What makes a good sermon?

By Susan Fawcett

One of the worst sermons I’ve ever heard was in the seminary chapel. Several weeks before, the school administration had asked preachers at Morning Prayer to keep their sermons to five minutes or less, in the interest of getting everyone out in time to get their obligatory coffee before 9:00 classes started. And on this particular morning, it was not a student but a professor who ascended the pulpit to speak. The service itself had already run long, and he preached…and preached…and after twenty minutes of discourse on The Faith of Abraham, we were finally released, grumbling about being late to class and missing coffee.

The sermon wasn’t bad because of the content, per se. It was bad mostly because it was long, and disrespected our time (not to mention the Dean’s request of five minutes or less). The absolute length of it overrode its message.

I come back to that sermon when I’m thinking about writing my own (as I am today, Thursday, without a clue as to what I’ll be preaching on Saturday evening). That preacher had written a sermon that made a great deal of sense to himself, and yet he failed to ask himself what kind of sense it would make to the listeners, or whether they’d be able to listen to him with charity. Where is the line between communicating a message that you feel called to speak-as that professor clearly did-and communicating well? And where does sympathy for the listener fall in there?

I myself am one of those people who tend to think in the abstract and have read far more theology than is good for the average person, and so my natural tendency in sermons is to wax theoretical about an idea, tying together words and images to make some sort of emotional and psychological sense of a biblical passage. I like to think that I have been disabused of that tendency over the past few years: my husband is an engineer, a concrete thinker, and a painfully honest critic. We have spent quite a few Saturday nights revising my sermons, and we’ve got a running list of his typical responses:

You’re dancing around an idea but you haven’t nailed it. What’s your take-home point here?”

“I’m sorry, but I don’t speak church. What are you talking about again?”

“I’m getting kind of bored. Can’t you tell a story or something?”

“You aren’t going to just stand in the pulpit and read that from the printout, are you?”

Far from being offended by these remarks (ok, most of the time), I appreciate someone being honest. Most of my parishioners are so kind that they’ll tell me they loved a dead-boring, high-theory sermon when most of what they loved about it was the chance to drift off into daydream land. So this article here isn’t really an article: It’s a plea for comments about what makes a great sermon. If you preach, what makes you feel good about your sermons? And how do you gauge it for reception? If you regularly listen to sermons, what keeps you tied in? What engages your mind and your soul? And what is it that you wish you could find a kind and charitable way to tell your beloved preacher?

The Rev. Susan Fawcett keeps the blog This Passage. She serves a parish in the Diocese of Virginia, and supports the work of the General Convention publication The Center Aisle.

Past Posts