Sermon Critics

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A couple of weeks ago, I was having a conversation with a friend who is a pastor in the United Church of Canada. The conversation drifted towards preaching and how much our own preaching had changed over the years when he said, “When I look at some of my first sermons I just want to throw them away.”

I’ve heard comments like that before. The first time seemed to be mere weeks after my classical exam. Let’s just say that I had not enjoyed the experience. Then, mere days later, the same preachers who’d grilled my sermon were joking about how they could not even look at their own first sermons without embarrassment. It left me wondering, “what was that all about?”

I admit that my nerves were a little tender. But, the juxtaposition does raise a question; what should a classis look for in a candidate’s sermon? A mentor once said that it was no sin to be boring in a classical sermon, but does the church really need safe but boring preaching? Should classis look for theological soundness or creativity? What should a classis look for, when expectations of preaching change and preachers themselves change?

I recently heard another Christian Reformed pastor (who is somewhat younger than me) say that his father (who is somewhat older than me) had told him that preaching is harder now than it used to be. Expectations and modes of communication have changed so much that more is expected of one sermon now than used to be expected from two on any given Sunday.

If expectations change, preachers do too. Stan Mast has written a little book called “Someday You Will Be a Good Preacher,” in which he charts the twists and turns his own preaching has taken over the course of his ministry. I suspect that many preachers could tell a similar story. I think most preachers ought to be able to. The things we look for in a text, the approaches we take, and the notes we try to hit are different now than when we first started out. 

Preachers need to grow and that suggests that classes ought to look for potential, creativity, and a willingness to learn, along with theological soundness. It also suggests that rather than placing undue stress on one evaluation at the beginning of a ministry, classes ought to do everything possible to encourage growth through peer learning groups, continuing education, or whatever other means might be available, so we can all be good preachers some day.

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I love the idea of continuing in sermon evaluation after the initial tests are passed. The purpose for those evaluations could simply be to chart progress and spot areas for growth.