Every preacher wants to knock it out of the park every time he steps up to the plate, striving for that perfect combination of winsome conviction that compellingly brings the truth to bear so that the hearers are brought into God's presence in worship. Evaluation is an important tool to refine preaching, though we need to tread with care. Every preacher has a distinct personality and gift mix, and we will naturally be drawn toward some styles and less excited about others, but we have to be able to get past evaluating only mechanical and stylistic concerns. As we sit under gospel-centered, biblical preaching we ought to ask how the text shapes us rather than asking how the preacher did. Let's begin with a basic grid to evaluate whether a sermon is actually a sermon. For this, I have four basic questions:
1. Was the Bible faithfully exposed?
Preach the Word (2 Tim. 4:1-5). Christian preachers must preach God's Word and not their own. All preaching begins with God's Word, and sits under its authority. Anything else is a recitation of the preacher's ideas and opinions. We can talk about wise living or even theological concepts without the Bible as the primary source for the conversation. Preaching is the proclamation of God's Word, God's gospel, God's message to the world He created and His people. It's also essential that the Bible is faithfully exposed. This means that it can't simply provide a prooftext for a springboard into opinion. Even topical preaching ought to be expository at its core.
Preachers bear the responsibility to do the hard work on this. Rather than ripping verses out of context, they need to discern the original intended meaning of a text and then, as John Stott says, build a bridge between the world of the text and our own. That means working hard to determine not just the meaning of the words themselves, but the meaning the words hold in the context of the sentence, paragraph, book, genre, canonical setting, and broader redemptive-historical narrative storyline of the Bible. Only then can we understand what a text really communicates to us here and now.
2. Was the gospel - the Good News of Jesus' work - the center?
The gospel must be preached or it is not a Christian sermon. A Christian pastor has one message about One Savior. Jesus' Incarnation, sinless life, brutal sacrificial death, and victorious resurrection need to be proclaimed. Without exception. Every text in the Bible, as well as every issue in our lives, finds its ultimate answer in Jesus. It is the task of preachers to lead their hearers to Him. This also means it is not enough to just say the word "Jesus". It's too easy to slap Christian-sounding language on moralistic preaching. The gospel must be at the center and must be preached in its fullness. Preach it in the air (Creation, Fall, Redemption, Restoration), or on the ground (God, Man, Christ, Response), just preach the gospel.
Keep in mind the first question on this as well. This doesn't mean we reduce texts that aren't explicitly about Jesus to allegory. It does mean that part of the work of responsible exposition is to show how every text is a thread in the broader tapestry of Redemptive History. This will be some of the hardest work for a preacher, but also the most powerful. If your preaching from an OT text could be taught as easily in a Jewish synagogue, it was not a Christian sermon.
3. Were believers challenged to live in light of their identity in Christ?
Paul's pattern in his epistles is an important one for preachers to keep in mind. He consistently starts with the indicative and moves to the imperative. This means that there is a difference between who we are (indicative) and what we ought to do (imperative). Preachers need to remind us of our identity in Jesus and then move to the fruit of life in Jesus through obedience.
The consequences for getting this out of order are dire. We will naturally slide into moralism, thinking that we need to obey in order to achieve a new level of identity. A trickier, but just-as-dangerous trap is a soft prosperity gospel. If obedience is not rooted in identity, it becomes to easy to believe that people need to work harder to get their lives right so they can experience God's blessing. Nope. Jesus has done the work. It is finished. Now live in light of the freedom of redemption.
4. Were nonbelievers called to belief and repentance?
The fullness of the gospel has not been applied to your hearers until you have exposed the problem of sin, shown the glory of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and called them to belief and repentance. As Luther said, "When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said 'Repent,' he intended that the entire life of believers should be repentance." This needs to be the constant refrain every week. If nonbelievers have not been offered the gift of salvation through Jesus and an opportunity to turn in belief and repentance, the sermon has fallen dreadfully short. This doesn't mean an altar call ends every service, but it does mean that every sermon is sufficient to enable sinners to repent and calls them to do so. There. In that place. At that moment. Don't miss it.
Preaching to believers and nonbelievers simultaneously is one of the most difficult and most important disciplines to cultivate.
Preachers, if you have accomplished these four aspects in your preaching, rest. The Holy Spirit is not bound by your stylistic idiosyncrasies. It's God's Word and the gospel found within it that have the power to transform lives by the work of the Spirit as He draws people to God through Christ. Rest.
As you sit under someone's preaching who faithfully and consistently points you to God's Word and the Good News of Jesus, thank God for the privilege you have and for His servant. Focus less on the style and more on the substance. Also, thank your pastor. i can tell you that there is nothing more encouraging, as a preacher, than hearing that people have been pointed to Jesus.