I guess for me good sermons must have at least two qualities.
First they are firmly based in God’s Word. I know that there are many types of sermons: expository, theme-based, character driven, and so forth. Still, what gives them the “good” quality – at least in my opinion – is that they be firmly grounded in God’s Word.
Just because a message has scripture connected to it, that doesn’t make it a good message. I’ve seen preachers do some pretty interesting things to their selected passages, but just to point to some verses of scripture then go off on some rant about a selected topic is such a disappointment and for the most part a waste of the listener’s attention.
Preachers are entitled to their opinions, but that’s not why I’m listening to a sermon. I have come to church to worship, first and foremost. And in the process of praise, prayer, and fellowship, I’ve come to hear a message from God. I’ve come to hear a word of encouragement, a word of counsel, a word of direction – something that helps me to stay connected to my Savior in the mad dash world in which I live.
If the sermon is not firmly grounded in God’s Word, I fear that what I’m being told is more expression than exposition. I need to know that the message has been derived from what God has said and that the preacher has spent adequate time understanding the text before trying to explain the text.
I have listened to sermons that contain a lot of good information, but when delivered without any firm connection to God’s Word, it’s just information. And with the genesis of the world wide web, getting information is null and void for sermon delivery. Some preachers seem to think that standing behind a podium to “preach the Word” is time to entertain and not to expose the wonders of the Word. Some messages scrape together concepts or package expressions or emotions; I guess that is OK for some, but to me it’s wasted time since so much of what is said is “This is what I think” rather than “This is what the Lord says.” I remember one older pastor used to call the pulpit “The Sacred Desk”. I like that. It conveys a seriousness that sadly seems to be lacking in today’s messages. Preachers seem more concerned about “tickling the ears” than “teaching the heart to follow God.” And doctrine messages and the practicality of doctrine? I can’t remember the last time I heard that being preached.
As 2 Timothy 3:16 reminds, the inspired quality of God’s Word is useful “…for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness.” A message designed to do this without being plugged into God’s Word is just information.
Second, good quality messages must connect the truth of God’s Word with the application of God’s Word.
Previously I’ve written that my preferred method of Bible study is Observation, Interpretation, Application. And I’ve said that a study of God’s Word is never complete without also answering the question, “So what?” You can talk all day about what the text means, but if the message ends and there’s been no real explanation of how the text operates in the believer’s life (“What does it mean to ME?”), the study is incomplete.
With application, as one author writes, “…the written word becomes the living word, that is living and active in [a believer’s] life”. A sermon MUST have this quality in order to be valuable. It’s not enough for someone to read the Word and then explain the text. The reason we have the Word is to be able to live the Word and thereby glorify God.
My seminary professor, Howard Hendricks, encouraged students to adopt this habit/develop the skill of taking sermon notes on a split sheet of paper: one side containing message notes and the other side containing one’s personal notes. I just got into the habit of making notes and connections in my own Bible [screenshot of Bible text] and I focus on doing that whenever the sermon begins.
Since then, I have kept the habit of keeping a pen handy in my Bible (currently a four-color pen with a pencil; pentel info from Amazon) and using it when I read the Word. I guess that if anyone sees me writing in my Bible during the sermon, they might think that I’m not listening. Actually I am, but because so many messages I’ve heard end up being mostly information, and because I haven’t had the chance to study the text, I’ll begin making observations and connections to understand the text and to also identify applications I need to make while listening to the preacher speak.
Please remember, this is my opinion. God’s Spirit uses many things to reach our hearts, and what I might not find helpful another person might say “That was just what I needed.” For me, a message must be Bible-focused and application rich at the very least.