From the executive director: What makes a sermon good?

The late salesman, evangelist, and to be honest, raconteur, Zig Ziglar, was said to sometimes challenge his audience to a test of archery skills, proclaiming that he could prepare anyone to be a better archer than the national champion, provided the champion was blindfolded and spun back and forth a few dozen times. Which he then proceeded to do.  Bow and arrow in hand, the blindfolded, dizzy champion took aim. As the audience dove underneath their seats Ziglar concluded, “You cannot hit a target you cannot see.”

That, I fear, depicts the plight of too many preachers – dizzy from the pastoral and administrative work of the week, having lost planned preparation time by commitments and responsiblities in the parish and at home, they find themselves cheating the homily as best they can far more often than they have ever wished. And this – they have lost sight of the target. For far too long most have heard only their own sermons, and now they are no longer sure if their sermons are good because they have not recently stopped to remember what makes a sermon good. So in honor of Zig, and for the sake of our listeners, join me in taking a moment to remember what the target – a good sermon – looks like.

This past summer at a conference at Westcott House, the theological college at Cambridge University in the U.K., I asked the gathered clergy the question – what makes a sermon good?  What are the necessary “ingredients” of an effective homily? We did the “Post-it Note” exercise. Each participant had five, and then we organized the suggestions around common themes. If you stop and think about it your list would look a lot like theirs:

  •  Exegetical insight – the “I didn’t know I didn’t know that” moment
  •  Theological depth – people want to talk about God, not what the preacher did last week
  •  Liturgical awareness – always keeping in view the place of the sermon in the Eucharist
  • Connection - relevance and resonance
  •  Passion and persuasion – help me feel the joy of the Gospel

Exegetical insight. The congregation has just heard three readings and shared in a psalm. They assume they did so for a reason. The preacher’s first task is to make clear what that reason is. We do not do so by recapitulating what they have just heard – “In today’s reading Jesus is …” – unless there is a good reason to do so, and some value added by the way we do it. Time’s awasting, and we generally waste it by rehearsing the reading everyone just heard. What is required is insight and understanding, an “Oh, yea” kind of insight and a “Wow. Yes!” level of understanding. To get there takes prayer and study, but not getting there generally insures that the sermon is trite and banal. (More on what manner of study required in a future posting, but here is a hint, it is not found in lectionary commentaries, focused on “this week.” Helpful study is deep, not wide, and sometimes theological, historical, or liturgical, not just biblical.

Theological depth. In his amazing blog “Stuff that needs to be said” John Pavlovitz recently posted this – “People don’t need to be dazzled with big, church words and about eschatalogical frameworks and theological systems. Talk to them plainly about love, and joy, and forgiveness, and death, and peace, and God, and they’ll be all ears.”

I have never met Pavlovitz, but I know what he means. Barbara Brown Taylor discovered it for herself a generation ago when she asked parisioners what kind of adult education program they wanted and they said, “Bible study.” So she planned one, and nobody came. It turned out they wanted to talk about God. They still do. To put it plainly, our sermons often miss the mark because they are insubstantial, even superficial, dancing at the textual margin rather than plunging into the depth of the mystery of the love of God. 

Liturgical awareness.  Depending on the occasion we will read one or two lessons, share a psalm, and listen to the Gospel. After the homily we will affirm our faith, pray and confess, bring our gifts and join in the sacrament of holy communion; there may be a baptism, or it could be a burial. The sermon, in other words, is never given in a liturgical vacuum, but is given as part of an entire liturgical drama. The homiletical question always asks, “What does the Holy Spirit want the people of God to hear from these texts on this occasion?” and that occasion is among other things profoundly liturgical. Good preaching stays connected to the liturgy, just as good liturgy – hymns and anthems, prayers and responses and blessings – stays connected to the sermon.

Connection. The inter-connection of sermon and liturgy is only one of the connections found in good preaching. Frederick Buechner famously said in his Beecher Lectures, Telling the Truth, that the preacher had three minutes before the listeners decided whether or not she or he was going to talk about anything important to them. That was more than 35 years ago. Today we have half that long on a good day. The connection listeners seek has to do with the focus, of course; the “so what” of the sermon has to be relevant. But the connection is not just topical, it also has to be resonant, a personal depth to match the theological depth mentioned above. The listener knows what is going on in the world, has heard the readings, and longs to hear how events and texts matter in their own lives and loves. Such connections come largely from the quality of the sermon’s illustrative material, the stories, analogies, examples and metaphors the preacher fashions and fabricates to bring theological claims alive and make exegetical insights personal.

Passion and persuasion. One of the most dispiriting realities I encounter as a teacher of preaching is the lack of spirit in preaching. Not the Holy Spirit – let’s don’t go there – but that the same energy and enthusiasm I hear in the hallways disappears in most student sermons in the classrooms. And, alas, as someone who lacking a regular Sunday gig hears many a parochial sermon, is also missing after graduation. A good sermon is never dispassionate; even when the passion is conveyed in a quiet way you feel a good preacher’s passion. And a good sermon is, from start to finish, persuasive. Aristotle defined rhetoric as “the discovery of the available means of persuasion in every situation.” Augustine refined this to “profit with delight.” Good preaching provides all three, persuasion, profit, and delight. It begins with a clear answer to the homiletical question – what does the Holy Spirit want the people of God to hear from these texts on this occasion? – and crafts a sermon that not only convinces the listeners of the truth of the preacher’s answer to the homiletical question, but does so in a way that moves and delights the hearts and minds of the listeners. A good sermon helps the listeners feel the joy of the Gospel.

Which brings us to Pope Francis, and the spectacular chapter on preaching in his Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium: the Joy of the Gospel. Francis writes:

The homily is the touchstone for judging a pastor’s closeness and ability to communicate to his people. We know that the faithful attach great importance to it, and that both they and their ordained ministers suffer because of homilies: the laity from having to listen to them and the clergy from having to preach them! It is sad that this is the case. The homily can actually be an intense and happy experience of the Spirit, a consoling encounter with God’s word, a constant source of renewal and growth.


How cool is that.  “It is sad that this is the case. The homily can actually be an intense and happy experience of the Spirt….”



The Preaching of Jesus

  •  Proclamatory
  • Dialogical
  •  Occasionally self-referential
  •  Persistently figurative

Three keys:

  •  We ask the homiletical question
  • We develop and deploy appropriate and effective illustrative material
  • We hone and practice our style and delivery to maximize our effectiveness