How to Evaluate Sermons

This gem of a little book is a collection of articles by Dr Joel Beeke that was first published in The Puritan Reformed Journal in 2011 and I am delighted that they have now been brought together and published by Evangelical Press, entitled How to Evaluate Sermons.

Note, though, it’s aimed at preachers evaluating their own sermons – not how to evaluate other people’s sermons!

Joel Beeke poses five questions that we should ask ourselves about our preaching, based on 1 Cor.3:5-15.  Beeke says these questions “provide both a motivation and a method for evaluating our sermons.

 

The five questions are:

1.  Did I preach as God’s servant?

2.  Did I preach to build God’s church?

3.  Did I preach Christ as the only foundation?

4.  Did I build my sermon with the precious materials of reformed experiential preaching?

5.  Did I preach for the Master’s reward?

There is a short section in which he unpacks and applies each of those questions and poses some questions we can ask to evaluate our preparation and our preaching in the light of that biblical principle.  For example, in dealing with the question, ‘Did I preach as God’s servant?’, Beeke suggests such questions as

  • did I demonstrate to my heaers that the sermon came from God’s Word and not my ideas?
  • did I study the Scripture text on my knees, with fervent pleas for illumination?

All the questions are brought together at the end of the book so that they can be easily copied and used repeatedly.

Rarely has so much of value been contained in such a small volume; just 48 pages!

In practice, there’s far too much here to evaluate any one sermon, at least to start with.  Let me encourage you to do what I propose to do throughout 2013; ask at least one of the five main questions about every sermon I preach this year.  I cannot believe that my preaching will not improve and be more God-honouring as a result.

Of course, you have to buy this little book to do that, but at less than £4, that’s hardly an extravangance!

How to Evaluate Sermons by Joel R Beeke

Evangelical Press      48 Pages            ISBN: 9780852347782

A Faithful Pastor (Part 2)

Following on from yesterday’s review of the account of the life and ministry of Richard Hobson here are a few nuggets drawn from the book which reveal this godly man’s view of his pastoral and preaching calling.

The privilege of preaching

“The privilege of preaching the pure gospel is the greatest pleasure of the true pastor; though its constant exercise for many years before a congregation consisting in large measure of those who have long been attending the same church demands anxious thought, thorough preparation, and deep devotion; entailing upon him, too, an ever increasing strain, physical, mental, and spiritual; but I am bound to say the experience of many years has convinced me that even more trying to the pastor is having sometimes to meet and deal with the idiosyncrasies and imperfections of his colleagues, of his dear fellow-workers, and though to a lesser degree, of his congregation, even where love is known to exist on both sides.”

Preparation for preaching

“Preaching always occupied a prominent position in St Nathaniel’s services: and that needed careful pulpit preparation.  For me Exodus 37:20 and 2 Samuel 24:24, were full of meaning, to which I felt God was calling me to give due effect in my ministry.  Yet it was with me as much as it was with the Apostles, ‘As ye go, preach.’  The preaching, the teaching, went on not only on Sundays, but daily all the year round: and not only in church, but in mission-rooms, in the open-air, and in the homes of the people.  Paul says, ‘I have taught you publicly, and from house to house’.

“My settled time for preparation was the forenoon of Saturday.  The first thing was to fix on the texts, if possible, early in the week; then to use every hour, or even ten minutes, for reading up the subject, taking notes, and arranging them: those I used in the pulpit for reference only.

“If I had a course of expository sermons, which was usually the case, the same plan was pursued, with the addition of having on the study table special helps to be read and noted.  I often found I could grasp more in half an hour when fresh than in two consecutive hours when wearied by overwork.  It was no uncommon thing for me to converse upon the texts during the week when visiting, which at times I found very helpful.

“When by prayer, study of the Word, and perusal of helpful literature, I had done my little best, there constantly came to my mind a disciple’s doubting question, ‘What are they among so many?’  Often have I asked the Lord that the little I had to set before His people might be so multiplied by Him in the distribution that they would be ‘filled’ by His feeding.  I always sought, in prayer and faith, so to apply my sermons to myself first, that when preaching them I could speak as of things I both knew and felt personally.”

Powerless Preaching

“An intelligent, attentive lady said to her minister, ‘I wish you would not give us such very long and difficult sermons.  I can and do follow you about half-way, and could carry away what you said, if you would stop then; but the next half wearies, if not puzzles me.’   His reply was, ‘Well, I am sorry to hear you say so; but I have a character to maintain as a preacher.  I preach to please myself.  I shall probably not be in this church always.

“Exactly; that, I fear, is more or less the aim of modern preaching; preachers want to be thought learned; they must all be, or seem to be, mighty clever.  They say the critics, or the would-be critics, will not listen to anything else.  To aim at being ‘a strength to the poor, a strength to the needy in his distress, a refuge from the storm, a shadow from the heat,’ is beneath such preachers.  Yet that is what Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, so graciously are to those who are poor in spirit, as well as in this world’s goods; and the servant should not be ‘above his Master’.”

