In my role as a pastor-search consultant, I have the privilege of working with pastor search teams. These dedicated groups of Christ-followers, often the cream of the crop of their congregations, 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 handful of qualities in a sermon. More specifically, they repeatedly identify four characteristics of effective sermons.
First, an effective sermon is biblical. Without exception, the people in the pews value biblically-based sermons. They expect their preaching pastors to dedicate themselves to the task of preparing and delivering biblical sermons. They appreciate pastors whose sermons reflect careful study of the Word of God. They anticipate sermons that exposit the Word of God and that, by so doing, help them understand and appreciate God’s Word.
Second, an effective sermon is relevant. While the people in the pews appreciate learning about a particular biblical text, they are clearly not looking for a lecture. They do not simply want to learn about the Word or even about God. They also want to hear from God. They want to receive a word from the Lord that meets them where they are at in life as Christ-followers. In the end, then, an effective sermon, in their estimation, bridges the gap between the world of Scripture and the world of those in the pews.
Third, an effective sermon is engaging. Here the people in the pews refer to the manner in which a sermon is delivered. Their comments range from “I couldn’t believe the sermon was over; what was thirty minutes seemed like five” to “I stopped listening after five minutes.” In between, they comment on any number of issues, like the pace by which the pastor delivers the sermon, mannerisms, non-words, grammar, inflection, repetition, and more. They also pick up on whether the preacher enjoys preaching or is just grinding sermons out. Granted, some people in the pew are better listeners than others but, clearly, some preachers are more engaging than others.
Fourth, an effective sermon is pastoral. In other words, the people in the pews appreciate sermons which flow from the heart of a shepherd who loves the sheep. They long for sermons delivered from the platform of a loving relationship between pastor and people. Plus, they appreciate the preacher who represents him or herself, not as one who stands above them, but as a fellow Christ-follower who stands with them. On this point, I often hear the words authenticity and transparency.
Four qualities of effective sermons. 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 pew I hang with, there is no questioning their desire for sermons that are biblical, relevant, engaging, and pastoral.