Preaching is hard work. On the one hand, it is a technical exercise, almost a science. A preacher has to handle the Scriptures well. His sermon has to unpack the biblical message accurately and apply it faithfully. A good preacher has to be a competent exegete and theologian.
On the other hand, preaching is an art. The preacher must deliver the Word of God in a way that transmits the message without obscuring it by superfluous embellishments or unnecessary impediments. He must construct his sermon such that its structure guides listeners through the process of thinking God’s thoughts after Him, and he must do this in a way that does not make them conscious of themselves as part of the process. A good sermon draws attention to the message and not to the delivery. In other words, a good preacher has to be a competent rhetor.
Both technical exercises and works of art are subject to criticism, and sermons are no exception. They can be evaluated for their biblical and theological precision, for the faithfulness of their application, and for the skill with which they are constructed. A person who knows how sermons ought to be put together is in a position to assess the technical and artistic merit of any preaching event.
This kind of criticism, however, exposes the critic to risks. The first is that preaching is more than the sum of its technical and artistic parts. Indeed, the most carefully crafted sermon may be delivered to no effect, and this lack may not stem from any fault in the preacher or the audience. On the other hand, even a poorly crafted and delivered sermon may smite its listeners like hammer blows. Every preacher has poured his heart into a sermon with disappointing results. And many preachers have spoken in ways that they knew were pathetic, but they saw people responded in genuine change. What is the difference?
The difference is that preaching involves something unpredictable, something that cannot be scheduled, contrived, or (when it occurs) tamed. This something is often noticeably absent from technically perfect preaching. And it sometimes invades the most pedestrian of addresses. It is simply this: sometimes God Himself intervenes.
This situation is precisely what we should anticipate. Only God has the power to break a granite heart. Only God has the energy to bend an iron will. Ultimately, only God can comfort the mourning, calm the troubled, disturb the complacent, or convict the erring. The sermon is only an instrument that God uses—or not.
Neither technical proficiency nor artistic skill is any guarantee that God will use a sermon. For that matter, ineptness and infelicity cannot keep God from working. Masters of sermon craft cannot rely upon their skills to invoke the presence of God, and the inept need not despair of His working.
Of course, it would be presumptuous for the incompetent to remain perpetual bumblers, just as it would be for the masters to forsake their craft. The problem is not that homiletical skill is useless, but that it is not sufficient in itself. All preachers of the Word are responsible to work as hard as they can to become as skilled as they can. They must guard themselves, however, from the risk of thinking that their proficiency qualifies them to determine whether any sermon (theirs or someone else’s) will be used by God.
The other risk to which sermon critics are exposed is that critical listening can block the work that biblical preaching would otherwise accomplish in the life of the listener. Critics who listen to criticize may miss the opportunity to grow through exposure to the sermon. They can listen with the head while not listening with the heart. They hear the sermon but not the message.
This danger is as real with a well-executed sermon as it is with a poorly-executed one. A critic who understands how to craft sermons may be listening for the performance, perhaps even inwardly applauding. He understands how the proposition was derived from the text, how it was developed in the presentation, how it was illustrated, and how it was applied. He may admire the structure and the delivery without ever really pondering the use of the sermon for his own life. Indeed, a critic who begins to feel an uncomfortable sense of conviction may even use critical evaluation (whether positive or negative) as a shield to deflecting the force of the biblical text. He becomes like a man who stands in front of a powerful painting (perhaps Van Eyck’s “Adoration of the Lamb”) and sees only the well-executed brush strokes.
Preachers do not always make good listeners of sermons. Their habits of mind lead them to analyze both the theology and the presentation. The more adept they are at this analysis, the greater the risk that they will either dismiss the sermon (if it is poorly done), or else simply admire it as an example of their craft. The solution is not to become less analytical or critical: the solution is to add another dimension to their listening. When we preachers listen to preaching, we must remember who God used to speak to Balaam. We must remind ourselves that our primary duty is not to criticize the sermon, but to bring ourselves into line with its truth. We must humble ourselves before God, submit to His hand, and listen for His voice.
This essay is by Kevin T. Bauder, Research Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.
George Herbert (1593–1633)
After all pleasures as I rid one day,
My horse and I, both tired, body and mind,
With full cry of affections, quite astray;
I took up the next inn I could find.
There when I came, whom found I but my dear,
My dearest Lord, expecting till the grief
Of pleasures brought me to Him, ready there
To be all passengers’ most sweet relief?
Oh Thou, whose glorious, yet contracted light,
Wrapt in night’s mantle, stole into a manger;
Since my dark soul and brutish is Thy right,
To man of all beasts be not Thou a stranger:
Furnish and deck my soul, that Thou mayst have
A better lodging, than a rack, or grave.