Bold Preaching

!I have always found the masses ready to hear plain speaking and to have their faults pointed out. In fact, they like a minister to hit straight from the shoulder provided he shows no animus”.

The Power of the gospel

“Let those who will, declare that the pure Gospel as evidenced in Evangelical religion is effete: I deny it.  If it has power to check and banish sin in all forms, to lift up the fallen, to purify the immoral, to make the thief honest, the liar truthful, the drunkard temperate, to heal the soul-sick, and convert the sinner, it cannot be effete.  It is a vital force, as it ever has been, when presented in its living power and purity to the multitude; as by the Master himself, by His Apostles, and by His true servants through all the succeeding ages, right up to our own time.”

Finally, on commencing what was to be his life’s work at St Nathaniel’s, Hobson drew up a plan of work.  It was comprised of 20 points, but here are just 6 of them

  • That from sin, poverty, and dirt, in evidence on all sides, even under the very shadow of God’s house, the Gospel of His free grace is the first and chief remedy.
  • That the one great aim in all church work shall be the spiritual regeneration of souls, and their sanctification, as seen in the life of faith, and of its outcome, good works.
  • That the work shall be missionary as well as congregational and pastoral; and that Lord Jesus shall be made known in the homes of the people, whether church, chapel, or Romish.
  • That to prevent there being drones in the church hive, the pastor shall not do work which might be done by others.
  • That extempore prayer shall be freely used in the pulpit.
  • That after a funeral all the mourners shall be affectionately urged to attend the next service in the church, when there shall be some seasonable words spoken from the pulpit, or a special prayer, or an appropriate hymn, or the Dead March shall be played.”

A Faithul Pastor

I am puzzled.  I served in Liverpool as a Pastor for a little over four years and got to know the city and something of its spiritual legacy quite well and yet I never came across the name of Richard Hobson.    Yet his life was, without doubt, one of the most remarkable ministerial careers the city, and perhaps the country, ever saw, in terms of its impact on the community and its gospel fruitfulness.   His was a story that was far too good to have been as overlooked as it has been.  Banner has reproduced Hobson’s own autobiographical account of his life and it is a long while since I read a life story that made such an impression on me.  In this post I want to review the book as a whole and tomorrow I’ll share some of Hobson’s insights into preaching and the pastoral ministry

Born and brought up in dreadful poverty in Ireland in the early 19th century and profoundly influenced for Christ by a godly mother and two Sunday School teachers, Hobson became an evangelist with the Irish Church Missions, developing an effective ministry among Roman Catholics, before studying in England and entering the Church of England.  From 1868 until 1901 he served tirelessly and selflessly in what was, when he began the work, a new outreach ministry in one of the most deprived and squalid areas of the city.   “Its area was, socially and morally, the lowest in all the south-east portion of Liverpool…One street was unfit, and even unsafe, for the passage of ladies.  Another was wholly given over to the ‘social evil’ and was known as ‘the little hell.’…Sixteen public-houses and two beer-shops pandered to the drinking propensities of the population.

Over those 33 years, beginning with a man converted at the very first Cellar meeting that he held on his very first day in the post, he saw many hundreds, and probably thousands, come to a saving faith, and individuals and a whole community transformed by the power and effect of the gospel.  As well as a consistent, usually systematic, expository preaching ministry, for most of his years in the area he spent six hours a day, five days a week and another three hours on Saturday, in house-to-house visitation, seeing close up the conditions in which his beloved parishioners lived, continuing to do so even when there was an outbreak of the deadly small-pox.

Hobson’s account is littered with testimonials and examples of men, women and children who encountered the Saviour under his influence and the growth of the work was astonishing.  Starting alone and from scratch, by the time he retired he was using – and filling – a large church building, several local mission halls and a ragged school, and was assisted by dozens, and maybe hundreds, of enthusiastic volunteer workers.

For several years, St Nathaniel’s was the spiritual home of the then Bishop of Liverpool, J C Ryle, the two men becoming dear friends and Hobson preached at one of the funeral services following Ryle’s death.  Ryle himself summed up the size and impact of Hobson’s ministry in Liverpool in a paper he gave in 1862, just 14 years after Hobson began his work.  “In a plain brick church, holding 1,000 people, built thirteen years ago, there is a simple hearty service, and an average attendance of 700 on a Sunday morning, 300 in the afternoon and 950 in the evening.  In three Mission Rooms there is an average attendance of about 350 in the morning and 450 in the evening.  The total number of communicants is 800, almost all of the working classes, and nearly one half men…The practical and moral results of the Church work in the parish are patent and unmistakable…There are 1,100 pledged abstainers in the district.  There is not a single house of ill-fame, nor a single known infidel in the parish…The incumbent of this parish is a quiet, unpretending man…But of one thing I am certain:  he is a man who tries to preach Christ in the pulpit, and to visit his people in a Christlike, sympathizing way as a pastor, at the rate of seventy-five families a week.”

