“Everybody thinks himself a judge of a sermon, but nine out of ten might as well pretend to weigh the moon.”
If you are part of a pastoral search committee, chances are, one of your primary goals is to call a pastor who will preach quality, biblical sermons. Churches looking for a pastor almost always list this as a central goal. Yet few of them agree with any precision as to what constitutes a quality sermon. And where a church is passionate about pursuing something, without agreeing on what that something is, it doesn’t take the wisdom of Solomon to see that a major disagreement is only one or two meetings away. A search committee evaluating sermons without agreed-upon criteria would be like me being a judge for Olympic diving. Don’t get me wrong. I appreciate Olympic diving. While I am not a diving expert, there are few Summer Olympic Games where I have not watched at least a portion of the competition. As a family, we often watch together and cheer on certain divers. My lack of technical expertise doesn’t stop me from enjoying the competition. However, consider a different scenario. What if I were given an invitation to be an actual Olympic diving judge? Let me tell you, it would be a recipe for international chaos. I would probably evaluate a Russian diver unfairly and restart the Cold War. Why? I am not equipped. It takes far more expertise to evaluate and judge diving than it does simply to appreciate the athleticism. About the only thing I really know is to watch the splash at the end. Less splash is better! I know that much. But that would not be enough to evaluate Olympic diving justly. And being unequipped to judge divers upon absolute criteria for diving excellence, I would have to fall upon my own subjective preferences.
Similarly, if you are serving on a search committee, you have probably appreciated and benefited from preaching for many years. However, you must understand that you are about to move from being an appreciative person in the pew each week to the role of sitting in a judge’s chair. Evaluating sermons requires a much deeper understanding of preaching. Many search committees are not equipped in this way; as a result, they do not accomplish their goal of calling an effective preacher. They evaluate preaching based only upon their subjective preferences—how much of a “splash” they see. So how can you, as non-preachers, go about evaluating justly and wisely a candidate’s preaching? Let me suggest four basic questions that should be asked of every sermon. In the space of this article, I can give only a brief synopsis of the questions. More details, and additional criteria, are available in my book, When the Word Leads Your Pastoral Search.
Did the Sermon Preach a Bullet?
Was there a clear central thought for the sermon? Did the sermon have unity? Discernible focus? When a sermon is not focused on a central thought, it is impossible to follow. Imagine listening to a sermon that went something like this:
God is a wonderful God. He has created the entire world. The mountains are so beautiful. When one looks at the mountains, he or she can feel God’s presence. God’s presence helps us through tough times. When I flew over Switzerland, I looked down and saw the Alps. The Alps were awesome. The trees were beautiful. Swiss people are great.
If you do not have a headache after reading that paragraph, you should. The problem is not that any one sentence is wrong or untrue. It is just that it is “scattered.” The paragraph lacks focus. It is all over the place. Saying that a sermon should have a clear central thought does not mean that a sermon ought to have only one point. It does mean that a sermon should be organized around one central concept. Haddon Robinson calls this the “big idea” of sermons. Sometimes it is called the “preaching point.” Using Robinson’s words, a sermon should, “Fire a bullet, not buckshot.” The importance of a clear central thought is stressed by virtually everyone who writes about biblical preaching. John MacArthur encourages preachers:
Make sure that every expository message has a single theme that is crystal clear so that your people know exactly what you are saying, how you have supported it, and how it is applied to their lives. The thing that kills people in what is sometimes called expository preaching is randomly meandering through a passage.
In order to evaluate a sermon for the central thought, you need to listen to the sermon as a whole. It is possible that a sermon may have one or two powerful anecdotes that capture your imagination, hold your attention, or make you smile or cry. But do these points fit with the overall thrust of the sermon? Do they fit with the preaching point that flows out of the Bible?
Did the Sermon Preach a Biblical Bullet?
The second criterion is even more important than the first. When evaluating a sermon, we must ask, “Is it true to the Bible?” If the sermon is going to be “expository” it is not enough to simply have a clearly stated central thought. In order to be expository, the central thought must flow out of the Bible. Most often, this will be from one Bible passage. As you listen to the sermon, and identify the central thought and points of the sermon, ask, “Is this the point of the text? Does the central thought flow out of what the Bible says?” Evaluating sermons may require that you study a particular text yourselves as a committee. Preachers often read their meanings into passages, rather than allowing the text to speak. Ask yourself at this point, “Did the candidate dig out the timeless truth of this passage and apply it to our situation today?” A Bible passage does not have many different “optional” meanings. It should have one meaning with perhaps many applications.
Did the Sermon Fire a Biblical Bullet?
Biblical preaching should be fired! That is, preachers should proclaim the Word with a special unction, or Spirit-empowered boldness. The word unction may not be familiar to you. Lee Eclov defines unction in this way:
Unction means the anointing of the Holy Spirit on a sermon so that something holy and powerful is added to the message that no preacher can generate, no matter how great his skills.
Paul asked the Ephesians to pray that he would have unction or, as it’s translated here, “boldness”:
And also [pray] for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains, that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak (Eph 6:19-20, emphasis added).
Did the Sermon Fire a Biblical Bullet Aimed at the Life of the Listener?
When I teach about preaching, I will often work through this straightforward exercise. First, I ask someone to read Titus 2:1— “But as for you, teach what accords with sound doctrine.” I then ask, “What does Paul tell Titus to teach or preach?” Usually, someone quickly responds with great conviction, “sound doctrine.” I then smile and say back to them, “Wrong!” Paul does not say to teach sound doctrine. Rather, Paul says, “teach what accords with sound doctrine.” This is no minor detail. The word accords is very important. Not only should a sermon be true to the text, it should also be true to the audience. Paul does not tell Titus simply to preach “sound doctrine.” He says to preach that which “fits” or “is appropriate” or “accords” with sound doctrine. The Greek word here means “to be fitting, be seemly or suitable.” Paul is exhorting Titus to show how sound doctrine fits with life. Just as our culture and fashion inform and form our understanding of what is appropriate to wear to a formal function, preachers should show their people the kind of behavior that ought to adorn their lives. Putting these four questions together, those evaluating the sermons of potential pastors should ask, “Was the sermon a biblical bullet fired at the life of the listener?” Of course, there’s more to evaluating the sermons than just those questions. Much more can be said about each of these points. But this question summarizes the most important criteria for evaluating biblical preaching. Of course, I am not on the pastoral search committee in your church. It is possible that you will agree as a committee on a different set of criteria. But whatever you do, agree as a committee as to what constitutes a quality sermon. Watch more than just the splash.