Steven W. Smith is Dean of The College at Southwestern and author of Dying to Preach, winner of Preaching Today's "Book of the Year" in 2009. He is married to Ashley. They have two daughters (Jewell and Sydney) and one son (Shepherd).
There are days when the sermon just feels “on.”
The illustrations hit just right. The applications connect. Preacher and people ebb and flow in synchronized rhythm from opening words to closing illustration.
Dismounting the pulpit, you will be shocked if the people don’t hoist you on their shoulders hailing you as the greatest preacher in the world. In fact you’re a little surprised they didn’t interrupt you with shouts and applause like a political rally. (The humble tweet that follows: “God was really good today,” belies the fact that you killed it. Killed. It.)
Yet, in my experience, this is rare. It happens, but not often. Rarely is a sermon, from start to finish, exactly what we want it to be.
How Are We to Evaluate Our Own Preaching?
For those with a commitment to the inerrancy and sufficiency of Scripture, we evaluate our preaching by one criterion: faithfulness. After all, we do not invent messages, we proclaim truth. So we measure our effectiveness by how faithful we are to the text. In fact, this is the only reason I preach. By God’s grace we may mount the pulpit free from any obligation to express our feeling on anything—much less eternal matters. Eternal truth is settled. We are in the business of delivering the message not inventing it. Therefore, we must be faithful.
And yet, this being true, why is it that so many times my best attempt at faithfulness to Scripture falls flat? I really did try to say what the Scripture said and say it the way the Scripture said it, but it just did not work. I am not suggesting there is more than faithfulness; I am suggesting that we who are faithful must constantly re-examine what we mean by that.
If by “faithful” we mean simply getting the text correct, then we have failed. If you’re passionate about preaching, then that last sentence may seem disconcerting, so let me clarify. We know that there is a glut of preaching today that has precious little to do with a text of Scripture. This breaks our hearts. Scripture alone is enough! In reaction to this, it’s possible to swim against the tide of shallow, light, trivial, entertaining preaching by countering it with preaching that is boring, mundane, passionless, and disengaging. Some of us who love Scripture the most are profoundly boring. Just to be clear, I am not saying this as a reformer but a penitent. This might be my biggest homiletic challenge. I want to be so clear about what the text says that often I can be dry. People are disengaged and bored. Of course when I realize this, I justify my ineffective preaching with an internal monologue that says, “Well, at least I got the text right. Those other guys, sure they were engaging, but they never dealt with the text.”
A light, trivial, man-centered sermon is a mix of God’s Word and man’s hubris. But isn’t there as much hubris in preaching that is academic boredom as there is in preaching that is folksy banter? Let’s be honest. We can’t excuse boring sermons because we parsed our verbs correctly any more than we can excuse light fluffy sermons because we entertained.
Scripture is not boring. Therefore, if I preach a boring sermon, then that was not in the text. I brought that. I imposed boredom on the text in the same way those “other” preachers imposed their own ideas on the text.
The entertaining preacher excuses his sin because he made people laugh. The boring preacher excuses his sin because he made people yawn. Neither one has really preached. I know, because I have been both.
So, again, how are we to evaluate our preaching?
Well, first let’s crush the mental metaphor of “balance.” This metaphor gives the idea that we can be too faithful, too expositional, too exegetical, too deep, too textual, too engaging, or too funny—we just need a little of all of it. But that’s unhelpful. Can we really be too faithful to Scripture?
Maybe a better metaphor than striving for balance is embracing the tension. There is a tension in all of us—it pulls us to engage the text while engaging people. This tension does not need to be suppressed; it needs to be embraced. We are called to go deep into the text, and then bring the text to the people. If our exegesis is shallow, we have nothing to give people on Sunday. If when going deep I wait too long to surface, then I give people a dry exegetical exercise that does not help them. After I find the meaning of a text, when do I surface? In other words, when I study a text, how long do I spend on its meaning, and how long do I spend on how to say what it means? This is the tension. And, it will not go away.
Now we have backed into a helpful metaphor: a deep-sea diver. The treasure that he wants is not buoyant. It’s not even at 25 ft. If he wants the real treasure, he must sink deep. However, if he stays in the depths too long, he will not have the oxygen needed to bring the treasure to the surface. Even when he does, he has to polish it off so people can see the original beauty of the treasure. If he wants to access the treasure, bring it to the surface, and have people appreciate the treasure the way it was appreciated before it sank, then he must sink, surface, and shine. And here is our task. We must spend time on what the text means, what we are to say about what the text means, and how to say it.
So while there are a thousand preaching rubrics out there, lets at least answer three questions:
1. Did I sink?
Did I go deep enough to find the treasure?
2. Did I surface?
Did I bring the treasure to the surface with illustration, application, and the force of imagination?
3. Did I shine?
Since the truth is beautiful, did I show its beauty or lazily offer it unpolished?
May God give us grace to go deep and be so overwhelmed with what we find that we want to surface in time and show the rich beauty of the treasure, which will exalt Christ and call us to joyful obedience.