This “quiet, unpretending man” was undoubtedly one of the spiritual greats of our land, worthy of being honoured, and a reminder of the powerful impact of a godly life, lived by the grace of God, and committed to the preaching of the gospel of that grace, on the toughest and most godless environments.

I urge you to buy, read and be stirred by the account of this man’s life and ministry

Richard Hobson of Liverpool.  A Faithful Pastor

Banner of Truth      384 Pages            ISBN: 978-0851518459

How long?

How long should a sermon be? 

Over the years as I’ve taught preaching and trained preachers there has been one question that has been asked more than any other, and by a considerable margin: How long should a sermon be?   Mind you, even as I think about that I realise that there is one place where my students have never asked the question: Africa!

Asking this question is a bit like asking ‘how long is a piece of string?’ and the answer is simple: it depends!

1. It depends on the congregation

Some congregations are used to and appreciate good solid sermons that take some time, but others are not.   I was once visiting a church in Glasgow and, trying to get a feel for the place before the service started, I asked the Minister how long he usually preached for.  The answer shook me!  “I usually try to spin it out to 15 minutes,” he said “but if you can only last for 10 that’s fine.”  I seem to remember commenting in response, whether out loud or internally I’m not sure, ‘I’m still clearing my throat at that point!’

If you are a visiting speaker, try and find out what the congregation is used to and, if it strikes you as being a very short period of time, perhaps try and extend it a little but, as a visitor, you won’t be able to push the boundaries massively and you will probably lose the attention of your listeners once their usual listening time has been exceeded.  In such cases I always try to do this, making sure I am feeding them well and thereby perhaps whetting their appetites for more substantial ‘meals’ in the future.

The attention span of a group of unchurched people at an evangelistic event will probably be considerably shorter than that of the congregation of the local, well taught, Bible Fellowship.  I used to preach regularly in a church where 50 minutes was the usual sermon length and some folk felt cheated if it was less.  What a joy for a preacher!

2.It depends on the content

Some types of sermons and some passages of Scripture really demand that you take more time over them.  Some passages need some more background and context setting than others, for example.   Again, there may be a difference in an evangelistic address and a ‘meaty’ exposition.

3. It depends on the context

Some occasions and meetings are such that they require shorter messages and it would be inappropriate and unhelpful to abuse that by preaching for an extended period of time.   Again, this needs to be assessed and understood in advance.  An additional factor that comes into play here is one that surprised me in my early days in pastoral ministry.   If you are in a settled pastoral and preaching ministry, and preaching systematically through books and sections of the Bible – which is, after all, by far the best way to maintain a regular preaching ministry – you will not, each week, need to take much time to set the passage under consideration in its biblical context because that ought to be familiar to your listeners.  You will probably want a brief word of reminder as to how the present passage is connected with the previous one but you will not need to dwell over long on that.  However, if you are preaching somewhere else, or indeed in your own church, on a ‘one off’ event or passage, you may need to allow a little bit of extra time to set the passage in its biblical, and even historical context, before delving into the meat of the text itself.

4. It depends on the communicator

The truth is that there are some preachers who, to listen to for more than 10 or 15 minutes, would exercise the patience of a saint, while others can be listened to for longer periods of time with hardly any sense of the passing of time.   Some by their monotonous use of their voice or the dry content of their message ought to be brief while others have much good to say and say it well.   It is said that the first time Jonathan Edwards’ preached his sermon lasted for two hours but that his listeners listened so intently that they were unaware of how long he had taken.

In conclusion, and based on my own personal experience, it probably has to be said that in the average western evangelical church 30 minutes seems to be the maximum attention span of congregations while those blessed with a particularly good preaching ministry can cope with and profit from 40-50 minutes of faithful exposition.

One of the marks of times of spiritual quickening, but also of spiritual maturity among God’s people, is the greatly increased appetite for God’s Word and the ability to sit and listen for longer.  O for such days to be our experience as well!

Finally, here is some advice from the Prince of Preachers:

“In order to maintain attention, avoid being too long. An old preacher used to say to a young man who preached an hour, — “My dear friend, I do not care what else you preach about, but I wish you would always preach about forty minutes.” We ought seldom to go much beyond that — forty minutes, or say, three-quarters of an hour. If a fellow cannot say all he has to say in that time, when will he say it? But somebody said he liked “to do justice to his subject.” Well, but ought he not to do justice to his people, or, at least, have a little mercy upon them, and not keep them too long? The subject will not complain of you, but the people will…Brevity is a virtue within the reach of all of us; do not let us lose the opportunity of gaining the credit which it brings. If you ask me how you may shorten your sermons, I should say, study them better. Spend more time in the study that you may need less in the pulpit. We are generally longest when we have least to say. A man with a great deal of well-prepared matter will probably not exceed forty minutes; when he has less to say he will go on for fifty minutes, and when he has absolutely nothing he will need an hour to say it in. Attend to these minor things and they will help to retain attention.”[1]


[1] Spurgeon, C H     Lectures to My Students     Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2008     pp155-156