How do you know good preaching when you hear it?

As a preacher, I have an ongoing concern for preaching well. Rarely do I think I’ve done well enough – I can usually think of something I should have left unsaid, or something I should have said, or said differently. But I can also remember many times when I had a great felling of inadequacy that someone commented to me that I had said just what they needed to hear.

I’ve had too many polite church members over the years to simply go by what they say. “Good sermon,” so many say as they depart on Sunday morning. They know they’re not supposed to say, “That was a real snoozer!” or “I don’t think I’ve ever heard a more incoherent sermon in my life!” I confess that I’ve had thoughts like that after hearing some sermons, but I, too, was too polite to say so to the preacher. I’d be surprised if no one had negative judgments about my preaching.

Maybe we could go by the numbers. If mroe and more people come to hear me preach, that must mean I’m doing it well. Sounds good to me. Except I’d have to judge Jesus as a preacher of many duds. Sure, the crowds sometimes grew. More often, it seems, they got angry and tried to kill him, publicly disagreed with him, or simply walked away from “that weird Galilean.”

What about our preaching professors? Though my style today is very different from what I was taught when I was in seminary, I think I would feel pretty good if my preaching professor showed up one Sunday morning and went away not too embarrassed to say he taught me.

Sometimes we preachers forget that we’re not the only actors in preaching. Though the spotlight shines on us, God and the congregation are also active in the sermon.I regularly pray for God to give me boldness and clarity so I can preach his word (not just my own). I ask that my intentions and content will be pruned and adapted as God sees fit. I even ask God to translate what I say into a language my audience can understand.

The congregation also has work to do – and that more than fighting to stay awake! Actively listening to preaching happens out of an intentional relationship with God and an intelligent engagement with the Word – the Word of God and the word of the preacher. While it is not always appropriate to ask questions during the sermon, one who listens in a way to seek understanding will continually ask questions – of the text, of the preacher, of application of the word in one’s own life.

So how do I know when I’m doing it right? Though my role is only part of the event of preaching, I think the best way to judge is long term. What happens in my life and the lives of my hearers as a result of my preaching? Such an evaluation takes time – time measured in years. The fruit of Jesus’ preaching wasn’t really clear until the next generation of preachers – his students – came on the scene. Will I be that patient? I don’t know.

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