What makes a sermon good? Sometimes when people think about preaching, they think about a bunch of rules (i.e., there are three things that go into an introduction; the ways in which you make a good outline; if you are going to use illustrations, you ought to have one for every point). Those are the kinds of rules you get.
But those rules don’t answer a basic question: What is the essence of good preaching? The rules get at the essence.
I have taught preaching for a number of years and I suggest the essence of a good sermon is that it has unity, order, and progress. Many of the rules try to get you to that, but you can forget the rules if the sermon has unity, order, and progress.
We talk about unity. We are talking about many things that are not seen before being together, coming together, or things that were not together before but we’re bringing them into harmony with one another. Every great work of art has unity. Every great piece of music has unity. Every play has unity—it has scenes, it has acts, but it comes together—it is one out of many. That is what is in the back of our coins and is what ought to be in the back of our minds. A sermon has unity.[pullquote]
The sermon is a unity conveyed in time.[/pullquote]
The thing about the unity that we have as we preach is that, unlike a picture which we can look at, whole and complete, and see its oneness, the sermon is a unity conveyed in time. It starts at 11:25 and ends at 11:50. And, we have to give it a piece at a time. So that makes it a bit more like a great symphony. You hear one note before you hear another note, but then you hear the whole symphony and you feel the unity. That makes it like a play—you can’t see it whole and complete at one time. You ought to see a sermon as unity before you preach. You ought to see the whole thing. Then you take it apart. So a good sermon has unity.
A good sermon also has order. That comes out of the fact that a sermon is a unity conveyed in time. I need to give the listener the piece that the listener needs when the listener needs it. Then, as I am working, I need to show the listener how the piece I am giving to her or to him now is connected to the pieces I have just given her or him.
Listeners can’t think for themselves. They are sitting there listening to you. If they start thinking, How does this fit? How does this point go with what he said? they forget what you are saying. You’ve got to show them. You’ve got to go back. You’ve got to review. You’ve got to show them the order of your message. So order is a way of putting the unity, conveyed in time, together. Good sermons have that.[pullquote]
I need to give the listener the piece that the listener needs when the listener needs it.[/pullquote]
Good sermons also have a sense of progress. They are going someplace. A conclusion ought not to be left to the last minute before you get into the pulpit or, even worse, after you are in the pulpit hoping somehow this thing is going to end.
Good communication is going someplace, and you can sense it even in the introduction. You can sense that this preaching has a destination in mind. Some sermons slog it out and the preacher quits because it is almost twelve o’clock. My father was not a very sophisticated person but he listened to a lot of sermons and time to time he would say, “Well, it was all right, but he had five good stopping places and didn’t take any of them.” A good sermon doesn’t have five good stopping places. It ends when the preacher is through. If you preach for twenty minutes and you are through, then stop. Some Sundays you may have to go thirty-five minutes and then stop. But a congregation knows that you quit when you’re through, when you get to your destination you stop.
Three things that a sermon has—all the rules get at these three things or they are not worth talking about—unity, order, and progress. The essence of good preaching is unity, order, and progress. If you can work on those, you’ll have the essence of great communication.
This post is adapted from “The essence of good preaching is unity, order, and progress” by Haddon Robinson in Preaching Points: 55 Tips for Improving Your Pulpit Ministry, edited by Scott M. Gibson (Lexham Press, 2016).