How to Critique a Sermon With Humility and Discernment

This past Sunday, my church hosted a guest speaker, and he preached a sermon that was, well, unfortunate.  I don’t mean that he merely said things that I disagree with; though I have strong opinions and convictions, I’m a laid back guy and don’t normally sweat about hearing things that don’t align perfectly with what I think.  Indeed, it is rare for me to react to a sermon like this such that I feel the need to say something.  What I mean by “unfortunate” is that his sermon would have failed any good preaching class because he was surprisingly rude while his message completely lacked biblical content.  If Billy Graham or George Whitefield in their heydays preached that sermon, it would remain a bad one.

I have no interest in summarizing the entire sermon here, and due to that, this post will be for the benefit of the people at my church, particularly the college students I teach.  If that’s not you, you may want to just skip this post because you don’t know what happened.  Nor do I have any interest in attacking this man’s character or ministry.  He is an older preacher who has a good reputation and a wealth of experience.  I’ve only heard him preach once and I do not know him, but I have no reason to doubt the testimony of others that he is a godly man.  Furthermore, I know preaching is difficult, and since I know I’ve made many mistakes in teaching, I certainly can’t expect perfection from someone else.  Maybe if we took a sample size of 100 sermons from this guy, all 100 would be biblical and powerful messages.  That wouldn’t change the fact that this one was not good, and it was a bad enough that I will address it with the permission of the pastoral staff.

Important Questions to Ask

I’d like to give some useful questions to ask when evaluating sermons and then apply these principles to what happened on Sunday:

1.  Is the Bible front and center in a message?

The speaker said some hurtful things, which I will address later, but the principal thing we should look for as Christians is not so much how a sermon made us feel but whether or not the sermon was based on Scripture.  Let’s face it: Sometimes, we need to get offended, and we have to let the sword of biblical truth cut into us when necessary.  This doesn’t excuse wild offensive behavior, but it does mean that we have to be prepared to get smacked upside the head sometimes by a preacher of God’s Word.  Heck, even if a preacher is genuinely a jerk up there and calls your mom fat, ugly, and stupid, that wouldn’t necessarily mean that his biblical content is wrong.  “Offensive” or not, what ultimately matters is if the Bible is at the forefront of a sermon, whether it is a more expository sermon or a topical one.  You don’t even have to agree with much of a sermon to see that the speaker is trying to be faithful to the Word.

On Sunday, we got a type of sermon that a seminary professor of mine dubbed a “launchpad sermon.”  The speaker read the text, talked a little about it, and then launched off into his own thoughts, never to return.  Instead, we got some grade school summaries of American history and government structure that led up to rants about the moral decay of America.  Some of the things he said were true, but the text didn’t just take a backseat; it was jettisoned from the vehicle.  Since he more or less failed at #1 here, you can guess that the rest aren’t really going to reflect well on his sermon either.

2.   Were the literary and historical contexts of the passage adequately explained?

Preachers can’t give complete historical and literary surveys in a sermon, but normally, it is helpful to describe the background of a passage.  If one is going through a series over a book or section of the Bible, then this need is minimized a bit because the background information may have already been given in earlier messages.  Furthermore, it is unreasonable to expect detailed backgrounds for every verse referenced in a sermon.  However, context cannot be completely ignored and is definitely needed for the primary text.

On Sunday, the speaker did not give the historical or literary context of his main text in 2 Chronicles 36.  He did not give a summary of the steady decline of the kingdom of Judah, even with the bright spot during the reign of Josiah, nor did he talk about the fact that the original audience would have been post-exilic Israelites.  How would they have reacted to the story of Zedekiah?  This was not addressed at all.

3.  Are the main idea and main points clear, and are they argued clearly from the biblical data?

Sermons should be organized to clearly explain key concepts in the passage.  We will not always agree with a speaker’s decisions on these matters, but again, we can respect the attempt to justify his points from the text.

The main idea of Sunday’s sermon was… probably “REPENT,” given that this word was emblazoned in all caps on the last slide that he awkwardly ended with.  There was no clear argument from the text.  In fairness, he ran out of time, but this was also his fault because he spent considerable time in the beginning of his sermon critiquing the congregation’s singing, the praise team, and the praise leader.  It would not surprise me if an average member came away with a main idea such as, “Sing louder” or “America stinks.”

4.  Were there clear applications and illustrations?

What makes teaching and preaching hard is not merely exegesis but also trying to apply the truths to a modern audience.  What do I do now given this biblical truth?  Illustrations are not necessary but can help with clarifying points as well as application.

Suffice it to say, application, even the most general kind, was almost nonexistent in Sunday’s message (unless you count “REPENT”).

5.  Did he effectively communicate his message?

I’ve written before that responsible Christian listeners should care way more about content than delivery, but it’s still worth discussing the effectiveness of a person’s communication.  This would include voice volume, nonverbal movements, jokes that are used, enunciation, etc.

On Sunday, the speaker came in guns-a-blazing in a rather unwise manner, which turned off many of the congregation from the outset.  As I stated above, sometimes we need to get offended, but it is normally wise to avoid unnecessarily antagonizing the audience or they might just tune you out.  Also, it is worth pointing out that the hurt that he caused was not justified or wise, really discouraging some people in a way that was very un-Christ like.

6.  Are there any truths that I can reflect on even in a confusing or bad sermon?

I’ve heard some atrocious sermons over my short life (some of them, amusingly enough, in chapel at seminary).  However, it is rare that a sermon is so completely devoid of truth that it is utterly useless.  If the preacher is a Christian, he’s probably going to say something that is true.  It is important to be gracious in this regard and point out the good in even some pretty lackluster sermons.

If anything, the speaker on Sunday displayed boldness and biblical conviction in calling out the sin in American culture.  There is some serious moral degradation going on around us, and Christians cannot put their heads in the sand and hope that it just magically gets better.  Gospel-centered Christians need to be working, preaching, praying, and voting in all spheres of life.

Being Critical and Gracious

I do not intend this post to teach people to be overly critical jerks.  One of the pitfalls for many seminary-trained individuals is that we will often sit in prideful judgment over sermons rather than humbly submit to the proclamation of God’s Word.  That said, because preachers and teachers are not perfect, we should always be thinking carefully about what they say and compare it to the Bible.  We should understand that it’s difficult to stand up there and preach, and therefore we should not drop an avalanche of mean criticism on people just for making mistakes.  However, we also should be wise enough to reject teaching that doesn’t square with the Word and wisdom.  And when a message really goes off the rails, like it did on Sunday, then we can immediately recognize it for what it is: A bad mistake that should be calmly discarded.  There is no need to make quick judgments on the speaker.  We all make mistakes, and as someone who has taught some lessons that I’d rather forget, I’d encourage the listeners to forgive and let it go while also learning from the experience.  It happened, let’s evaluate it, and now fully aware of why we don’t stand for that, we can use even this event to strengthen our confidence in God’s Word.

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