If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away---Henry David Thoreau

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Beyond Nice Sermons: evaluating preaching as if the church matters

A preacher of a small suburban congregation spends all week preparing her sermon. On Tuesday she chooses one of the lectionary texts for the coming Sunday and reads it from several versions. By the end of the day she begins to reflect on the biblical text and jots down ideas that come to mind. On Wednesday she turns to her commentaries and looks up some key words in the text she is going to preach, again jotting down notes. From her own reflections and readings from commentaries the preacher begins to focus on one central idea from the text.

At home while reading the newspaper she comes across a story that fits with her sermon’s theme. On Thursday she arrives early at the church office and outlines a sermon flow that communicates her key idea from the text. By late morning she starts to put into the flesh of words on the bones of her sermon structure and to add metaphors, images, and stories that give the sermon life. By the next morning she has a first draft of her sermon that she begins to tweak and question and ask herself how the teenager with the piercings or the old couple in the front pew in her church will hear it.

By the end of Friday she has read through her manuscript checking for its flow and putting phrases and symbols in the margins to help her remember sections of the sermon without reading it on Sunday. Saturday morning she tapes the sermon and listens to it for tone, emphasis, movement, transitions, and clarity. By Saturday evening she has preached her sermon out loud several times, once in front of a mirror, while her family is in the living room watching a movie and eating popcorn.

Sunday morning she arrives at church early to pray over the sermon and look over her notes. Following the choir special she leaves her seat in the front of the church, steps behind the large wooden pulpit, and begins proclaiming the sermon she has spent all week preparing. As she preaches she looks at the faces of the members of her congregation trying to read their responses in their facial expressions and body language. When she sits down following the sermon, she feels it was one of her better ones.

After the service is over the pastor takes her regular place in the foyer of the church building to greet the people as they leave. She only hears one response to her sermon: “Nice sermon, pastor.”

Dr. Lori Carrell, in her study The Great American Sermon Survey, found that 78% of churchgoers never give their pastors any type of feedback for their sermons.(1) Are the few informal remarks church members occasionally offer the best way to evaluate preaching? These informal mini-evaluations are immediate, but too infrequent and not very objective to be very helpful in evaluating preaching in a congregational setting.(2)

If we understand preaching to be a corporate practice of the church, we will have to look for better ways to evaluate preaching.

Formal sermon evaluation in the congregation

In order to move beyond occasional, subjective, informal evaluation of preaching some congregations try to be more intentional, objective, and formal. In order to get feedback from the congregation the pastor or leadership may utilize a prescribed written survey of the congregation as an ongoing practice or during a set time period. A pastor may initiate sermon evaluation as a means of improving his/her preaching or leadership may use it to assess the congregation’s opinions about the pastor’s preaching. Preaching evaluation might be taken through detailed surveys of individual sermons or may seek more general information following a series of sermons.

These types of written surveys provide more information than the few informal responses a pastor might receive each week. Depending on the detail of the sermon evaluation these surveys can assist the preacher in improving various elements of the sermon, how the biblical text is communicated and applied, and the delivery of the sermon. Because these evaluations are more detailed and draw from a wider range of the congregation, they are more helpful in appraising the preaching in a congregation.

Another possible form for sermon evaluation of feedback is through a sermon feedback group. A small group, preferably a cross-section of congregational members, is enlisted to meet with the pastor following the Sunday sermon to provide more direct feedback.(3) The feedback sought might be obtained through informal conversation with a few directive questions to having the members fill out and discuss a more detailed sermon evaluation form. Including both written and verbal feedback provides for a greater depth of feedback from the congregation.

Sermon evaluation in seminary preaching class

Sermon evaluations are most often modeled after those practiced in introductory preaching classes in seminaries. For four years I was one of several leaders of the practicum section of a seminary introduction to preaching class taught by the preaching professor. Each week my group would gather to preach their sermons in the seminary chapel, an empty church, or a classroom. We had seminary students preaching for academic credit and before the critical ears of others within these artificial settings, not a community of ordinary believers gathered for worship and preaching. I tried to be intentional in noting these elements as we participated in this preaching practicum together, especially in light of the point I want to make in this writing.

Before the students presented their sermons I would hand out a sermon evaluation sheet, which is similar to those used in countless seminaries.(4) This tool assesses standards of excellence based upon what is taught in the introductory preaching class. Each preacher is evaluated upon a scale of poor to excellent using a number of these following elements of the sermon and performance: 1) introduction, body, conclusion; 2) structure, transitions, flow, focused theme; 3) exegesis, contextualization, practicality, and application of the biblical text; 4) language, grammar, metaphors, illustrations, clarity; and 5) delivery, voice, body, gesture, eye contact, passion. Improving a sermon in these areas is intended to lead toward better preaching in the congregation.

