What lifts a sermon from “nice” to “life-changing”? Bryn Rickards shares his research
For the preacher who has delivered what she or he considers one of their best sermons – prophetic yet personal, powerful yet pastoral, philosophical yet poignant – there can be few comments that burst the bubble more quickly than the ubiquitous: “Nice sermon.” When you preach, you hope for something a little more life-changing than “nice”. And yet, many of the sermons we hear are rather insipid. Harry Fosdick wrote What is the Matter with Preaching? almost 90 years ago, but we still seem to be asking the same question.
Unfortunately, my experience of ministerial training hasn’t provided many answers. I haven’t been coached in any specific criteria or taught a systematic evaluation scheme. Instead, everyone seems to have their own standards for what makes a good sermon. Adam thinks a systematic verse-by-verse exposition of the text is thoroughly enlightening; for Angela, it’s painfully tedious. Brenda views an illustration from the preacher’s personal life as an engaging encouragement; for Brian, it’s a distracting self-indulgence. Chris says the sermon’s three-point alliteration is memorably clever; for Chloe, it’s reductively crass. Dana takes comments about the government’s misuse of public funds as a prophetic challenge; for Duncan, it’s a soapbox rant. Edi finds the historical background to a biblical story fascinatingly informative; for Eva, it’s a time-consuming irrelevance. This is why I decided to investigate whether it’s possible to pin down any meaningful criteria that can mark out a good sermon.
I reviewed the academic and popular literature on preaching; I looked at training materials on preaching in the United Reformed Church’s Training for Learning and Serving programme, and some sermons from URC ministers; I conducted two focus groups with folk from local churches and then I carried out a survey with almost 300 respondents from 80 congregations, spread across all 13 URC synod regions. The idea was to listen to the connections and contrasts amongst these sources in order to discover what criteria may emerge and what theological significance those might hold…
This is an extract from the May 2015 edition of Reform.