When I was attending Calvin Theological Seminary, someone somewhere along the line gave me a good piece of advice. He told me that when I became a pastor of a congregation, if the consistory (or the body of elders) did not have a standing agenda item called “Sermon and Worship Comments,” then I should institute this first thing. Not only is it the job of elders to supervise the preaching and worship life of the congregation, getting regular feedback can be immensely helpful to the preacher.
Having such an item on the agenda every month makes it easier for elders to share what they hear from others and what they themselves think. Absent a formal chance to say something, many elders might not dare bring up the subject, especially in case they had to report on something in a negative vein. Also, knowing this would always be a part of the monthly meeting might make them listen more intently for comments from the wider congregation even as they might start listening to sermons more closely themselves so as to be able to provide feedback—the good, the bad, and everything in between. Across 15 years I was privileged to serve two congregations, and neither had such an agenda item when I arrived. So, in both congregations we made “Sermon and Worship Comments” a standard part of the monthly elders meeting.
But there was a problem: Many elders did not feel qualified to talk meaningfully about preaching. Certainly, they knew when they liked a sermon and when a given message seemed to fall more flat. But articulating why they felt the way they did was problematic. What categories are appropriate to ponder? What kind of advice or commentary is the most helpful to the average preacher who is seeking always to improve? It turned out most elders needed a little crash course in sermon evaluating to help them know how and why sermons are supposed to work, what to listen for in terms of assessing a sermon’s biblical moorings and cultural relevancy, etc.
But it’s not just elders or other church staff people formally charged with assessing a congregation’s preaching and worship life. Over the years I have spoken to many people in a variety of churches who often find themselves groping for the right vocabulary through which to articulate an informed, intelligent evaluation of the Word preached.
I wrote this book to address exactly this need. Yes, I hope my fellow preachers will read this book and find it helpful and interesting. But the book is aimed at those who listen to sermons all the time. What is the theory behind preaching? What is some of the history of preaching? Are there key categories of evaluation that a person can tick through on her way to assessing whether a given sermon—or even the pattern of a certain pastor’s preaching—is working well?
I will confess that while writing this book, it occurred to me that I might just be making life a bit harder for my fellow preachers! If a lot of people really do get better at figuring out what makes a sermon work—or not work—that might just amp up the pressure on the preacher! But all preachers know deep down that sermons are always the work of the whole people of God. We are all better off spiritually when we can communally own the preaching life of any given congregation. As I say in the book, preaching is in the end a deeply mysterious working of the Holy Spirit in the Church. Even so, we can all get better in tune with that Spirit as we collectively listen to and ponder those weekly sermons— sermons that we hope will again and again proclaim and re-affirm the Good News, the Greatest News, that just is the Gospel of Jesus Christ our Lord.
Scott Hoezee ’86 MDiv’90 is director of the Center for Excellence in Preaching at Calvin Theological Seminary.