It should be acknowledged that this is a white, Western, academic approach to evaluating a sermon. In more spontaneous, grassroots, charismatic-oriented congregational settings, particularly the African-American tradition, there is often an informal dialogue and evaluation of the sermon that takes place within the worship experience. Unlike the scenario of informal feedback presented at the beginning of this article, in these congregations you will likely find ongoing feedback, encouragement, affirmation, and celebration during the sermon in the call and response between preacher and congregation with an “Amen!,” “Well!,”“Help him, Lord!,” “Thank you, Jesus!” or “Hallelujah!”(5) Granted, this is not the technical and thorough sermon evaluation of a seminary classroom, but again the congregation is evaluating the sermon by different criteria than academic standards of excellence.

In my seminary preaching practicum class each student provided a written and verbal critical response to each student’s sermon. First, the student would share their own response to their preparation and delivery of the sermon. Second, the class and I as teacher would offer verbal responses to the sermon. Third, the student would be given all the sermon evaluation sheets. Although students were to preach a sermon in their own ministerial setting, the focus of the practicum section of the preaching class was upon evaluating and improving the students preaching skills as an isolated preacher.

Even with my caveats about the artificial setting, assessing preaching isolated from the church, being evaluated by colleagues, the focus upon several sermons, and the academic context ending in a grade, I felt that evaluating sermons this way might be helpful in some senses, but overlooked the issues I was exploring in my doctoral project.

Aristotelian rhetorical principles for sermon evaluation

Academic sermon evaluations have elements which have been drawn from classical rhetorical studies. In his writing On Rhetoric Greek philosopher Aristotle analyzed three forms of rhetorical persuasion in communication: 1) Ethos- appeal based on the character of the speaker; 2) Pathos- appeal based on emotion or passion; and 3) Logos- appeal based on logic or reason. As a form of persuasion preaching can benefit from these three rhetorical forms outlined by Aristotle. They have even been utilized as a means of evaluating sermons.6)

William Roen’s The Inward Ear: A Sermon Evaluation Method for Preachers and Hearers of the Word is one of the few full length books on sermon evaluation available.(7) Roen appropriates Aristotle’s three forms of rhetorical persuasion for the task of listening to sermons. He elaborates on each of Aristotle’s three rhetorical forms to serve as evaluative criteria for sermons. First, the listener should ask: what is the ethos of the sermon? How does the preacher’s character shine through the presentation? Does the sermon draw the listener in? Does the preacher speak with authority? Second, the listener should ask: what is the pathos of the sermon? Does the sermon evoke excessive sentimentality or try to manipulate feelings? Does the preacher speak with authentic passion about his subject? Third, the listener should ask: what is the logos of the sermon? Does the sermon have a logical structure? Does the preacher exhibit knowledge of his subject?

First, Roen suggests that in the practical application of this rhetorical analysis within the congregational setting that the principles should be taught to a sermon critique group. Second, an evaluation form with questions that reflect these three principles be handed out before the sermon for the group to take notes. He provides a sample form. Third, the sermon critique group meets with the preacher to discuss their responses to the sermon using these three criteria.

Roen’s use of Aristotle’s rhetorical categories can serve as simpler form for evaluating sermons, but is not as comprehensive as those usually found in seminary preaching classes. At the same time, it approaches the appraisal of sermons with a similar understanding of preaching and the church as those forms. And those evaluative forms are deficient when considering the nature of preaching and the church.

The problem of evaluating preaching as a singular event of an isolated individual

Although the previously presented forms of sermon evaluation have their benefits, they all have shortcomings in assessing preaching. Informal sermon evaluations are personal, but are too brief, subjective, and infrequent to be very helpful. Sermon feedback groups provide more frequent and detailed evaluations, but tend to leave out the dynamics of preaching as two-way communication. Spontaneous call and response can encourage a preacher, but focuses on a solo performance. Academic sermon evaluations are methodical, but focus upon the isolated preacher and singular sermon.

The major deficiencies of these forms of preaching evaluation are rooted in the fact that they are all grounded in similar assumptions about preaching and ecclesiology. One major assumption behind these types of preaching evaluations, implicit in the utilization of these various forms, is that preaching is predominantly a one way communication by an isolated preacher for a singular event. A completely different theology of proclamation may be offered for preaching, but the evaluative form reinforces this assumption about preaching.

