Tools in my Granddad's workshop were sharp, honed and glistened with a thin film of oil. My mother's dad was a carpenter. I'm not a carpenter, the tools in my garage are a disgrace, granddad would be ashamed, blunt and hardly usable, sometimes even rusted...
So, in Carey chapel recently, when Rachel asked some Carey staff if they could tell her in one word: What makes a good sermon?
I had the answer...
Over the years I've heard lots of sermons: students, visiting preachers, churches I visit... Frankly, too many sermons are like the tools in my garage, blunt, occasionally rusty, and often being used for the wrong job.
Like many people who grew to adulthood in the TV age, I have a short attention span. Like many people who spend a lot of time on the Internet, my attention span has probably shortened in recent years. I'm used to sound bites, and quickly clicking on to another destination. I recorded one of Spurgeon's sermons for LibriVox.org, the site that provides free audio books, it lasted nearly 45 minutes! Presumably, in the Nineteenth century, Spurgeon fans could keep their attention focused that long. I can't. My students can't. And my children (grown up though they are) certainly can't!
So, I have the answer to Rachel's question. In one word. "Sharp". A good sermon is sharp. Like the finely honed tools in granddad's workshop, a good sermon cuts straight to the point. As few extras as possible. Like those tools it HAS a point. A good sermon is brief, to be memorable. It has a point; it should leave its hearers with some call to action. Their living should change somehow from hearing it.
Pointed, memorable, and short, a good sermon calls me to conversion. Either to that first conversion where we turn to God in Christ and away from self and sin, or the regular smaller conversions that follow the first big turnaround as Jesus takes over as master of our lives more and more. That's pointed! But how many sermons fail to make a connection to my daily living that requires me to act?
If that "point" is blunt, then the sermon is worthless, merely good advice from some smart guy (and it is often a mistake male preachers make) to others whose lives are pretty much "together", but just need a little tinkering. I don't need advice on living; I need to be brought face to face with my saviour.
Other sermons have a point, but they are rusty. The point is blunted by too much other stuff that creeps into the sermon by the back door. Funny stories, scenes from the latest movies (that I have not yet seen), reminiscences from the preacher's previous church... if these "illustrations" really DO illustrate, they can help me remember, but if they fail in that, they merely blunt the point, like rust on my chisels.
So, in one word (since the six hundred I was allocated are nearly used ;) a good sermon is "sharp". Short, so busy TV educated, Wikipedia consulting scatterbrains like me can concentrate for the 15-20 minutes without wandering too much. Sharp, they prod me to change; they aim at conversion - avoiding the temptation to be clever or wise. Memorable, after all, if your sermon has three alliterative sections, that between them neatly encapsulate the message of the Bible text, but I forget them before my car has left the church car park, what use was it?
Like granddad's chisels a good sermon is sharp!
© Tim Bulkeley, 2009
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The other site Tim runs Postmodern Bible - a hypermedia (hypertext and multimedia) Bible commentary project