By John Brunt
I was traveling from Walla Walla to southern Oregon. I stopped at the half-way point in Portland to eat in one of my favorite gourmet restaurants, Taco Bell. As I was standing in line waiting to give my order, somebody behind me leaned over and whispered in my ear, “gospel, Biblical, alive, clear.” I turned around and as I expected, it was one of my preaching students from several years before. He wanted to show me that he remembered what I taught in preaching class, and he had passed the quiz. You see, I tell people the first day that everything I say will center around four words, which summarize everything I know about preaching: gospel, Biblical, alive, and clear. Let me elaborate on these four words that for me summarize what good preaching is all about.
Is it gospel?
The Christian call to witness is a call to share good news. In Romans 1:16-17 Paul says that the good news, the gospel, is the power of God for salvation. In Steps to Christ, pp. 10-11 Ellen White says the following:
“God has bound our hearts to Him by unnumbered tokens in heaven and in earth. Through the things of nature, and the deepest and tenderest earthly ties that human hearts can know, He has sought to reveal Himself to us. Yet these but imperfectly represent His love. Though all these evidences have been given, the enemy of good blinded the minds of men, so that they looked upon God with fear; they thought of Him as severe and unforgiving. Satan led men to conceive of God as a being whose chief attribute is stern justice, one who is a severe judge, a harsh, exacting creditor. He pictured the Creator as a being who is watching with jealous eye to discern the errors and mistakes of men, that He may visit judgments upon them. It was to remove this dark shadow, by revealing to the world the infinite love of God, that Jesus came to live among men.”
Every sermon that we preach either lifts the curtain and removes the dark shadow, or it contributes to the picture of God as a harsh, exacting creditor. If it does the former, it does God’s work; if it does the latter, it does Satan’s work.
That is why I believe this is the criterion for good preaching. Good preaching is good news.
Is it Biblical?
Preachers are not called upon to give their opinions or their spins on what’s happening in the world. They are called upon to preach the Word. This means listening to the text, hearing its message, and making it come to life in today’s world.
Exegesis is a prerequisite for good preaching, but doesn’t necessarily need to show in all its details in the sermon. In other words, the sermon is not an exegetical study but a presentation of the Biblical message that is clearly based on good exegesis.
A sermon is Biblical not because it follows a certain form, but because it is faithful to the Biblical text, because its message is consistent with the message of Scripture within its historical and literary context. To be Biblical, a sermon must make the Biblical text its foundation so that the entire sermon grows out of the Biblical material. Whatever stories, illustrations and expositions it contains should all focus on making the message of the Biblical text come alive. The message of the sermon must be consistent with, but not necessarily identical to, the original message of Scripture.
Is it alive?
I have had several very helpful preaching teachers. My college teacher was Will Alexander, my seminary teacher, Norval Pease. Both of them helped me greatly. I also had, however, a very unusual preaching teacher. His name was George. He was the head deacon at my church in San Diego. He was a handyman. He did all the work that needed to be done around the church. The motto truly was, “Let George do it” whenever anything was wrong.
One morning George was working around the church, and he asked to come into the office and visit with me for a little while. Now you need to know first of all that George had a regular routine on Sabbath morning. He would go through the lobby while everybody was visiting between Sabbath School and church and push them into the church so the worship service could start on time. Then he would get the deacons organized, take up the offering, count it, and come in just a little bit before the sermon and sit down. He would promptly go to sleep and wake up at the time of the closing hymn, and after that would usher people out of the sanctuary.
George said he had been with a group of people in the church and they had commented that they really appreciated the work that I put into my sermons. They appreciated the content, but found them very boring—few illustrations, mostly straight exposition. So George made a deal with me. He said, “You try to make your sermons more interesting and I’ll try to stay awake.”
For the next three years, I had instant feedback. I could just look and see whether George was asleep or awake. He probably helped me as much as any preaching teacher could.
Sermons come alive through stories, human interest and humor. But even with these, the sermon will only be alive if it has relevance to actual life.
When I was pastoring in southern California, I would often go listen to other preachers on Sunday morning. One preacher especially amazed me. He printed an outline of his sermon each week for the next week’s sermon, along with a reading assignment. The next week’s sermon would always be filled with wonderful illustrations, many of which came from the events of that very week. When you heard the sermon you would wonder how in the world he could ever preach the sermon without those illustrations, and yet he had the basic outline of the sermon already published before those illustrations were part of it. He has obviously developed the capacity to look at life in the light of his sermon and find ways to make it come alive. Those are the eyes that a good preacher needs to develop.
Is it clear?
In order to be clear, sermons need to have one point, a message that can be stated in a sentence. Sermons are usually clear when they have a simple structure and follow the canons of oral communication rather than written communication. This means shorter sentences, repetition, linear flow.
In order to achieve clarity, the preacher has to be willing to learn to cut. Cut out all those great stories that you want to tell but don’t really fit with the sermon. Cut out the extra points that you would like to make, but they don’t really come from the text. It’s hard to cut good ideas that you have already come to love in the process of preparing the sermon. But there will be no clarity without focus and intentionality and the ability to take out anything that doesn’t really belong.
So that’s really all I know about preaching. It can all be summed up in four words: gospel, Biblical, alive, and clear. Of course it is much easier to talk about these four words than actually to achieve them in preaching, but I continue to try and reach toward this goal and point my students there as well.
John Brunt, Senior Pastor, Azure Hills, CA. This material was presented at the West Coast Religion Teachers Conference, April 6-8, 2001.