What Makes a Sermon Great? Lavater’s Answer

Johann Kaspar LavaterSeveral years ago I reached a point at which I can now say that I have been a preacher for over half of my life.  At the age of nineteen I preached my first sermon at a Sunday night revival meeting at the Long Reach Church of God.  Ten years later, after three internships and nearly constant Sunday evening pulpit supply from Virginia to New York, I was ordained and have preached at least weekly since then.  That is a lot of sermons – and I rather suspect that they varied tremendously in their overall quality!

Needless to say, the questions that surround the subject of preaching have occupied my attention for some time.  In studying this critical aspect of my calling, I have come across many descriptions of what makes a great sermon, or, what makes a sermon great.  Typically one comes across answers that are theological: a great sermon faithfully teaches what is in a biblical text.  Sometimes the answer includes more structural elements: a great sermon has a good introduction, clear and memorable points, and a good conclusion.  Sometimes great sermons are identified by the experience they produce in those who hear them: a great sermon inspires, encourages, unites…   Sometimes, like on Super Bowl Sunday, a sermon is great in correspondence to how long it is.

There are other legitimate ways to evaluate sermons in addition to these, and it should be noted that theology and structure cannot be overlooked in crafting sermons.  But in the category of considering the experiential effects of great preaching, I am not sure that I have come across a better description of what makes a sermon great than that penned over 200 years ago by the Swiss preacher and poet Johann Kaspar Lavater (1741-1801).  Lavater wrote:

“To make a sermon that pleases a great crowd, that is admired, imitated, bruited about, that is of very little account of itself.  But a sermon that really edifies, really interests the heart and penetrates it with its warming power, while it illuminates the understanding, a sermon that leaves a lively searching sting behind it, that follows the hearer and in the hours of temptation, long after the sound of it has died away, comes up as it were dancing through the heart, a sermon that does not please, that stirs all the flesh in revolt against it and yet pleases, that cannot be kept out of the mind, nor refuted, openly found fault with perhaps, but cannot be otherwise than approved by the heart, that is the work of the wisdom, the spirit and the power of Christ.”[1]

How many sermons have you heard that sounded like that?  If I am your preacher, would that it were far more!  What do you consider a great sermon to be?  One that merely pleases you?  Or one that “leaves a lively searching sting” yet “comes up dancing through your heart?”  Pray for your preachers.  Ask that God would give them the courage and the wisdom to preach this kind of sermon.  In a day and age in which we are so often like those folks who prefer preachers who “say whatever our itching ears want to hear” (2 Timothy 4:3), develop a keen taste for sermons that please in this way.

Your Pastor,

Bob Bjerkaas

[1] Oehler, “Zeitschrift für Pastoral Theologie,”” 4 Heft, 149, 1887.  Cited by Lewis Orsmond Brastow, The Modern Pulpit: A Study of Homiletic Sources and Characteristics (New York: Hodder & Stoughton, 1906), p. 44.


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