The Sermon: what may we expect?
The weekly sermon remains a favourite topic of conversation among church members. And rightly so because the preaching has indeed a most central place. You might even say that it is the source, the fountain from which the church draws life.
However, often these conversations leave us dissatisfied; rarely do we feel spiritually uplifted by them. There is an important question which precedes and therefore influences all these conversations: What may we expect from the sermon?
Our discussions about the sermon will undoubtedly be of greater value when we have considered this question in a responsible manner. This and following articles were written to help in these considerations.
So many men…
Often the discussion of the sermon bogs down because of the varying expectations of the individual listeners. Some consider the sermon satisfactory only if something has been learned from it. Others desire a word for their heart, rather than an Instructional sermon. The one church member expects a thorough exegesis of the text and suggests, "I will decide for myself what application I will make for my daily life." Others hope for a message which has a direct application for his or her own situation. Many people appreciate a lively presentation, while others might consider the presentation itself of little importance. Some like the sermon to be an intellectually demanding, scholarly discourse, while others prefer sermons which address the congregation in a more popular fashion.
Indeed, there are many different ways in which listeners may approach the sermon. Of course, no one will be surprised to hear that no minister will even try to honour all these wishes. However, as long as such expectations determine the way in which we listen to the sermon, its blessings can be greatly diminished. That becomes obvious when in a discussion about the sermon the opinions badly clash.
It is the express purpose of the sermon to bring together all these different people so they will find each other under the ministration of the Word which speaks to all of them, but you will not find each other when there are sharp divisions of opinion on what may be expected from a sermon. This applies most certainly to the sermon discussion in the consistory meeting.
The consistory and the sermon
Sermon discussions do belong on the agenda of the consistory. Although only the minister has the task to preach the Word, he is not the only one who is responsible for faithful preaching! The supervision of the preaching is the special task of the elders. After all, they are, together with the minister, the shepherds of the flock. Therefore it is their responsibility to ensure that the voice of The Shepherd is heard in the sermons. We can prevent the preaching from becoming the business of one man only by taking this responsibility seriously.
It is proper that this responsibility receives much attention during the period of the calling of a minister. But this responsibility must also function after the arrival of the minister. Based on their experience within the congregation, the elders will be able to indicate to the minister what the needs of the congregation are. And further, during the regular family visits they will be able to discern whether the congregation can and indeed does work with the sermons.
A wise minister will not be deaf to the comments of his fellow office-bearers. A fruitful dialogue between the minister and the elders can be of great benefit to the sermons.
Yet, many a consistory seems to have problems with the sermon discussions, as is evident from the regular complaints I hear. This is not because the elders do not dare to discuss the work of the minister. The time when the minister was regarded with awe and when no one would dare criticize him (after all, he had studied for it!) is far behind us. Those who take their responsibility seriously should be able to overcome their hesitancy (with the help of the minister!).
But the actual sermon discussions during consistory meetings show that the brothers have widely divergent expectations. If every one considers the sermon on the basis of his own point of view, a sermon discussion will bog down and the minister is left to help himself. Undoubtedly, there will be ministers who do not mind such a situation, but the congregation will suffer. If it is true that the preaching is such an important life-giving fountain, then the congregation may expect that the consistory will supervise the preaching with the utmost care. Therefore, the question, what may we expect from the sermon? Is not only of great importance to all church members, but also to each consistory member.
In the meantime, someone might interject with the question; Do we still do justice to the nature of the preaching in this way? After all, we are here concerned with the Word of God which is ministered on His authority. Should everyone be allowed to voice his opinion? Should everyone in the church become a sermon critic? What, then, is left of listening to the gospel out of thirst for the gospel of salvation?
These are important questions. The kernel of the preaching concerns the question whether we are truly willing to listen to what the LORD has to say. If that does not come first, there is no point in even discussing the sermon at all. It is not the purpose of a sermon either to allow us to settle down in thorough judgment. Listening to a sermon for critical analysis only places us outside the gospel.
The point is, we must deal with the sermon in a fruitful and constructive way. Therefore we must think about what we may rightly expect and not expect from a sermon.
Someone once asked me, "Can't you develop a kind of checklist for the essential points of a good sermon?" This seems an attractive idea. Checklists are useful when they function as a guideline which you can use to orient yourself quickly, and to enable you to identify important aspects.
To me, however, there is too much of a critical element implied in this suggestion. A checklist often functions in a situation of inspection and examination. With the help of such a list you run past the main points and you check whether all is well. I feel that this is inappropriate in the church. As a member of the church (and consistory) you are not called to give the minister a grade for his sermon. The main purpose of the preaching is to give yourself captive to the LORD. Only with such an attitude can we speak usefully about the question whether the sermon measured up to what we rightly may expect from it. Such an attitude does not permit us to listen as inspectors who will quickly and efficiently check whether all things are in good order.
On the other hand, the request for a checklist does have a positive element. We recognize that the preaching must measure up to certain norms, don't we? It is important that we are aware of those norms, and that we are able to use them when speaking with each other about the sermons. At this point a comparison with a method advocated for the family visit may be helpful. Rev. C. Vonk wrote a book with the title, Family Visit According to God's commandments,1 He pleads for the use of the Ten Commandments as a guide for the family visitation. The elders should consider whether a particular family serves the LORD according to the first commandment etc. This method has been strongly criticized. I once even heard the remark; I would feel like a meter-reader! That danger does exist. A strict adherence to the order of the Ten Commandments might make the family visit rather unpleasantly formalistic. The impression might be made that the elders have come to check out the situation, while the actual, everyday concerns of the members of the congregation may be left unmentioned.
But it is equally possible to view this method from a different angle. Consider that the Ten Commandments are the rule for our life, given by God Himself, by which our lives take shape before Him. Therefore the use of such a rule as a guide in the preparation for the family visitation as well as for the visit itself can be very helpful indeed. The point is not to ensure that all aspects will be covered. Elders should listen a great deal, and if they are called to speak they will have to speak about much more than is mentioned in the Ten Commandments. However, the rule which we have received from God Himself can be a powerful tool in the work of the office-bearers.
In the same way it is possible to formulate a number of norms, biblical criteria which describe what we may expect from a sermon. A careful use of these norms will be of much help when listening to and speaking about the sermon, without the risk of becoming an inspector who checks off the items on a list to determine whether the minister has gained a satisfactory grade. Based on these considerations I have tried to provide a brief formulation of what we rightly may expect from a sermon.
What may we expect from a sermon?
Of course, it is not my intention to be complete and all-inclusive. My purpose is to indicate major criteria for a sermon to help shape the expectation of the listener. In addition, the norms which I will try to formulate are meant to be norms for the preaching as a whole. It would not be fair to demand that all of them should be present in each sermon. Obviously, certain aspects will be emphasized more in one sermon than in another. Therefore the following list should be helpful to shape our expectations about sermons over the long(er) term.
In formulating these criteria I have considered especially the nature, the content, and the form of the sermon.
In summary: we may expect a sermon to be:
- educational and pastoral
- faithful to the text
- relevant and topical
- orderly and comprehensible.