By Paul Koch –
There is an interesting custom in churches across our country (and I’m sure in many other countries, as well) of shaking the pastor’s hand on the way out of the sanctuary. The handshake at the door has nothing to do with the divine service. It is neither a sacramental nor a sacrificial rubric, yet it is important to the fellowship. This moment offers the opportunity for those who arrived at the service late to make sure they are recognized for showing up. It is when visitors have a moment to properly introduce themselves. It is also a time to offer unsolicited advice to the pastor as to how he might better conduct the service. But most importantly, it is the moment when the critical review of the sermon is given.
This review is usually delivered in one short phrase, “Good sermon, pastor.”
Now to be sure, there is a lot about this line that is open to interpretation. If the person saying it is a long time member who has been critical of the pastor’s words and efforts in the past, this might be a glowing review. If it comes from a person who is simply happy to be in church again and easily goes along with whatever comes up, it might be an assessment that the sermon was at least on par with what usually flows on Sunday morning. If it is used by a member that typically has long radiant reviews to offer, this statement might be understood as a sharp critique that the sermon wasn’t all that great.
The thing is, the handshake critique is often the only feedback a pastor will get on his preaching. Very few pastors employ any sort of peer review practice, and poor preaching is rarely discussed among colleagues. In fact we could write many articles on ways a pastor might work on sharpening his craft through honest critique and feedback. But for this article, I want to evaluate the only current vehicle for assessment – the handshake critique.
So what does it mean to say a sermon is “good”? Certainly this could mean just about anything in the thoughts of the one saying it. It could simply mean that the individual didn’t fall asleep, or it wasn’t too long, or it contained a few humorous antidotes, or it brought up warm memories of years gone by. But if we can assume that there is a common understanding of a good sermon beyond individual preferences, what might it be?
While I think the various confessional fellowships would have slightly different assumptions as to what makes a sermon good, I doubt they would be completely and totally different from each other.
Most would say that a good sermon is doctrinally sound and a faithful interpretation of the text. No doubt, it seeks to apply the ancient words of the text to the contemporary lives of the hearers. A good sermon will be well prepared and well delivered to the best of the pastor’s abilities. Within Lutheran circles, a good sermon will always be judged as such if it rightly distinguishes between Law and Gospel. Others might judge a sermon as good when it moves the faithful to action or brings the fence-sitter to a decision.
But to our handshake critique I would like to add something more, something beyond our own ideas or expectations. Perhaps we can take our understanding of “good” as it applies to a sermon from the words of Christ himself. I’m suggesting that a truly good sermon is one that delivers Jesus to the hearers. It does not just talk about Jesus, nor does it just tell the story, but the actual presence of our Lord with His gifts of life and death is ultimately what makes a sermon really good.
I offer for your consideration, Matthew 18. This beautiful and challenging chapter continues to teach me much about the life of the church. It turns everything upside down; the greatest are defined as those most in need. The wandering sheep are the ones that are sought after, again and again. In fact even the open sinner is treated with the highest acts of love. The sin cannot be ignored, but is to be addressed with the utmost of importance. Ultimately the whole church should go to great lengths to do what is necessary to return an erring lamb to the fold.
Then in the conversation of binding and loosing sins, the connection between heaven and earth in the work of repentance and absolution, our Lord spoke those famous words, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” According to the promise of Christ, He is present where sins are bound and put to death and new life is given in His Word of forgiveness. Certainly if Christ is there, it is truly good. So if a sermon is to be good, it must do what it is authorized to do. It is to call for repentance of the proud and to actually forgive the repentant.
So in your next handshake critique, think about what it means to be a “good” sermon. And if you’re not sure if Christ was actually there, then perhaps the sermon wasn’t really good.