First, the preceding sermon evaluations assess just that---sermons, as singular presentations. Exceptions might be when someone informally or through an assessment tool offers feedback on a sermon series or about a pastor’s preaching in general. More formal evaluations appraise individual sermons as to structure, content, or delivery. Sometimes these evaluations seek to illicit feedback as to sermon impact, but most often as to the individual listener. Generally, sermons are not evaluated by their cumulative impact upon the collective body of listeners. Is there a consistency or improvement in the quality of the preaching over time? Is there a breadth and depth to the preaching? Are the hearers engaging in and being transformed by the theology taught through persistent preaching? Preaching as a ministry of the church is not effectively assessed through critiquing isolated sermons the preacher presents.

Second, sermon evaluations tend to evaluate the preacher as an isolated individual. The preacher is assessed in isolation from the congregation. Preaching is not simply a one-way monologue from preacher to listener as a herald might announce the news of the kingdom.(8) Monological, one-way preaching, in which the preacher communicates the truth to passive listeners, has been prevalent in the church for centuries. It has been constructed and reinforced in the traditional design of church buildings with the raised pulpit in the front and the pews lined in rows like a theatrical performance with passive audience. We provide assistance in the persistence of the monological model of preaching through assessing the preacher as an isolated individual charged with proclaiming the Word. Preaching that is located solely with the preacher is missing the congregation as partners in the preaching ministry.(9)

Besides assumptions concerning the role of the preacher as isolated individual, assumptions behind these types of sermon evaluations reflect an underlying ecclesiology.(10) When assessing the particular sermons by an isolated individual there is often an ecclesiology that assumes: 1) a sharp division between clergy and laity; 2) preaching is the sole responsibility of the pastor of a congregation; and 3) laity are passive recipients of preaching. With these assumptions the clergy will be evaluated concerning preaching with little or no assessment of the role of the congregation.

Preaching as a formational ministry of the church

If we understand preaching to be a ministry of the whole church and not simply a responsibility of the lone preacher, then our assessment of preaching will need to move beyond evaluating the preachers using singular sermons. That is not to say that preaching cannot be improved by assessing the form, structure, content, language, purpose, and performance of sermons. These forms of sermon evaluation can be understood as elements among whereby to assess standards of excellence in preaching as a practice. But, critical elements are left out of these appraisals of preaching.

One key element has to do with preaching as a form of communal spiritual formation.(11) Preaching forms and is formed by the congregation.(12) The collective formational character of preaching requires examining the cumulative impact of preaching upon the congregation. This type of evaluation can be done on a yearly, tri-yearly, or over a five or ten year period. Reflection questions can be created to assess to some degree how preaching over the long haul has shaped the spiritual lives of individual members of the congregation and how the congregation as a whole has been shaped by the preaching ministry.

These questions can be part of a small preaching evaluation group. In what ways has the preaching formed, challenged, and confirmed the theology of this congregation? How has the congregation shaped the preaching over time? How has the congregation embodied the teachings from the preaching? Do the sermons call to church to public responsibility? Using these types of questions in an indicative mode with a rating scale the congregation can help assess the cumulative impact of the preaching as a practice for communal spiritual formation.

Another area for evaluating the cumulative nature of preaching is for preacher and/or congregation to consider the breadth and depth of the cumulative preaching. If preaching shapes congregations over time, it would be a good idea to appraise whether there is a balance in the character of the preaching. Again, some key questions may be helpful in ascertaining this kind of information. Have the sermons covered the breadth of Christian doctrine? Have both testaments been preached? Have there been appeals to both mind and heart in the preaching? Is there a balance between being and doing? These types of evaluation questions help to analyze whether or not there is a balance or imbalance in the preaching over time.

Preaching as a communal and dialogical practice

When I began considering a doctoral project in preaching I was intrigued by the emergence of communal and dialogical forms of preaching in my study of contemporary homiletics. In my study of Anabaptist history and theology I noticed that there was a correlative historical precedent for communal and dialogical forms of biblical interpretation and preaching.(13) Anabaptist scholars spoke of an “Anabaptist hermeneutic of community” as a form of interactive biblical interpretation located within the believing community. Having practiced interactive preaching in a number of congregations I became interested in constructing a contemporary, inclusive, emancipatory “Anabaptist homiletic of community” that brings into conversation both the interactive and collective forms of biblical interpretation and preaching in 16th century Anabaptism and corresponding contemporary forms of biblical interpretation and preaching.

