On Sermon Evaluations (Or, It’s a Tough Job, But Somebody’s Got To Do It)

My friend and former coworker Charles Wiese, who blogs over at The Lamb On the Altar, has lately been occupied with a most interesting exercise in sermon evaluation. After tracking down and listening to several sermons on St Mark 9:30-37, he grades each on the basis of the following criteria:

1. Does the pastor explain the text correctly? (+1 for explaining the text correctly, 0 for not explaining the text at all, -1 for explaining the text incorrectly)

2. Is the law preached lawfully? (+1 for preaching the law in all its sternness, 0 for not preaching the law at all, -1 for preaching the law as if it is doable)

3. Does the sermon mention Jesus? (+1 for saying true things about Jesus, 0 for not mentioning Jesus, -1 for saying false things about Jesus)

4. Is the sermon about what Jesus has done for us? (+1 if the primary focus of the sermon is about what Jesus has done for us, 0 if the sermon does not mention Jesus, -1 if the sermon is all about what we do for Jesus)

5. Does the creation of a wordle show a Christian focus in the sermon? (+1 for yes, 0 for sort of, -1 for no)

Thus far the series has proved to be rather enlightening, and not a little entertaining: quite frankly, I was thoroughly amused that a sermon by John Piper earned a measly 35% F by such Christocentric standards! I look forward to  many more sermon evaluations from Charles in the future.

The above criteria got me thinking, though. Charles is a confessional Lutheran, and it shows. So, what if we tried to apply some of these same criteria to an ancient Christian sermon that has historically made confessional Lutherans uncomfortable? Yes, you guessed it. Let’s look briefly at the Epistle of St James.

Needless to say, we are beset with difficulties from the beginning. To ask whether St James expounds his text correctly is to raise the bugaboo of his use of the Old Testament, which at least in one notable instance seems to be at odds with the use of the same passage by St Paul (cf. St James 2:14-24; Romans 4). The rest of his examples and allusions (some quite unclear) are likewise riddled with exegetical problems, and as often is the case, the modern reader can’t help but wonder how could the Apostles use the Old Testament in such a way. I suppose, then, that this earns St James a -1 in this department.

What about the lawful preaching of the law? Even a casual reader of the Epistle can’t help but notice St James’ insistent call  for his audience to be not only hearers but doers of the word. Indeed, he explicitly exhorts his audience to fulfill the royal law (another questionable application of the Old Testament; cf. St James 2:8; Leviticus 19:18), and goes on at length what manner of behavior constitutes this fulfillment. I’m afraid that here, too, St James earns a -1.

At long last, and with much difficulty, we reach a criterion which St James passes with flying colors, for he indeed mentions “our glorious Lord Jesus,” and says nothing false about him. Here, then, we may finally award him a +1.

Regrettably, however, the fourth criterion takes us back to where we started. Allusions to the saving work of Christ are notable for their absence, and there is a rather heavy emphasis on behavior throughout the Epistle. Again, here we must ruefully give St James a -1.

The final criterion calls for a wordle of the sermon, which I created on the basis of the RSV text of the Epistle:

Wordle: The Epistle of James (RSV)

Here we see that the chief words used in the Epistle are “God” and “Lord”; the latter is on the main a Christological term for St James (but see 3:9), and so we may safely conclude that, all appearances aside, the main focus of this ancient sermon is indeed Christian. This clearly merits a +1.

The grand total for St James, the Brother of God, is -1 or 40% F. He did slightly better than John Piper, who may find consolation in the thought that St James was an Apostle, and was therefore bound to do better!

Of course, there is a gulf between the way we should read a New Testament writing and the way we should evaluate a contemporary sermon, and the above is nothing but an affectionate jab at my good friend Charles. But I do commend to all his ongoing series of sermon evaluations for an insightful (and sometimes alarming) look at contemporary Christian preaching.

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14 responses to “On Sermon Evaluations (Or, It’s a Tough Job, But Somebody’s Got To Do It)

  1. And that is why James is part of the antilegomena. Apparently some in the ancient church agreed with my sermon evaluation criteria. ;) But seriously, I really expected Piper to do better. I’m sure he has sermons which are more Christ-centered but this wasn’t one of them. I do recognize that every seminary and denomination as a whole have a certain expectation of how preaching should be done and something I give an A may receive an F from a seminary professor. But there seem to be a lot of sermons out there by people who claim to do Christ-centered preaching that are anything but. I’ve even heard strange sermons complaining about certain groups that weren’t Christ-centered enough that were definitely not Christ-centered. I think it would be interesting if an Orthodox guy like yourself were to create a similar method of evaluation based on your own expectations. Part of my reason for doing this is my parents. They are always trying to find a church and seem to have no objective standards whatsoever. I don’t think the sermon should be the only thing a person looks at when choosing a church but since they are looking mostly at Baptist churches that’s pretty much all you get.

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  2. Charles> I’m afraid almost no one has any objective standards in choosing churches any more, and most would likely be hard-pressed to name anything that could even potentially serve as such. Bravo for your efforts!

    Esteban> I like this idea of evaluating Orthodox sermons. I believe you are the perfect candidate for such work!

    Of course, as Charles has suggested in his comment, the sermon should not be the only thing a person looks at, so maybe you could evaluate liturgies instead of or in addition to the sermon.

