Are you uncertain about the effectiveness of your preaching? Do you wonder if you are connecting? If so, this six-part series on how preachers can critique their own efforts may prove helpful. I’ll release my reflections in six parts. My suggestion is that you ponder the points one-by-one, applying each one to your own work. See if they make sense to you in the actual process of sermon preparation.
There’s a story about a young soprano in the Midwest who showed great promise – perhaps even operatic promise. She was an unusually fine singer with a keen ear who could memorize music quickly. Her teacher sent her to audition with a famous voice coach in New York, but he refused to take her as a student. The reason? “She lacks the power of self-criticism,” he said.
Self-criticism is essential in all artistic endeavors — and preaching is at one level an artistic endeavor. Preachers who lack the power of self-criticism may not be overtly rejected by their people as this young singer was. Tragically, though, they may preach for a lifetime, all the while falling far short of their potential. To avoid this, it’s good for preachers to have a method for critiquing their own sermons.
The key is knowing the right questions to ask. Here are six questions we can ask of every sermon we preach:
I. IS MY SERMON BIBLICAL?
Just exactly what is Biblical preaching? The question is not about types of sermons — topical, textual, textual-topical, etc. It is about how seriously we take the passage on which the sermon is built! Ask yourself: Have I carefully determined its central issue? Is the sermon in some way related to a major biblical truth — e.g. creation, the fall of man, redemption, the return of Christ? Does the sermon “expose” the meat of this passage in an orderly way? When we take such questions seriously in the earliest stages of our study, our sermon is at least more likely to be richly biblical.
Haddon Robinson, the prince of contemporary preachers, has the question in mind when he says, “Expository preaching is the communication of a biblical concept, derived from and transmitted through a historical, grammatical, and literary study of a passage in its context, which the Holy Spirit first applies to the personality and experience of the preacher, then through him to his hearers.”
The definition seems complex, but here are its elements in question form:
• Is the thesis of my sermon in harmony with the mainline of Biblical truth? (We preachers can be too easily sidetracked.)
• Does the sermon show that I have studied the passage in terms of its historical setting?
• Have I examined its grammatical elements?
• Is there evidence that I am aware of the literary category the passage belongs to – prophecy, or poetry, or parable, etc.?
• Has the passage made its impact on me first?
• Finally, will the hearers get the message?
Many a biblical sermon has been preached without fully meeting Robinson’s exacting criteria. His definition nevertheless rewards repeated reading. If we neglect the arduous background work that his definition recommends, our sermons will likely stay too close to the surface.
But the issue of biblical preaching is not fully addressed until one further question is asked — the premier question: Is the sermon Christ-centered? John Calvin said that preaching consists substantially in the clarification, exposition, interpretation, and reappropriation of the written Word that witnesses to the revealed Word. As Paul wrote to Timothy, “. . . from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ” (2 Tim. 3:15 NRSV).
Biblical preaching thus involves the convergence of the written word of Scripture, the living Word, Christ Jesus, and the proclaimed word in the language of our own day. When these converge, a sermon may be called biblical.