In the process of working on this study and teaching a preaching practicum class I described earlier, I began questioning the form of sermon evaluation we were utilizing and which led to my caveats to the class about the artificiality of the setting, the focus on the isolated preacher, and the need for a different approach to evaluating sermons. Constructing a preaching model as a communal and dialogical practice led me to reconsider current forms of preaching evaluation. One paragraph of my doctoral study reflects the questions I had about sermon evaluations in light of the understanding of preaching as a practice of the church:

To consider preaching as a communal practice is to go beyond the oratorical skills of the isolated preacher in defining standards of excellence. Traditional standards for evaluation of excellence in preaching have most often been based upon preaching as a monological event performed by the preacher. Preaching is evaluated according to the preacher’s skill in the construction and presentation of a particular sermon. This evaluative methodology is standard in most seminary preaching classes. These rhetorical and performative criteria for evaluation of excellence in preaching tend to reinforce the understanding of preaching as a solo performance of the skilled preacher. (14)

What I briefly reflected upon some years ago I am attempting to explore more fully in this article.

Although preaching evaluation can utilize elements of the more traditional approaches, they will need to be reframed within an understanding of preaching as a practice of the church. This is what Leonora Tubbs Tisdale and Thomas G Long’s book, Teaching Preaching as a Christian Practice, seeks to do. The book argues for understanding and teaching preaching as a practice.(15)James Nieman defines a practice as “a constellation of actions that people have performed over time that are common, meaningful, strategic, and purposeful.” Preaching fits this description of a practice. Practices have standards of excellence by which they can be evaluated.(17) It follows that there are standards of excellence whereby preaching can be appraised as a practice.

The chapters of Tisdale and Long’s book elaborate on various elements of the practice of preaching, such as interpreting texts, exegeting the congregation, interpreting the larger social context, the use of language, imagination, historical vision, and voice and diction. These traditional elements are reframed within an understanding of preaching as a communal practice and can be utilized as standards of excellence to assess preaching.

Included in the book is a chapter by Daniel E. Harris on methods of assessment of preaching as a practice. Since the focus of the book is upon homiletical pedagogy, the chapter on assessment of preaching centers upon the classroom and laboratory settings and the preacher’s self-assessment. At the same time, there is a section on getting feedback from the congregation. A suggested evaluation form is provided which is concentrated on the response of the listener. In my view this is a move in the right direction for evaluating preaching as a communal practice, but could be supplemented by other elements.

It is my contention that even with an understanding of preaching as a practice, such as presented by Tisdale and Long, there are elements of preaching as a communal and dialogical practice that are missing or receive less attention because of the artificial setting of the classroom, the timeframe of the class, and a tendency to focus on isolated sermons of the solitary preacher. The communal and dialogical nature of preaching calls for highlighting these elements in the assessment of preaching.

Supplementary elements for evaluating preaching in a congregational context

Rethinking preaching as a communal and dialogical practice of the church is the starting place for reshaping how the church appraises its preaching. As long as the church understands and practices preaching as a monological, one-way communication event of the isolated preacher, the evaluation of preaching will focus only on the trained preacher separate from the congregation, who are partners in preaching. Communal and dialogical forms of preaching can only be adequately assessed in the preacher’s congregational context over a longer period of time.

If we understand preaching as a communal and dialogical practice of the whole church, then there are certain elements that are being left out or receive less attention in standard forms of preaching evaluation. Also, they are difficult to practice in a classroom setting. I propose bringing those elements to the forefront of the assessment of preaching within a congregational context. I would include among those elements for evaluation: 1) the cumulative effect of preaching; 2) communal formation of and through preaching; and 3) roles and responses of collaborators in the preaching ministry. Each of these areas overlap and connect to one another. Thus, these threads interweave into a communal tapestry for assessing preaching.

First, the cumulative impact of preaching upon the congregation over time needs to be emphasized in assessment.(18) Little attention has been given to this aspect in appraising preaching as a practice, though the “over time” feature is inherent in the definition of a practice. Whatever form of evaluation is utilized and over whatever period of time, dialogue and assessment concerning the balance and breadth of subject and sources (e.g., Old and New Testaments, themes, theological topics), the impact of preaching in shaping personal and congregational theology, and the extent and quality of engagement of the congregation in biblical interpretation and preaching over time would move assessment toward the communal and dialogical nature of preaching as a practice.

Second, preaching as communally formed and forming are features needing renewed emphasis in preaching as a practice. Preaching is shaped by the stories, life experiences, and contexts of the congregation. Preaching assessment tools can include questions about the extent and quality the preaching ministry exhibits in connecting with issues faced by congregational members and what’s happening in the community and world. Also, questions can be designed to directly address the extent of congregational involvement in the preaching ministry (e.g., informal feedback, sermon preparation and response groups, interaction during dialogue sermons). If there are no avenues whereby members share in actual preparation, performance, and feedback to the preaching, it will be difficult to view the preaching ministry as truly collective and conversational.

