Each week in every congregation of the ELCA we gather together. There may or may not be Sunday school. Sometimes worship includes confession, and sometimes not. Most churches have a “coffee hour,” but there are probably some that don’t. And while communion is likely, even it isn’t certain in every congregation every week.
But without fail, there will be a sermon. Every week, it is the constant — we will read and hear the word, and we’ll talk about what the gospel means for our lives.
If you talk to people who are looking for a new worshiping community, “good sermons” is often at the top of their must-have list. And for people leaving a congregation, they often cite “bad preaching” as one reason they’re unhappy.
Considering how constant the sermon is in our worship, preaching certainly varies from congregation to congregation. So what is a “good sermon”?
I’ve heard pastors tell me what a good sermon is, and I’ve heard professors tell me. But I’m far more interested in the people who actually listen to sermons week in and week out.
So I asked.
In a variety of settings, I asked non-preachers to tell me what they value in a sermon. I received an avalanche of replies. Out of those, some recurring themes stood out.
This was far and away the most common piece of advice given by my pool of sermon listeners. Be yourself. Don’t try to adopt a voice and demeanor in the pulpit that is different from your personality outside the pulpit. While it may be helpful to learn from other preachers, don’t try to be like them. Be yourself.
That includes the stories and illustrations that are used. We’ve all seen books of sermon illustrations (now usually found on websites). We’ve all been tempted to “borrow” a story that isn’t our own. Don’t.
Don’t use canned/prepackaged sermon illustrations or stories that aren’t yours. If you use anecdotes, use your own.
Use your time wisely
A preacher can make two errors in terms of sermon length. One is to preach too briefly, and the other is to preach too long. Care to venture a guess as to which error is more likely?
There is no one “right” length — but your congregation’s time is valuable. If they are going to give you the gift of time and attention, make sure that you’re making the best use of it. And if you have to choose between too long or too short, always leave them wanting more.
Preach with more than words
Your sermon is more than words. Whether you preach from a pulpit, from the chancel steps or in the aisle, be aware of how you communicate with your body, with silence and with your tone of voice.
Are you giving space with silence for people to absorb what you have said or to respond?
Is your movement energetic and passionate?
Is your body language reinforcing what your words are saying?
Give a souvenir
Whether you preach for eight minutes or 30, your sermon isn’t a large percentage of your congregation’s week. After leaving an hour of worship, those who have been listening have 167 hours until you gather again. How will they remember your sermon?
When I go on vacation, I always come home with some sort of souvenir — pictures of the experiences I’ve had or some sort of remembrance of the things I’ve seen.
The image of a souvenir is a great reminder — those who listen to sermons also need something to take with them, something to remind them of what they have seen and heard.
Maybe it’s a question to ponder during the week: “Think about how you can love your neighbor this week.” Or maybe it’s a specific action: “When you’re waiting in line this week, use that time for prayer.”
Or maybe it’s even a physical reminder — a card with a prayer on it or a cross to carry in their pocket.
Something to help them remember the gospel that they’ve heard and apply it to the 167 hours ahead of them.
There are lots of places where people can hear life advice, and lots of places where they can hear great speakers (you can sit at home and watch TED Talks all day — not that I would know from experience).
We offer something different — what we say is life-changing. Proclaim it. Boldly name the sin and brokenness we encounter in the world. And even more boldly name the promise that we have been given in Jesus Christ.
Out of 168 hours each week, the church gets one for worship. And out of that hour, the preacher gets a small slice. Make each moment count.