Food usually tastes the way it does because of the ingredients that go into it. If a dish tastes overly salty, it's probably because the chef put too much salt in it. If a dish tastes bland, it's probably because he didn't put enough seasoning. What goes into a dish determines what comes out of a dish.
The same goes with preaching. Ever listen to a sermon that was biblical and true but still felt so boring? Or ever get inspired by a message and felt moved to tears, and yet you can't recall the passage he preached on? More often than not, your reaction is due to the ingredients that went into the message - because what goes into a sermon determines what comes out of a sermon.
I realize that in order for a sermon to be good, it needs to have certain ingredients in it. There needs to be a certain process that takes place when writing it. And this will determine how we "taste" the message. So what are those ingredients? What should be the process? Here's a simplified way of looking at it.
The Sermon Process
Before going into detail, let me first explain how pastors tend to prepare sermons. When preaching from a biblical text, we're trained by seminaries to follow a step-by-step formula. This formula usually consists of translating the original language (Greek or Hebrew), doing proper exegesis (critical analysis), reading commentaries (books written by men smarter than us), and then voila - a sermon is born. Seminary professors will make this process sound nice and pretty.
In reality though, preparing a sermon is anything but pretty. It's hard. Really hard. And the process is messy. Here's an image of what it really looks like to prepare message (at least for me):
The part that seminary taught me is actually pretty easy. Sure it takes a lot of work and research, but I rarely stress about it. However it's the stage that I call "chaos" that drives me nuts. This is the part of sermon prepping where I'm supposed to put everything together and it often feels like one big mess. It's this stage that causes me to scream, whimper, and question why I got into pastoral ministry in the first place.
Yet I can't help but think this stage is most necessary. Without it, I feel like my sermons will be missing something. And other pastors I speak with share my sentiments. This made me realize that there are perhaps necessary elements that need to go into a sermon in order for a sermon to be good. If a pastor overemphasizes one part of the process or ignores another, his sermon will suffer, and his people will react to it in a certain way.
So what are those necessary elements? What does every good sermon need? Generally speaking, I think there are three things: science, art, and spirit.
The Science of Preaching
The science of preaching consists of what a pastor learns in seminary. Original language, exegesis, commentaries - together they serve as a formula to help preachers discover the meaning of the biblical text. That's why seminaries often emphasize this part of the preaching process. There's a science to interpreting Scripture and therefore there's a general formula that can be taught.
Here's the problem though. If a pastor only focuses on the science of preaching, then his sermons will end up sounding like a science book. In other words, it'll be boring. Only bio nerds enjoy science books. And preachers who spend the majority of their sermon prep focusing on the Greek and syntax of the text will only bless the Bible nerds. That's why people who enjoy wooden verse-by-verse preaching tend to be exactly that - nerds.
And that's why some pastors who simply preach truth fail to minister to the common layman. They're being formulaic because they're simply adopting what they learned in preaching class. And that's why most people fall asleep in their messages. It's cold, dry, and lacks humanity. So while this is a necessary part of the sermon process, there's so much more that goes into a good sermon. And that leads me to my next point.
The Art of Preaching
This is the "chaos" part that I mentioned above. Preparing a sermon is not just a science - it's also an art. But here's the thing about art: it's excruciatingly painful to create. Ask any artist and they'll tell you how difficult and draining it is to paint a unique picture or compose a new song or write an insightful novel. That's because art requires an individual to dig deep within themselves and produce something from the inside-out. Art is self-expression that requires more than a formulaic process - it requires you.
So while the science of preaching depends on the work you do, the art of preaching depends on who you are. This is why John Piper once said that every sermon he preaches takes over 60 years to write. When we pour ourselves into a sermon, we're pouring all of our experiences and influences into it. And I think this is why some pastors preach boring sermons. It's not because they didn't work hard. It's more likely because they didn't pour themselves into the sermon.
Now there are some pastors out there who only focus on the art of preaching while disregarding the science of it. Sermons like this will inspire individuals and evoke emotion. But on the drive home, people will think, "Wait a second - what was he even preaching about?" That's because the sermon was filled with art - which is abstract and beautiful - but lacked science (truth). You need both.
The Spirit of Preaching
I once heard a pastor say that the difference between a bad sermon and a good sermon largely depends on the preacher. However the difference between a good sermon and a great sermon largely depends on the work of the Spirit. In other words, while a pastor can preach the truth of a passage and make it beautiful, only the Spirit of God can use that truth to penetrate the heart of a person listening to it.
And therefore the last ingredient that a sermon needs is the vibrant prayer and spiritual walk of the preacher. It's not enough for a pastor to work hard and be creative; he needs to be prayerful about the message and lean upon the Spirit of God throughout the process. If not, then his sermons will encourage, rebuke and inspire. However it won't transform.
But this part of the sermon process doesn't depend solely upon the preacher - it also depends on the entire congregation. In order for the Spirit to move and transform the way He's supposed to, the whole church must be prayerful and leaning upon the Spirit. It's not only the pastor that must prepare his heart but we the church must also be preparing our hearts with him.
So if a preacher is delivering great messages but for some reason we're not being changed, there's a good chance that the Spirit behind the message is missing. And this may be due to the spiritual walk of both the pastor and church rather than the quality of the message.
For pastors who focus on the science of preaching, my guess is that they're simply preaching as their seminary professor taught them. However I think they need to realize while they're being faithful to the truth of the text, they're not making that truth sound beautiful. That's because preaching requires more than the text - it requires the preacher. Because as ministers of the gospel, we're called not only to share the gospel but our very lives as well (1 Thess 2:8).
For pastors who focus on the art of preaching, my guess is they want to minister to the church in effective ways. But I think this can get carried away at times where the meaning of the text gets overshadowed by the funny jokes and personal stories. I think pastors need to remember that only the word of God has power to change people, and that we need to place our trust in this rather than in our innovation.
And above all of this, I think pastors need to remember to rely more on our prayers than our preparation. We need to remember that God probably works more powerfully in five minutes of meditation than He does in five minutes of sermon revision. And we probably need to urge our church to pray for us and themselves so that the sermons won't just be good but would rather be great.