For Christmas Mark and Vanessa gave me an iPod Shuffle, a neat little device, smaller than a credit card, in which I can store songs or sermons and listen to them (using the “ear buds” provided with the Shuffle) as I travel. It turned out to be a most practical and welcome gift. Once I got the hang of it, I started taking my iPod with me on every plane flight, and I even take it with me when I ride my bike. So far I have not downloaded any music. I have filled my iPod with sermons from some of America’s best preachers. I’ve listened to a ton of good preaching since January. I’ve tried to cast my net widely by downloading messages (mostly but not exclusively from iTunes) from many different speakers–some I knew, some I didn’t, younger and older, from a variety of denominations–mostly pastors but also some seminary types as well.
And lately I have been asking myself what I have gleaned from my decidedly unscientific survey of contemporary preaching. Here are a few things I have noticed:
1) Good preaching sounds like lively conversation. It isn’t bombastic or overly loud.
2) Most sermons I have heard cut to the heart of the text quickly. I listened to Robert Rayburn give a sterling sermon on Ezekiel 23–not a promising passage for most of us. He set it in context, hit the high points, and drove the message home.
3) The best preaching doesn’t sound forced. It’s hard to convey exactly what I mean. It’s sort of like watching Tiger Woods or Michael Jordan. You know they are working hard, but they make it look easy. Some preachers put you on edge by their delivery. The best ones put you at ease so you can hear what it is being said.
4) The outline is often barely visible. The sermon is generally not an alliterated list of 5 Ps or 4 Ds.
5) Good sermons are personal. The stories shared are often quite simple and non-flashy–little slices of life as opposed to dramatic stories.
6) Most of the sermons are gospel-centered. That was a pleasant surprise to me. Without being evangelistic in the traditional sense, most of the messages brought Christ to the center and challenged the hearers to respond.
7) There is a such a wide variety of styles that the only rule seems to be, “Be true to yourself and don’t try to be someone else.”
8)The best preachers have a fine sense of timing. They use pauses to do more than catch their breath.
9) Canned jokes don’t work. Puns and funny asides offer a sense of relief to the audience.
10) I was struck by how fresh the sermons sounded. Often the speakers would comment on something they had discovered that very week.
11) Sermon ideas can come from anywhere. Erwin McManus preached a series called Intersections based on notable billboards through the Los Angeles area. Starting with a billboard that said, “Life is short. Have an affair,” he gave a strong call for sexual purity.
12) Preaching must be closely connected to the congregation or else it becomes a lecture. I listened to Mark Dever, during an impassioned presentation of substitutionary atonement, become emotional as he gave thanks for elderly saints who have set a good example for others. That description seems disjointed but in the flow of the sermon, it made perfect sense and revealed his heart for his people.
13) Good preaching can be ruined by bad presentation. One or two sermons sounded so rushed that I stopped listening.
14) Pitch and pacing. The best preachers use it, going fast, then slowing way down, pausing, then climbing the ladder slowly. The late E. V. Hill was very good at this.
15) Good preachers know how to end a sermon. They don’t circle the field forever. They land the plane on the first try.