Let me ask you a question: how important and influential do you think the sermons preached at a local church are? Are they fairly insignificant to the whole life of the church? Are they really significant in shaping a local church? Go ahead and answer that question before you keep reading.
I am a firm, firm believer that what happens in the pulpit on Sunday morning drives and shapes the rest of the church. The pulpit drives the church. If you preacher doesn’t use a pulpit, than fill in whatever he may use. The “pulpit” does this in more than one way. It does it by the content that is preached weekly, and also how content is preached. What I mean by the second statement is that if a pastor doesn’t show the church how he came to the conclusions he came to, he won’t model each week to the church how to love and study Scripture.
What happens when a pastor stands up to preach is incredibly influential in the rest of the church. It shapes small groups, discipleship groups, mission trips, evangelism, and the list goes on. I am so confident in the above statements that I think if you found a church with some serious issue(s), simply listen to the sermons preached there and I bet they will be weak in Bible-content and weak in showing the church how to read and respond to the Bible. The preacher may be an amazing communicator, but he will be weak where it counts.
I believe that if sermons are weak in Bible-content and weak in showing the church how the pastor came to his conclusions, the rest of the church, inevitably, will not love to study, read, and respond to the Bible in their personal lives. Thus, their relationships with Jesus will be stunted and remain immature. They won’t see a need and/or won’t know how to really read and understand and respond to God in the Word, the main way he interacts with us daily.
So, sermons should be rich in Bible. The responsibility of a preacher is to preach God’s Word, the Bible. That means he is to get up on stage on Sunday, or wherever, and explain what the Scriptures are saying. You shouldn’t feel like he is giving you his opinions, backed up by peppering Scripture throughout his sermon. You should feel like he started with the Bible, explained the Bible, and preached the Bible to you.
And look for a preacher showing you how he is getting to his conclusions. Don’t be content with someone who preaches biblical-truth, but never actually opens the Bible. That seems risky. They should read the texts, spend time showing you the texts, spend time showing you how they came to the conclusions they came to about the text. All of that is for the sake of showing you God’s Word, letting God speak to you. If by the time you find the main Scripture of the Sunday in your Bible, the preacher is done talking about it, he probably isn’t really preaching it.
Preaching matters, so go ahead and let it be a huge criterion for you. I have heard preachers blast, and I mean blast people for requesting sermons be more rich in biblical content. They are told they are just big-headed Christians, only focused on themselves, not the lost. They are told they just want to debate and stir up controversy. While there are such people out there, I think thousands and thousands of Christians sitting under weak preaching are dying of starvation, requesting to be fed with the milk of the Word, and are being rebuked for it. That is heartbreaking and infuriating to me. Don’t listen to them if you are genuinely after good, biblical preaching.
Practically speaking, look for churches that preach through books of the Bible. Series that focus on topics are not inherently bad (my church is doing one now!), but if all a church ever does is make up topics to preach on, they are, in my opinion, taking big risks. Again, if that is primarily all they ever do, here is why I think it is a massive risk:
First of all, it seems the church is trusting that the preacher picking the topics knows what is most needed, so he sits in his office and thinks about topic after topic, year after year, rather than trusting the Word of God and the Spirit of God to feed the people of God as the God of all gods sees fit.
Secondly, life doesn’t operate topically. I seldom hear of people, for their personal times in the Bible and prayer, choosing topics to work through for weeks (though that is good to do!). Normally, people pick a book of the Bible to read. That is, after all, how the Bible was meant to be read. As a book, that you start in the beginning and read to the end. Just like you would read any other story. So, I think preaching should model that. Pick a book and read (preach) it from beginning to end.
Thirdly, I think topical preaching, when done primarily and regularly, stunts the church growth. It seems you simply can’t cover the wide-range of stuff the Bible does (all centered on Christ) when you pick topics. You are too focused over a period of weeks. You may cover one topic in 8 weeks, whereas preaching through Galatians in 8 weeks will cover much more stuff, if you will.
All in all, use simple wisdom when examining a preacher. No preacher is perfect, so don’t hold him to that standard. Be charitable and gracious. Hold him to the standard of standing up on Sunday, directing your attention to a biblical text, explaining it, preaching it, and leading you to Jesus and his grace, week after week. Be gracious when his jokes sometimes flop, his stories are sometimes lame, and his illustrations don’t seem to make sense.