How to Judge a Sermon
Pastoring is a very broad job; pastors are counselors and confidants, teachers and trainers, supervisors and superintendents. Each pastor is uniquely gifted for and/or prefers one of these roles over the others. This is natural and is part of how the pastor is made in the image of God. Differences in ministry preferences and skills are to be celebrated, not overcome. There is indeed great value in a pastor knowing where his natural skill set resides and focusing on developing those skills. As one of my seminary textbooks put it: “[A pastor] must exercise personal discipline and decide what he wants most to be. If he is to be a strong preacher there is a price of isolation and study that must be paid. Early in his ministry he must establish some priorities and ration his time and energies accordingly.”
My greatest affinity in ministry is preaching and teaching. I’d rather preach and teach than visit a person in the hospital or plan an outreach event. I simply feel more comfortable telling a crowd about Christ than a person, and planning a sermon than planning a party. I know other pastors who would rather organize events than preach any day of the week. Again, these differences are natural and due to our God-given preferences and skills.
Even though I am most comfortable when in the pulpit, I have laid my fair share of sermon eggs. If you’ve ever been a preacher, you know what it’s like to labor over a sermon for a week, feel that ineffable fire in your bones, and then peter out on your way to the pulpit. At least once a month, I drive home from a Sunday morning service wondering why I bother writing sermons—if you didn’t know already, most preachers quit every Monday only to start again every Tuesday. But, if you’ve ever been a preacher, you also know what it’s like to preach what you knew was an absolute dud only to have someone later tell you that your dud affected their life greatly. Here’s an important point: We aren’t the best judges of an effective sermon.
When I last walked away from a sermon feeling as though it was a dud, I began to wonder: Why do I feel like that sermon was a poor sermon? Anytime you say that something was bad, you’re saying that the thing being judged—whatever it may be—didn’t live up to a certain standard. For example, driving 55-mph through Hessmer, with our 30-mph speed limit, will win you an all-expense paid vacation in the parish jail. Driving 55-mph on I-49, with its 75-mph speed limit, however, will get you run over. The difference is the standard: 55-mph is fast according to one standard, but slow according to another. When you listen to two sermons and say one was a good sermon while the other was poor, you’re saying that one lived up to a standard—often an unexpressed standard—while the other did not.
The typical standard for judging a sermon’s quality is (I think) built upon two factors: The level of engagement and the level of interest. For pastors, we—or at least I—judge a successful sermon based on how engaged the crowd is. If you make eye-contact with me and nod your head in assent, I feel as though we’re on the same page. I then leave thinking that something was accomplished that morning. Though I rarely get to listen to a sermon in person, I think that audiences typically judge sermons on how interesting they are. A good story, understandable line of argumentation, and brevity, among other things, contribute to an interesting, and thus good, sermon.
It’s natural that Americans—clergymen and laymen alike—would approach church and sermons with this consumer mindset. We have been conditioned by television—that bastion of rationality—to expect entertainment. Television shows are always perfect; the actors never forget their lines. Their makeup is always flawless; the music begins perfectly on cue. The commercials are tailored to our every whim; we are made to laugh, and little is expected of us. Here’s the thing: The local church is not CBS, nor will it ever be. The local church is not there to entertain you or make you feel good. Indeed, if you never leave church feeling bad about yourself, that says something about either you or your pastor. While this American standard for sermon quality is understandable, it is not right.
Any pastor worth having would rather preach a sermon that was good in God’s eyes than a sermon that his congregation enjoyed—though he’d obviously prefer to please both. Knowing that we ought to value God’s approval more than the congregation’s, let us thus adopt God’s standard for a sermon as our own. May we not call a sermon “good” which God would call “poor;” likewise, may we not call a sermon “poor” which God would call “good.” To do otherwise would be to imply that our standards are better than God’s.
While I believe a biblical standard for a good sermon would include elements of engagement and interest, these standards would not be at the forefront of the discussion. A biblical standard for a good sermon would (I think) be focused much more on content. A sermon that teaches biblical doctrine given by preacher as dry as Ezekiel’s bones must surely count for more than a biblically shallow sermon given with the charisma of the world’s most gifted speaker.
Consider Paul’s instruction to Timothy, a young pastor: “If you point these things out to the brothers and sisters, you will be a good minister of Christ Jesus.” Paul did not say that Timothy had to have perfect illustrations, use flawless alliterations, and preach with great passion to be a good minister; instead, Paul told Timothy that the mark of a good minister—and, by extension, the mark of a good sermon—resides in the content.
It’s great for a sermon to be interesting and engaging; I work hard on that every week! It’s more important for a sermon to be rife with biblical content and instruction. When judging a pastor’s sermons, better an exegete than an orator; better to have profundity dressed in the simplest garb than to have obscurity masquerading as profundity.
Notes & Sources
 Joe H. Cothen, Equipped for Good Work: A Guide for Pastors, 3rd ed. (Gretna, LA: Pelican Publishing Company, 2012), 16.
 1 Timothy 4.6, NIV.