As noted in my previous blog under this banner, in my role as a pastor-search consultant I have the privilege of working with pastor search teams. These incredibly dedicated groups of Christ-followers fulfill many important tasks in their efforts to discern their next pastors. One of those tasks is listening to the sermons of pastoral candidates.
Typically, after listening to sermons the team comes together to discuss their impressions—and I often get to listen in. From those conversations I have learned that Search Team members respect pastors and know that preaching is a difficult task. They also recognize that there are as many opinions about a sermon as there are people in the pews. I have also discovered that, almost uniformly, the people in the pews look for a short list of qualities in a sermon.
In my previous blog, I identified four characteristics of effective sermons—according to the people in the pews. In this blog, I add four more. Each one, of course, begs for more clarity and discussion by those doing the preaching. And each one means something different in every culture. But from the perspective of the people in the pews I hang with, there is no questioning their desire for sermons that share the following qualities.
First, an effective sermon is accessible. “Our pastor spends so much time preparing a sermon that he occasionally assumes we know more than what we know,” said one Search Team member. “Once in a while it would be good for him to slow down and break it down for the people in the pews.˝ Just last week another Search Team member said, “I didn’t understand the first seven words out of the preacher’s mouth.” Suffice it to note that the purpose of a sermon is to communicate and the wise preacher will employ words that do just that.
Second, an effective sermon is on time. When it comes to sermon length, it seems that every congregation has a built in alarm clock that silently rings in the minds and plugs the ears of those sitting in the pews. The range for the congregations I have had the privilege to work with us between 25 and 45 minutes, but I have heard sermons shorter and longer. The key for the preacher is to know the expectations of the congregation and complete the sermon before the clock rings. Also, I have yet to hear a search team member comment that a sermon was too short.
Third, an effective sermon is not only on time but with the times. The people in the pews anticipate biblical preaching in a contemporary world. They expect sermons to bridge the ancient and modern worlds. They do not appreciate sermons as dated as shag carpet. Towards that end, preachers benefit from following the advice of Billy Graham who surely was not the first one to suggest that a preaching pastor best begin each day with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. On a personal note, preachers would also benefit from dedicating more time to crafting introductions that meet people where they are at and draw them into the text. (I am weary of the quick, easy, and ineffective intro that tells the congregation where they are at in a series of sermons.)
Fourth, an effective sermon is inclusive. The people in the pews live each day in a world that has been sensitized to words that may be interpreted as excluding a group or groups of people. For example, people who communicate for a living–television, radio, and news print–have pretty much eliminated exclusive words from their vocabulary. Consequently, exclusive language from the pulpit disheartens even angers people gathered from the world for worship. These same folk are also surprised by images and illustrations that hold potential to exclude people, like the image of an Anglo-Saxon Jesus from Nazareth. Seems to me that the best way for a preacher to approach this matter is to assume that his or her sermon is exclusive in one or more ways and, then, before delivering the sermon, replace the exclusive with inclusive.
So, there you go. Four more qualities of effective sermons from the people in the pews.