that doctrine by illustrating it with other relevant passages. It is not usually a good idea to attempt to give an exhaustive treatment of that doctrine if it is only a minor point in the sermon, but neither should the point go entirely unmentioned.
Exegesis determines doctrine, not the other way around. However, a trusted doctrinal grid, informed by tried exegesis, will help ensure further exegetical consistency. While some would argue that doctrine is only for trained academics, a preacher should seek to show from the Bible how there really is no separation of rich theology and Christian practicality.
6. A healthy sermon is contextually applicable.
Speaking of Christian practicality, a healthy sermon will show its hearers how the truths of the Bible should be brought to bear on their daily lives. Most people seem to think that the best way to accomplish this is to give “how to” or “what now?” steps either as main points in the sermon or as concluding points. It is not always wrong to add these in, but doing so regularly could give an audience the impression that Christianity is primarily about how one behaves rather than what Christ has done.
One way to think about application is this: it is less important we apply the Bible to our lives and much more important that we apply our lives to the Bible. That is to say, we should not try to fit the Bible conveniently into our priorities, but rather we should reorder the priorities of our lives so that they line up with the Bible. A regular diet of preaching this way will better “contextualize” scriptural truths. In other words, while the primary situations of the original readers of the Bible are no doubt different than those of modern readers, the primary intention for both is likely the same: the reader should be brought into line with the worldview of the Bible.
As important as proper application is, the preacher cannot possibly explain every way that the text could be applied. It may be that each hearer of a sermon would most obediently apply the sermon differently in his own situation. So rather attempt to list every way that a text could be applied, he is probably wiser to give his readers a correct interpretation of a passage along with a few suggestions for how that interpretation could be put into practice, and then urge the hearers to seek out the best way for them to personally apply that truth.
Preaching is hard work, which is probably why many churches have relegated the sermon to an afterthought rather than striving for the centrality of exposition each Lord’s Day service. In that sense, even the structure of a church’s service can tell you a great deal about the importance of preaching in that church, and what it thinks about the Bible. Healthy sermons are a strong indicator of healthy churches.
Preachers should strive to develop and deliver healthy expository sermons as the regular diet of a church’s weekly gatherings. Church members should pray that pastors would devote themselves to this task and seek to understand why preaching is primary in the life of the church. Missionaries should seek to develop and train men for the ministry of preaching so that healthy sermons can become the normal way that churches and believers are built up in the faith and equipped to share the gospel with others.