What Is Good Preaching?

Mark Buchanan

I’ve been preaching weekly for nearly 30 years. And even though I left pastoral ministry almost 5 years ago, I still find my way into 40 or so pulpits every year.

            I’d hoped I’d be better at it by now.

            There are some moments of pure magic – at least, in my mind. My words flow. People seem moved – a holy hush comes over the room at one moment, in another it rocks with laughter, at still another the soft sound of weeping fills it. God’s word does not return void: or, at least, people say kind things afterward.

            “Good sermon, pastor.”

            “Nice talk.”

            “That was great!”

            But other times, I stumble over my words. I struggle to express my ideas. I sense I’m missing something important in the text. I get nervous. I suspect my theology’s a bit thin or off. I stare out at faces that seem bored or hard. I walk away from times like that exhausted, defeated, ashamed.

            But, strangely, those are the sermons that more times than not have the deepest impact. The other sermons, the magic ones, elicit cheerful and hearty comments. But the bumbling sermons – some of them, anyhow - elicit a very different kind of response.

The person usually waits until no one else is around. They speak in a quiet voice, almost conspiratorial. Their manner is halting, shy, uncertain. They search for the right words. They say things like, “Um, pastor. I don’t know quite what I want to say. I just, well, something you said opened something up in me. I’m not even sure what. I’m scared and excited. I feel different somehow. I feel things are going to be different. So thanks. I think.”

            I still wonder about what makes for good preaching. Or, actually, I don’t wonder: I still think good preaching is when I’m on my game. Hot. Nailing it. Making them laugh and cry and hold their breath.

            The Apostle Paul didn’t think good preaching had anything at all to do with such things:

When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.

I don’t think Paul opposed eloquence or “wise and persuasive words” – after all, he was an associate of Apollos, who had all those qualities in spades (see Acts 18:24-28). It’s just that – and Apollos himself had to learn this – in the end, good preaching never rests on us, on our wisdom, our skill, our charm, our cleverness.

            Good preaching always and only rests on God showing up. And for some reason, with me anyhow, he does that more often when I’m not on my game.

            It almost makes me want to pray for more bumbling sermons.

Mark Buchanan is Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology at Ambrose University in Calgary, AB