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  3. I can understand how so many sermons today, especially by professing evangelicals rate so low. This past summer I was on vacation and attended two evangelical (Baptist) churches and in both the sermons were basically self-help monologues with no mention of Christ and very little reference to Scripture. There was certainly no reference to law nor to gospel and just a few verses of Scripture thrown in to make them Christian. I was appalled! I have been out of pastoral ministry since 2001 and have been considering returning to it, but I wonder if evangelicals are interested in expository preaching today that focuses on Christ. We are living in desperate times in the church. Thanks for this post.

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  4. Wow! I’ve long been a fan of employing Google and Wikipedia to sort out theological puzzles…now a new resource…Wordle! Soon there will be innumerable books written on the Wordle Code. I’m just sure of it!

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  5. The idea of the evaluations is great fun, but can also be distracting. You’re an auditor of such things in order to be formed by them, whether they score so humbly as the letter from first bishop of Jerusalem, brother of our Lord, Saint Iakovos, or more highly as, presumably, a wet-behind-the-ears seminarian will (who will no doubt refer to “the Greek” and “the Hebrew”) in his first too-lengthy sermons.

    We can learn something of import from every sermon, if we allow ourselves. Paying attention in order that one’s grading points are covered will put one into a different and less receptive mindset. Evaluation requires a stance that is by nature one of superiority over the material being evaluated. The receptive “hearer of the word” is in a different state of listening than the one grading the sermon. The better way is the more humble.

    Besides, everyone knows that aesthetic is the most important criterion in church choice these days. Witness the waterfalls in the foyers, the cushy seats, giant screens, and so on. Hard on its heels would be social class: do the majority of members map to your own values and economic standing? Bothersome things like dogmas fall in at a dismal last place, probably even behind the availability of a Starbucks nearby….

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  6. Compadre, no me llamaste en mi cumpleaños…

    Anyway, I have issues with the methodology. I don’t know how the scores add up. Is it by sentence? The terminology is kinda vague (e.g. “Christian focus in the sermon”). Let’s say the pastor is using a person named Christian or a Latino pastor talking about “Jesus” in the sermon, welll, a Wordle analysis will have a lot of Christian or Jesus in there. Also, the defninition of the categories are rather arbitrary and might not be replicable unless done by the same coder, which render the whole experiment form a social science perspective futile…But a fun thing to do.

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  7. Charles> I completely sympathize with your sentiments regarding the lip-service that many pay to “Christ-centered preaching,” and what little they have to show for it. I have truly been enjoying your series, and I don’t think the questions you’re asking of sermons are necessarily wrong or misguided. Of course, you are asking them as a confessional Lutheran, and this thoroughly influences your assessment (and really, how could it not?!). My point (other than an opportunity to write something relatively humorous) was precisely what you point out in your comment above: that different believing communities will have different sets of expectations from sermons, and that even these generally helpful criteria criteria you’ve laid down will be colored differently by those holding to other confessions (and therefore, to a different “rule of faith”).

    Aaron> Oh, heavens, no! I’m not up for such an endeavor, and I certainly don’t wish to dwell on the sorry state of Orthodox homiletics (and, for that matter, Orthodox liturgics) in the English-speaking world more than is absolutely necessary. I’m quite happy reading the daily homilies of St Nikolaj Velimirović, thank you. :-)

    Forrest> No, you should thank Charles for his series! You are quite right that several public speeches that pass for sermons in many church contexts these days are in actual fact self-help pep talks, moralizing harangues, and the like. This is not only true of popular speakers like Joel Osteen, but it has become the status quo in churches large and small everywhere. The regrettable end result is that many people wouldn’t know what a sermon in the Christian tradition looks like if it slapped them in face. Unfortunately, much of what we see is the blood-chilling enactment of what the late great Charles Merrill Smith wrote in chapter 3 of his marvelous book (and one of my all-time favorites) How to Become a Bishop Without Being Religious, which bears the enticing title “How to be Impressive in the Pulpit.”

    Nancy> Well, of course! Wordle is clearly the greatest advance in exegesis since the appearance of writing.

    Kevin> I resonate with your sentiments, of course, but with the understanding that we’re talking about actual sermons in the best Christian homiletical tradition. For a sermon to be a sermon, it isn’t necessary that it be delivered with rhetorical flourishes and shows of erudition (indeed, the great St Spyridon never could have preached like that, and once publicly rebuked his erudite disciple St Tryphillios for attempting to do so). What is necessary is that Christ and the Gospel be rightly proclaimed. (Wet-behind-the-ears seminarians have a proven track record of doing the former, not the latter!) And in order to be formed by a sermon, and for us to truly become “hearers of the word,” it is necessary to determine whether its contents are faithful to the rule of faith. On the other hand, you’re quite right to caution about the “less humble” way of homiletical snobbery, which rather than producing hearers of the word, produces indomitable creatures that are laws unto themselves.

    Juhem> Bueno, y tú a mí tampoco. ;-) Pero lo iba a hacer, el problema es que se me complicó la noche. ¡Mis disculpas, y felicidades tardías!

    And leave it to a recalcitrant statistician to ruin everyone’s fun! ;-) You’re right in pointing out the obvious methodological flaws, but in spite of the grading system, the evaluation of the criteria is not quantifiable in the end. This is why, by playing a little with these criteria, I was able to give a Biblical author a 40% F!

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  8. Personally, I dislike humor in the things of God…sermons or otherwise. (See, Prov.15) Biblical satire is always cutting to the depth of truth, and the interior in us.

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  9. David> How very interesting! Again, I have nothing against measuring the content of sermons against the “rule of faith,” but as the little exercise above shows, the various ways in which we go about that are fraught with difficulties, as they are very seldom nuanced.

    irishanglican> Sure, but I’m uncertain about what does that point have to do with this discussion.

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