Evaluating sermons has been a favourite pastime of Christians for centuries. Yet despite all our experience, it is still rare to find those who are good at biblically critiquing a sermon – whether their own sermon, or another’s. We are so easily sidetracked by the peripheral concerns over the preacher’s appearance, style, personality, or the structure or length of his sermon. Sure, any of these can ruin a sermon – but are they what make a good sermon? In this article I first want to convince you of the need for rightly evaluating preaching, and then I’ll suggest a tool for doing this.
The Need for Evaluating Preaching
Getting a handle on how to biblically evaluate preaching is critical to the health of both the preacher and the hearers. Most of us are convinced already of the need for our hearers to carefully evaluate every sermon, like good “Bereans”, so that they are not led astray (Acts 17:11; cf. 1 Thess. 5:21). But such evaluations are no less crucial for the preacher himself. Like it or not, we as preachers have a God-given, built in self-evaluation system called the conscience. I’ve often pled, ‘Lord, help me to forget myself entirely!’ But the answer to that prayer is not as simple as we might like. As persons made in God’s image (a God who reflects on His work – e.g., Gen. 1), the cure is not to avoid all self-reflection, but rather to “think about ourselves with sober judgement (sound thinking)” (Rom. 12:3; cf. Gal. 6:3-4).
Many preachers drift into dangerous waters through either an overactive conscience (‘Oh, I’m such a failure! When will I ever preach those perfect, stunning sermons like other preachers?’) or an underactive conscience (‘I’ve outgrown the need to evaluate my preaching any more.’). The oversensitive conscience must learn to simply apply a biblical grid to his sermons and only allow himself to ask one question, “Was I faithful to what God expects of me as a preacher?” (And then he must learn to be content and trust the Lord with the aspects of his preaching, his giftedness, and his ministry that he cannot change.)
The under-sensitive conscience must come down from his proud pedestal and have the humility to heed God’s mandate that “your progress” should be “evident to all” (I.e., Are you still visibly improving as a preacher?). In the next verse, God further requires that we “Watch [our]…teaching closely” for our sake and the sake of our hearers (1 Tim. 4:15-16). When was the last time you asked your wife, or your church leaders, “Please tell me honestly how I could improve my preaching?”
We’ve all had the Sunday roller-coaster ride of going, in five minutes or less, from one person’s compliment (“Wow, Preacher. Best sermon I’ve ever heard!”) to another person’s criticism (“Gee, Pastor, you lost me halfway through your introduction.”). If our conscience is not anchored in a solidly biblical view of what defines faithful preaching, we will be swept away by the shifting winds of fickle feedback from our hearers.
In a past survey of African pastors, I asked this question: “How do you know when you have been a faithful preacher who gave God’s message to others?” (only one correct answer)
a. You know you have properly taught the Bible when the people tell you they enjoyed the message.
b. You know you have properly taught the Bible when you feel that the Holy Spirit was really speaking through you.
c. You know you have properly taught the Bible when people clearly understand the correct meaning of that passage of Scripture and know how to apply it to their lives.
d. You know you have properly taught the Bible when many people make decisions and come forward during the altar call.
How would you answer? Sadly, over half of the respondents did not choose “c.” Instead, they chose one of the other answers, which suggests that their preaching is being moulded by dangerously subjective, unreliable criteria.
Paul perfectly summarizes the bottom line for evaluating any preaching: “For it is not he who commends himself that is approved, but he whom the Lord commends” (2 Cor. 10:18; cf. 1 Cor. 4:1-5; 2 Tim. 4:1). This truth is either a comfort or a threat, based upon how sure you are that yours is the kind of preaching that the Lord approves. How dreadful to think that my preaching is ‘spot-on’, only to find out one day that the Chief Shepherd Himself was displeased. What follows in Part 2 is a tool to help increase your certainty over what God expects of any preacher.
– Tim Cantrell, President and Professor of Systematic Theology, Shepherds’ Seminary Africa