I haven’t always loved preaching. I’m not sure anyone starts out loving it…so I guess that makes me normal. I remember growing up in church feeling really bored while the pastor spoke. The only way I could make it through sermons was writing and passing notes to my friends during the messages (teens had to do this before texting).
Everything changed when I moved to Eugene to attend the University of Oregon. I stepped outside of my denominational upbringing and tried out a little non-denominational church called Jubilee World Outreach. I don’t remember why I tried it. I do remember being one of the only white people in the congregation. The worship was so different than what I had grown up with and I didn’t “enter in” quite as easily. But one thing kept me coming back week after week. Pastor Keith Jenkins could flat out preach. I’d never been around preaching like this. It gripped me, informed me and opened my understanding to things I had never seen in the scripture. The guy was intense and I loved it.
Later on during school in Nampa, ID, I started to feel a call on my life to preach. I figured out I could listen to sermons online for free (people used to pay for sermon recordings!). My sister Keri introduced me to this youth pastor from Seattle who again deeply impacted my perspective on preaching. Judah Smith was hilarious. Every message I’d listen to made me laugh and his stories stuck with me after the sermon was over. I used to listen to Judah’s sermons on my desktop computer, then press pause and try to re-preach his sermons to an empty room to see how they sounded coming from my mouth.
Not long after this, technology brought along a medium that would do incredible things for the Body of Christ : the podcast. Podcasting changed my life. I was now able to listen to the greatest preachers I could find…as much as I could handle…for free. For more than a decade now I’ve had a habit of listening to dozens of messages every week. I’ve listened to thousands and thousands of sermons. I’ve preached a few as well.
Today I want to give you a list of what I think makes for good preaching. Here goes:
1. Good preaching is helpful and practical
I think one of the reasons that people aren’t all that interested in church and preaching is that pastors have spent a lot of time answering questions that nobody is asking. People sit through messages on the dimensions of Solomon’s Temple when they are just trying to figure out how to stay married or not run out of money.
I enjoy messages where the content hits me square in the middle of where I’m living. It’s stuff I can take home and apply to my life. It addresses mindsets that I have or behaviors that I’m engaged in. When you listen to good preaching there should be this thought going through your head – “I am so glad I’m hearing this!”
2. Good preaching is understandable to those with little or no Bible knowledge
Have you ever listened to someone preach that seems like they are speaking a different language? Like part Pastor school must be a class where they learn to speak Christianese that only seminary grads can understand? I don’t think sounding incredibly intellectual makes for good preaching. It perpetuates an idea that there is a special class of people named “clergy” and then there’s everyone else. And it keeps people who don’t know Christ from enjoying our churches and coming back.
Why do so many pastors preach this way? I’ve got one idea: You always start sounding like the people you spend the most time with. I think many pastors spend the majority of their time reading and conversing with other pastor/theologians. This comes out in the pulpit because it’s what they’ve been taking in all week.
One of the reasons why I think it’s so important for Christian leaders to spend time with unchurched people is that it will help us shape our speech. If we are hoping that people are going to come to Christ in our churches, then we must make sure we speak in a way that is understandable to those without Him. Faith comes by hearing the Word of God…but there can be no faith in that Word if people have no idea what a preacher is talking about.
3. Good preaching touches the heart
Good preaching goes beyond just instructing the mind and grabs you in the heart. It doesn’t just help you see truth in a new way, it actually changes your desires. This is one of the things that leads to transformation when the Word of God is preached. When someone’s heart has been engaged, they’ll truly want to apply what’s being presented.
Preaching to touch the heart requires a communicator to speak with authenticity. If the Word has been worked into the personal life of a preacher and applied, it can be delivered in a way that touches the hearts of the hearers at another level. When a listener can identify with a pastor, it engages their heart. Something powerful takes place when you’re listening to a message and keep thinging “Me too!”
4. Good preaching foresees objections
Have you ever been listening to a message the hand the “yeah, but’s” rise in your mind? These are your arguments against whatever point is being made. The best preachers foresee objections and speak to them in the midst of the sermon. This helps people know that this isn’t just a one-sided argument being presented. Instead, many perspectives and positions are being taken into account during message preparation.
I’m always trying to ask my leadership team these types of questions – “What negative things are people going to think when I say this?”, “What excuses are people going to give?”, “How are people going to let themselves off the hook on this?”. When a pastor anticipates objections he builds rapport with his audience. Everyone wants to feel considered. When you feel like a speaker has thought about your perspective, it endears you to his.
5. Good preaching always points to Christ as the answer
This is the most important point of the five…but tragically often forgotten. I think a message can only be classified as good preaching if it points to Christ as the solution to the problem presented. Often times, pastors leave people with an underlying message that says “do better, try harder, be holier, stop screwing up, etc.” Ultimately, it’s so important that Christians understand that the only answer to our problems and our needs is Jesus. We must continue to be saved and transformed by the gospel. All preaching must point to the person and work of Jesus and show how He has done the necessary work to help us live the life He requires.
A message may make you laugh…or cry…or give you goose bumps. But if that message doesn’t exalt Christ as the answer, then it’s not good preaching. Jesus really is the answer every time. As Pastor Tim Keller put it in his excellent book on preaching – “Any sermon that tells listeners only how they should live without putting that standard into the context of the gospel gives them the impression that they might be complete enough to pull themselves together if they really try hard.”