Picture this: two men are standing in front of a live audience to compete for votes. Each hopes to give his best performance, to somehow impress the crowd so that when the ballots are tallied, he will be chosen the winner.
No, this isn’t the latest talent-based reality brainchild of Simon Cowell or Mark Burnett. It’s actually a scenario raised by a well-meaning church member at the start of our church’s search for a senior pastor.
Unfamiliar with the search process, this dear sister asked if, after examining all of the resumes, we would whittle the number of candidates down to two and have them come in to participate in some kind of “Preach Off.” Then and only then would the members vote for the one they liked best.
Her question was innocent, but I’m sure something like this kind of process has sadly played itself out in more than one church, leaving behind a wake of confusion, hurt feelings, and division. The reason for this is that it treats the preaching of God’s Word as a kind of performance with which we either give our approval or disapproval.
Of course, we live in a culture of critique with entertainment-driven evaluation and instant feedback:
Celebrity judges on reality television evaluate people’s talents, singing, dancing, cooking, etc., offering witty comments and cutting judgments.
Talking heads on sports and political broadcasts argue with each other, second-guessing every decision and analyzing others’ performances.
Social media provides instant feedback loops on articles, photos, videos, and everything else. Many an ego has been stroked and many a heart has been broken by the comments (or lack thereof) that stream into one’s feed.
Which brings us to that question that often pops up during Sunday lunch conversations with friends and family: “What did you think of the sermon?” If we’re not careful, our answers can sound more like the scenarios above, more focused on the sizzle than the steak.
SERMON EVALUATION IN THE BIBLE
In the Bible, we see wrong ways and right ways to evaluate preaching:
WRONG – In Paul’s second letter to Timothy, his son in the ministry, he warns, “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths” (2 Timothy 4:3-4). The congregation Paul is describing evaluates the sermons but according to their own pleasure-o-meter. They just want to hear sermons that make them feel good.
RIGHT – During one of Paul’s missionary journeys, he and Silas entered the city of Berea and began preaching in the synagogues. It was said of the Bereans, “Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.” Rather than just listen for what made them feel good, the Bereans evaluated Paul and Silas’ sermons in light of their alignment with the Scriptures.
Assuming your pastor preaches sound, biblical sermons, here are are six practical ways you can evaluate his sermons that will aid your own spiritual growth, strengthen your pastor’s preaching ministry, and build up your church.
SIX WAYS TO EVALUATE YOUR PASTOR’S SERMON
Leading up to Sunday, spend time on your knees. Pray for your pastor as he prepares his sermon, that he would clearly and compellingly preach the gospel. A good pastor knows well the burden of rightly dividing the word of truth and cherishes the prayers of his people. Additionally, pray for yourself to have ears to hear and for the Holy Spirit’s help in evaluating the sermon. Pray also that the congregation would respond in faith and obedience.
Evaluate for understanding.
Sermon evaluation involves more than if you liked or didn’t like the sermon; it comes down to if you understood the main point(s) of the passage preached. It doesn’t matter how eloquent or engaging or humorous your pastor is, you have completely missed the point if you haven’t focused on understanding the message. As you listen, identify the main points and consider their application for your life.
Evaluate critically but not critically.
Yes, you read that right. The difference between the two is the subtle difference between critique and criticism.
In the positive sense, we should evaluate a sermon critically like the Bereans evaluated Paul’s sermons—by testing it against Scripture and considering its applications.
In the negative sense, we should avoid evaluating sermons with a spirit of criticism. In our efforts to examine the content of the message, we must be careful not to slip into tearing down the messenger. Every pastor has weaknesses and shortcomings. There is no need to pick apart his grammar or nervous habits. You need not keep a tally of his misspeaks and overused phases. Dissecting your pastor’s weaknesses distracts you from the message and breeds contempt toward the messenger, neither of which is healthy. Trust me, chances are that your pastor is harder on himself in these areas than you are.
Evaluate in terms of “we” instead of “me.”
We live in an age of rampant Christian individualism where the nature of the Christian life is primarily viewed through the lens of personal growth and discovery. As a result, we often only consider how a sermon or passage of Scripture applies to us personally. However, there’s another lens we should never overlook—the corporate, or congregational, nature of the Christian life. When considering the application of the sermon, don’t just think about how it applies to you individually. Also consider what it would look like for your congregation to live out these truths collectively.
Evaluate without someone else in mind.
Thanks to podcasts, you can now listen to hours upon hours of sermons each week from a variety of gifted preachers all over the world. Certainly, there are personal spiritual benefits to listening to other pastors’ sermons. At the same time, be careful not to let this access encourage unhealthy comparisons between your pastor’s sermons and those from prominent preachers. God has given your pastor a particular flock to shepherd that he did not give these other pastors. While his sermons may not be as polished or precise, he better knows the strengths and weaknesses, the trials and tendencies, of your particular congregation better than any podcast preacher. For instance: is your congregation filled with legalists or hedonists? Your pastor will know, and will therefore know which way to lean when preaching. God has uniquely situated him to apply Scripture to the life of your church.
Evaluate to encourage.
As you listen to the sermon, look for positive aspects of the sermon and truths God teaches you through it, and make it a point to tell your pastor. When you do, be specific. Don’t just shake his hand and say, “Good sermon.” Say something like, “The Lord really challenged me when you explained that second part of the passage about generosity.” In the long run, good, helpful feedback will make him an even better preacher, which will contribute to your own spiritual growth and build up the church to the glory of Christ.
Originally published at 9Marks.org.