July 18, 2016

Some of you who read these ruminations on a regular basis are wont to respond on occasion and I appreciate that more than I can say. There have been times when I have been speaking to someone who refers to one of my writings and I am shocked that they are on the list to receive them let alone that they read them!  I say that because today I would really like a number of you to respond.  I have a question.  What makes for a good sermon?  Or conversely, what makes for a bad one?  Seriously.  I will list a number of things that I think, but I honestly have no idea from your perspective.  And let’s be very clear here… I am not fishing for compliments, nor am I interested in getting hammered.  If you write a response, please do not refer to any individuals by name, nor should we be able to recognize them by what you say.  So with that in mind… let’s begin.

When I graduated from Seminary, Ellen and I went to a small church for a while as I was looking for a permanent pastoral position. The preacher at the church we attended was a great guy, but his sermons… well….  He would read his text for the morning and glean some sort of a theme from it.  Let’s say the theme was “love.”  He would then proceed to string together a number of illustrations about love without ever returning to the scripture.  (Most, if not all of the illustrations, would have been found in a book of illustrations for pastors.)  One morning I decided to keep track of how many he used.  Ellen eventually saw me making pencil marks on my bulletin and asked me what I was doing.  “Counting illustrations,” I whispered.  I was up to 16 at that point!  (In a 20 minute sermon!!!)  Sorry, but I would give that a “D-.”

I have also heard pompous, arrogant pastors from big churches (not all are, of course!) who were duds in the pulpit. But because the church was large, folks just assumed that whatever came out of the mouth of those preachers must be good.  UGH!

Conversely, we attended a church while in seminary for 3 years. The name of the pastor will mean nothing to you.  But he was the best I have ever heard from week to week.  Why?  Because he was faithful to the Bible.  He was not flashy.  He was not a great story teller.  He wasn’t even “inspirational” in regard to his personality.  He didn’t make me want to go run through walls after I heard him.  He was just a solid, balanced Bible preacher who faithfully studied and taught what the Scripture says.

Personally I think it is a tragedy when sermons:

  • Are boring
  • Have no application
  • Do not come from Scripture
  • Do not stick to the Scripture
  • When the Bible is used as a proof text to substantiate the pastor’s or anybody else’s agenda, i.e., the Bible becomes secondary to our own thoughts and moral positions.
  • When the Bible is taken out of context to support the most recent cultural whim. For example, “The bible says ‘we should not Judge’.” Well if one were to study that issue you would find that statement to be false. Surely, we are not called to hypocrisy, but we can’t live without making judgments. We are also called to forgive, mind you. How does one do that without making some “judgment” as to the person needing forgiveness?! It’s just so much easier to say, “You can’t judge me.” That way, people can do whatever they want without fear that someone might call them on their behavior. Actually, I can make judgments. And if you want to know, I do it quite regularly. I am however, learning to do it in the context of love as I grow older. Do you know the story of the emperor’s new clothes? It’s partly about making judgments or calling things what they are. If you have not read it in a while go to:
  • Are blatantly non-Christian or non-Biblical.
  • Are found online and preached as if they are the pastors own work. It’s called plagiarism! (You didn’t know that? There are 10’s of thousands of sermons online!!)
  • Are irrelevant.
  • Are formulaic. You know like, “Today we are starting a series on ‘8 keys to a Godly marriage’.” Then the pastor scrambles to find 8 things in the Bible that can be interpreted to mean something about marriage.
  • Speak down to the congregation. “I am the GREAT WIZARD OF OZ…” “I am the GREAT PASTOR and you are the lowly flock. Listen to my unquestionable words of wisdom…”

Please do not misunderstand me. I’m sure I have done many of the things listed above.  Some of them however, I have honestly been careful never to do.

I DO think sermons should be

  • Compelling
  • Relevant
  • Biblical
  • Vulnerable
  • Prayerfully thought out
  • Meditated on
  • Honest

There are many more thoughts I’m sure. I would really like to hear yours or the affirmation of any of the thoughts above.  Or disagreements, if you want!  I suspect there is some easy way to reply to these ruminations.  If you don’t want to do so on this site then send me an email at  Thanks!



2 thoughts on “Sermons

  1. Dear Bill, I affirm that all that you have mentioned and commented upon to be inspired by the Holy Spirit and Biblically true and what we the people hearing or reading need. You have the gifts of teaching and preaching for the benefit of us that receive the messages, always timely and relevant. Keep on, Bill, for the heart of our God is constantly expressed in the words you have for the people of God. Warmly, with thanksgiving, Pat Squibb

    Sent from my iPhone


  2. Dear Rev. Little,

    Ted and I have been visiting different churches for several weeks lately and have had to opportunity to hear many different Pastors. I agree with everything to have mentioned as to what makes a great sermon. The best pastor I remember every hearing was a gentleman from Virginia Beach in the early 90s. He preached from the word and made everything very applicable and beneficial to our lives. He encouraged us to make notes and gave us an outline to follow. I also think a pastor needs to be true to what he preaches. I have also heard sermons that did not reflect the lives of the pastors preaching them and found that to be a big turn off.

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