Greg Strand is EFCA executive director of theology and credentialing, and he serves on the Board of Ministerial Standing as well as the Spiritual Heritage Committee. He and his family are members of Northfield (Minnesota) EFC.
In addition to the Christopher Ash's "seven ingredients for healthy sermon listening" and his "7 suggestions for encouraging good preaching," his booklet also includes a guide for "how to listen to bad sermons."
It is true - there are such things as bad sermons. Both pastors/preachers know this, and those who hear sermons know this. One may not always be able to pinpoint clearly why, but there is a sense in which one knows it was not a good sermon. (I confess I struggle with defining good and bad, but if one remembers the content, form and purpose of a sermon one will get the sense of what Ash means.)
Ash identifies three kinds of bad sermons: "A sermon may be dull, it may be biblically inadequate, or it may be heretical." How we listen, he wisely advises, is dependent on what kind of bad into which the sermon falls. Below is a summary of what Ash writes about each of these "bad sermons."
How to Listen to a Dull Sermon
Ash explains that “by ‘dull’ I mean a sermon that leaves a lot to be desired in its style or presentation.”
How should one respond? “Let us suppose,” notes Ash, “that this dull sermon is biblically faithful and accurate, and delivered by a preacher who believes the truth, has prepared as best he knows how, and that the sermon is surrounded both by his prayers and yours. If this is so, we ought to do all we can to listen with the aim of profiting by it.”
For those who listen, the responsibility does not all rest on the pastor/preacher. For “above all, we must search our hearts and come to the sermon praying for God's help to listen as attentively as our bodies will let us (caffeine may help).” If one is struggling to follow or get much out of the sermon, Ash recommends taking notes and/or going with a friend, not to lament and criticize but to share the truths God taught you in and through the sermon.
How to Listen to a Biblically Inadequate Sermon
In this instance, the sermon is not dull but there is something else that is missing, something that is a bit more serious. This kind of sermon is “well-presented. It is interesting, easy to listen to, and clear. But the more you listen, the more you wonder if the preacher has a good grasp of the passage he is supposed to be expounding. You keep asking: ‘Where did he get that from?’”
Ash cautions against two dangers when listening to an inadequate sermon. “The first danger to avoid is developing a critical spirit,” observes Ash. Inevitably if one is looking to find fault with the preacher and the preaching, one will certainly be able to find it. But if we approach hearing the sermon with a critical spirit, if a spirit of fault-finding is the manner in which we approach the sermon, if this is our aim, we are aiming at the wrong thing.
We come to hear the Word preached in a humble, teachable manner. The end-goal of preaching is that we will hear, know and understand God’s Word, that we will come to know God more intimately in all His fullness as Father, Son, Spirit, and that the Spirit who inspired the Word, who illuminates that Word and who uses that Word to conform us into the image of the Son.
However, Ash points out that even though we ought not to have a critical spirit, it does not mean that we simply accept things because the pastor/preacher said it. Ash writes that “the second danger to avoid is being gullible and credulous, believing whatever any preacher says, so long as they say it plausibly and well. So we need to be always asking whether the sermon opens up the Bible.”
This is why we often encourage those who hear and listen to the teaching and preaching of the Bible they ought to do so as the Bereans, those Jews who “were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so” (Acts 17:11).
How to Listen to a Heretical Sermon
In this final type of sermon Ash gives a strong exhortation: “The short answer is: don't!” But he hastens to define what it means to be heretical, since it is important to distinguish between the inadequate sermon and the heretical sermon.
Heresy consists of three parts. “First,” states Ash, “it is an error in something central to Christian faith and not something peripheral. Someone is not a heretic if they get the millennium wrong (whatever you think ‘wrong’ to be), or if you think they are in error about church government, or the proper age or mode of baptism. . . . Second, a person is not a heretic if they get something wrong by mistake, and then put it right when they are corrected. They are heretics, however, if they hold obstinately to teaching which the Bible shows to be wrong. . . . Third, it is only heresy when the person actively seeks to teach this error in the church. A private opinion is not heresy.”
Ash concludes, “So we are considering here a church where the preaching goes against some central Christian truth, does so dogmatically and persistently, and does so energetically, seeking to persuade others. The way to listen to these sorts of sermons is to stop listening to them! That is to say, we ought to move away from that kind of church and find a church where they believe and teach the Bible faithfully.”
A Bad Sermon
Your turn: so how do you respond?
As a preacher . . .
As a listener . . .