Christian people deserve to hear good sermons when we gather for worship (or when we download something from the internet). We don’t need great sermons, except once in a long while. We hear too many poor or mediocre sermons, and this discourages many people. The church of Jesus Christ is in urgent need of better preaching—but I suspect that has always been the case!
When people in the pew are given the opportunity to comment on their experience at worship, the quality of preaching always receives the most attention. This is true of both Catholic and Protestant preaching. Christians in both traditions testify that preaching is the one element of the worship service most likely to impact both their attendance at the service and their engagement with the worship. Time after time, Christian people report that better preaching is their number one desire when it comes to public worship.
It is no surprise to anyone when I assert that the preaching of the good news about Jesus Christ and the teaching of the Bible are as needed today as ever. When done with competence, preparation, inspiration, and passion, sermons have power to motivate people to faith in God and love toward one another.
Good preaching connects people with a power that transforms life.
Good preaching shapes personal behavior and public values.
Good preaching moves nations to endure hardship, resist evil, and establish justice.
Good preaching converts the unbeliever, consoles the burdened, and instructs the eager.
Good preaching triggers an exploration of vocation that is at the heart of the call to gospel preaching itself—good preaching begets good preaching!
No preacher is more in need of assistance in preaching than I am. As I have written and taught about preaching, I have sought strategies to improve my own preparation and performance even as I have striven to inspire and instruct others. Out of this mixture of motives has come these homiletic offerings, which I call nine marks of a good sermon. There is nothing original or surprising about the nine marks that I lay out in this short book.
I have developed these marks teaching young men and women in a college class on preaching. My students were beginners: full of enthusiasm but, for the most part, lacking in basic public speaking skills. Few knew how to read and study the Bible; fewer knew how to mine its treasures for the instruction and inspiration that constitute the double-barrel whammy of good gospel preaching. Yet every one of them felt called to some sort of public speaking or preaching ministry. Every one of them desired to become a better proclaimer of the good news of Jesus Christ. These nine marks grew out of my desire to respond to this need.
These nine marks arise from no particular theological or denominational preference, although I am a Baptist and thus an heir to one of the great preaching traditions of the modern world. I personally have been influenced by great Baptist preachers such as Charles Haddon Spurgeon, Harry Emerson Fosdick, Billy Graham, Martin Luther King, Jr. and, of course, my own pastors: Clarence Walker, H. C. Chiles, and Walter Price. While in college I heard Ken Chafin preach, and it made a great impression on me. When I stand to preach I hear the words and feel the presence of my theological mentor, Dale Moody. And now, late in life and immersed in the Academy of Preachers, I am listening to seasoned preachers like Dan Boone, Frank Thomas, Alyce McKenzie, and Teresa Fry Brown and young preachers like Reggie Sharpe, Rachel Brocker Langford, and Lucas Rice. I have learned to hear the voice of God and the call of Christ in many voices, regardless of tradition and style. I give glory to God.
Preachers of all persuasions and of any age need to master these nine marks. Like my students a few years ago, I am intentional in weaving these elements into my sermons. When I sit to prepare a sermon I have this short list by my side and, one by one, ensure that they are fully integrated into my preaching. When I sit in a pew and listen to the preaching of others, I jot this list of nine marks and check them off as the preacher delivers to us what God has laid upon his heart. Using these nine elements will not ensure the sermon is good—that depends upon other factors, such as talent, preparation, and the fundamental content of the message. But when these more basic factors are present in the preacher, integrating these nine marks into a sermon will make her a more effective proclaimer of the distinctive message she is commissioned to preach.
I list these nine in the order that I teach them in my classes, although in reality, they are like the brightly-colored horses on a merry-go-round—you can get on any one of them at any time and go the distance! In the same way, any one of these nine marks could be the starting point for preparing or assessing a sermon. But this much is true: week-in and week-out, the preacher who incorporates these simple elements into a sermon will improve as a communicator of the gospel and do so in a noticeable way.
Long ago, the Apostle Paul urged young preachers to work at their craft “so that everyone may see your progress.” Progress in the art and science of preaching is still a desirable trait among ministers of the gospel, and using these simple elements of a good sermon is one way to make progress.
It is also true that as ministers mature, many develop distinctive styles that offer variations of these nine marks. And there are exceptions to every rule, every list. Famous and effective preachers have ignored many of these marks and have had enormous success as preachers. Nevertheless, here is a place to begin for those just beginning this glorious and burdensome task of making known the mighty wonders of God and the glorious riches which we have in Christ Jesus.