I received on of the highest compliments I’ve ever been paid today while visiting a ninety-year-old saint. While spending some time with him at the assisted living center, an elderly member of the congregation where I am interning told me that this past Lord’s Day I preached on of the best sermons he has heard in more than a decade. Having heard the preaching of his regular minister, I think I’d disagree – even more so given that I would call myself and adequate preacher at best, not a particularly good one.
One the other hand, it seems that there is a dearth of even adequate preaching in the vast majority of pulpits today; I’ve yet to hear a preacher that I found really great. Perhaps the last truly great English speaking preacher was Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones of Westminster Chapel in London. Since his death, there have been precious few good preachers.
Given the age of podcasting, it seems that everyone thinks that there is a plethora of great preachers out there now. While I think there is one preacher currently that is particularly good (Matt Chandler of The Village Church in Highland Village, Tex.), even he strays from his text too often for my tastes. Yet there are a number of incredibly gifted homiletics professors at our Reformed seminaries at the moment, such as Dr. Bryan Chappell at Covenant Theological Seminary, and Dr. Joseph Pipa at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.
So why is it that so much of what passes for preaching today is in reality atrocious?
In the late nineteenth century, the leading text on Homiletics was Sacred Rhetoric: A Course of Lectures on Preaching by R.L. Dabney. I would still recommend it as perhaps the best text available on the art of preaching. In the course of his text, Dabney gives what he refers to as “the seven cardinal requisites of preaching”; note that these are “cardinal requisites” and not simply “good ideas that might help”. That is, if these things are missing, then preaching hasn’t actually happened.
- Textual Fidelity – in other words, the point of the sermon must be derived from and faithful to the point of the text. If, upon leaving the meeting hall on the Lord’s Day, you can’t see how the sermon was related to the text of scripture, then textual fidelity has been reached.
- Unity – there must be one main subject of discourse, that the preacher adheres to throughout the sermon. This means that the entire sermon is bent towards making one definite impression on the soul of the hearer. If you can’t identify the point of the sermon thirty minutes after you heard it preached (must less five or ten minutes), then the sermon lacked unity.
- Evangelical Tone – the most common thing I hear after preaching is, “You sure don’t preach like a Presbyterian”. Evangelical tone is a zeal for the glory of God mixed with compassion for those perishing in darkness. In the words of John Calvin, “You must preach like a dying man to dying men.”
- Instructiveness – Does the sermon actually engage the mind of the hearers? Does it cause them to rethink God, the Church, and themselves?
- Movement – or perhaps better said for our era, momentum. Does each part of the sermon contribute to the full effect of the later parts? If you are a hearer, does it feel like the sermon bogs down? If so, it is lacking in momentum.
- Point – this one really should be a subcategory of order, unity, and movement. This is the overall intellectual and emotional impact of the sermon. As the hearer, does a certain point impress itself on you, that you feel you must assent to or deny?
- Order – this is simply the proper arrangements of the parts of the sermon, so that what comes first prepares for what will come later. A well-ordered sermon reveals its unity, and contributes to its point.
Another point that needs emphasis is that preaching is correctly defined as explicatio et applicatio Verbi Dei – the explanation and application of the Word of God. There is too much preaching in our day that is severely lacking in application. All of the exegetical and hermeneutical study in the world is meaningless unless you bring the text home to the listener. If the text of Scripture hasn’t been applied, it hasn’t been preached yet.