Nice Sermon

“Nice sermon.”

I’m assuming every pastor hears those words from time to time. Do you have any idea what they mean?

If you do, maybe you could help me out, because I’m not sure that I do.

I’m not trying to be snarky. The fact is that while I hear those words from people who seem to have taken to heart the message I am presenting, I also hear them from people who, judging from their words and actions, could not possibly have heard a word I have spoken.

I find it confusing. I really don’t know how to respond to the capsule critiques when I greet people after the service has ended. It is, for me, a strange and sometimes awkward ritual. It almost seems as though I am standing in a reception line at the end of a performance. The situation is disturbing enough that I have been tempted to stop greeting people at the back of the church, except that then I would miss a great opportunity to make connections with people. I often learn of struggles and heartaches and triumphs in the lives of the disciples in my congregation while shaking hands after a service.

So I need to be there, and as long as I am, it would be helpful if I could figure out how to process the “nice sermon” comments.

What, exactly, are the criteria for judging a sermon? Very few of my listeners are seminary trained or consider themselves particularly well-versed in theological matters. On what basis, then are they judging sermons?

What makes me somewhat cynical are the comments I have heard over the years about pastors’ speaking ability. Many times I’ve heard people describe a pastor as a tremendous preacher and the only evidence they cite to support that is that he or she “didn’t use a single note.”

I have yet to find a translation of the Bible in which Jesus tells us to “preach the Gospel to all nations, taking care not to use a single note.” The point of preaching is not to demonstrate great memory, or poise, or the ability to think on one’s feet. It is to proclaim the good news.

I have given sermons without notes, for reasons mentioned in previous columns. None of these would make my personal top 10 list of sermons. I would say the same thing of sermons I have heard.

I begin to wonder if comments about sermons are another manifestation of consumerism in worship. So many congregants these days sit in judgment of the style of worship, the choice of hymns, the quality of the experience, etc., as if worship were a matter of satisfying individual tastes instead of an experience centered on God. Is the sermon another commodity to be evaluated and rated according to its ability to please? If that’s what makes a sermon good, then Amos never delivered a good sermon in his life.

I suspect that everyone has a different reason for approving or disapproving of a sermon. For some, a nice sermon may simply be one that failed to put them to sleep. But I hope that when sermons provoke comment, they do so for more legitimate reasons.

I hope that “nice sermon” means that the words provided a new perspective that invited people to examine their faith in a new light.
Or that they clarified something that had long been distressing.

Or that they brought comfort to the afflicted.

Or that they afflicted the comfortable.

Or that they inspired them to engage more actively in the reign of God.

Or that they brought an immediacy to God’s word so that this time it seemed as though God were speaking directly to the listener.

Usually when these things happen, however, people tend to tell me exactly which of the above applied.

The far more frequent “nice sermon” comments? I wonder.

I wonder if most people compliment the sermon simply as a way of expressing appreciation or support for the pastor. They’re not really rendering a judgment on a sermon at all; they’re simply acknowledging that, on behalf of Jesus Christ, I brought them a gift–the best gift I could offer that morning. “Nice sermon” may just be their way of thanking me for the gift.

If that’s the case, I should just accept their thanks and go on, and do everything within my power to make certain that the next gift I bring is the very best I can offer.