Preaching as a form of corporate spiritual formation calls for assessing the extent and quality of preaching as a formational practice. Preaching can shape collective worldview, theology, ecclesiology, and practice. Assessment would not seek to evaluate how well every member of the congregation has been conformed to the preacher’s viewpoint. That would reflect a monological, one-way understanding of preaching as a formative tool. Questions for an assessment tool may seek to discern how preachers and members together have shaped each other’s worldviews, theologies, understandings of the church, and practice of faith). Also, since congregations act from out of who they have been formed to be, assessment questions can be constructed to ascertain the correlation between the church’s action and understanding of faith (Example- Have you engaged in some public action, community ministry, or service to others as a result of a sermon over the past few years?).

Third, the roles and responses of collaborators in preaching clearly need to be accentuated with preaching as a communal and dialogical practice. As active participants in the preaching ministry of the church the congregation becomes part of the assessment, not simply as persons who evaluate the preacher’s sermons. Preaching as a communal and dialogical practice calls for evaluation of the extent and quality of the congregation as active participants in the preaching ministry. If preaching is truly a collaborative ministry in which the congregation, and not just the preacher, participates through sermon input, interaction, and feedback, then these aspects of their engagement in the preaching ministry can be assessed and improved. An example of an associated evaluative question might be---Has our congregation provided adequate avenues for member input and feedback for the preaching ministry?

Also, if preaching is understood and practiced as a multi-voiced collaboration, then not only the preacher and congregation become part of the dialogue of preaching, but also voices outside the church, voices of the oppressed, multicultural voices, and the voices of those on the margins of society.(19) Whether through conversations of personal or ministry contact, the preaching ministry of the church can find ways to include these voices in the homiletical conversation. And the width and breadth of this widening circle of dialogue can be assessed for its extent and quality, just as the rhetorical skills of the isolated preacher can be assessed. An example of an assessment question might be---Have you heard the voices and concerns of the oppressed, marginalized, and people of color reflected in the preaching?

Rarely if ever do preaching evaluations assess these aspects of preaching, but if the church is going to move beyond nice sermons and the understanding and practice of preaching as a solo performance toward preaching as a communal and dialogical practice of the church, then these supplementary elements that I have suggested will need to be included in our evaluations of preaching.


End Notes

1) Evans E. Crawford, The Hum: Call and Response in African-American Preaching (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995).
2) Aristotle’s three rhetorical forms have been used to speak of the various “settings” (i.e., inner locations) through which a person listens to a sermon. Roland J. Allen, Hearing the Sermon: Relationship, Content, Feeling (St. Louis: Chalice, 2004).
3) William H. Roen, The Inward Ear: A Sermon Evaluation Method for Preachers and Hearers of the Word (Washington, DC: The Alban Institute, 1989).
4) The herald image emphasizes the unidirectional message to be communicated from God through the preacher to the congregation. See Thomas G. Long, The Witness of Preaching (Louisville: Westminster John Knox), 24-30.
5) For a full bibliography of resources on collective and interactive preaching see my book; Leo Hartshorn, Interpretation and Preaching as Communal and Dialogical Practices: an Anabaptist Perspective (Edwin Mellen, 2006).
6) O. Wesley Allen Jr. presents a conversational ecclesiology in his book on interactive preaching. O. Wesley Allen, Jr., The Homiletic of All Believers (Louisville: Westminster John Knox), 2005.
7) One question I raised in my doctoral study that relates to reshaping the evaluation of preaching as a practice of the church was this: If preaching is a corporate practice, should not there be communal standards of excellence related to assessing congregational listening and enacting the Word? Hartshorn, 172.
8) Thomas G. Long and Lenora Tubbs Tisdale, eds., Teaching Preaching as a Christian Practice: A New Approach to Homiletical Pedagogy (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008), 188.
9) My doctoral dissertation was completed in 2002 and published in 2006. Hartshorn, 2006.
10) Hartshorn, 163.
11) Although it was unavailable at the time of the writing of my doctoral study, this book shares some of the concepts that were part of my project.
12) Tisdale and Long, 12.
13) Alistair McIntyre, After Virtue (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame, 1981),187.
14) Lucy Rose, who proposes a conversational homiletic, briefly mentions the need for a shift to the cumulative effects of preaching. Lucy Atkinson Rose, Sharing the Word: Preaching in the Roundtable Church (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1997), 112.
15) John S. McClure, “Collaborative Preaching from the Margins,” Journal for Preachers (1996): 37-42.

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