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How Do People Listen To Sermons?
Preachers prepare sermons in the hope that congregations will listen attentively. However, a few years ago it occurred to me that ministers seldom ask listeners, "What qualities in a sermon engage you and disengage you?" Preachers turn to a variety of helps to develop faithful sermons that communicate with congregations — e.g. biblical and systematic theology, philosophy, communication theory, and the arts — but preachers infrequently seek guidance from the people who are the purpose of preaching.


Thinking that congregations might provide insight into characteristics of preaching that communicates, a team of scholars of preaching, centered at Christian Theological Seminary and supported by the Lilly Endowment, interviewed more than 260 people who regularly listen to sermons in twenty-eight congregations (nine predominately African American in membership, fourteen predominately non-Hispanic European, and three mixed race) in long established protestant denominations in the Midwestern U.S.

People Listen Through One Setting

We asked questions drawn from rhetoric concerning how listeners' responses to sermons are affected by the congregations' perceptions of the character of the preacher (ethos), the content of the sermon (logos), the feelings stirred by the sermon (pathos), and the embodiment (delivery). When we began the study we assumed that ethos, logos, pathos and embodiment would function in much the same ways in each listener. We expected, further, that the interviewees would respond straightforwardly to questions. When asked about ethos, for instance, we expected a direct answer concerning how ethos functions. Often, this occurred. However, when asked about one category, some interviewees responded with information about another category. When asked about logos, for example, some respondents spoke about ethos or pathos.

We puzzled initially over what to make of this phenomenon as well as the fact (mentioned above) that some responses go against what conventional rhetoric leads us to expect. Mary Alice Mulligan, Associate Director of the Project and Visiting Professor of Theology and Ethics at Christian Theological Seminary, hypothesized that, regardless of the question, such hearers would reveal in their responses the aspect of listening that function most prominently for them. "In a sense," she said, "they may be telling us what they most want us to know about what is important to them when they hear preaching. The person who gives us a pathos response when we ask an ethos or logos question may signal us that the experience of pathos is really what makes a sermon a sermon for them."

The interviews confirm Mary Alice's hypothesis, and point to a key discovery: for nearly every congregant one appeal — ethos, logos, or pathos — functions as the setting through which that person listens to the sermon. (We did not find any listeners for whom embodiment is such a setting) By "setting" we mean the listener's orientation to hearing the sermon through ethos, logos or pathos.

A public address system provides an analogy. The preacher speaks a sermon through a microphone into a mixing console for amplification and mixing of the qualities in the sound. The console contains settings for volume as well as treble and bass qualities that influence the way the congregation hears the sermon. The settings highlight (or depress) qualities the congregation hears in the preacher's voice.

Similarly, each congregant has a "setting" for listening to the sermon. In one listener, the ethos setting may be very high while logos and pathos are much lower. In another congregant the ethos may be low, the logos mid-range, and the pathos very high. The number of variations is limited only by the number of listeners.

A question probing for pathos was put to a person in the study group. "Can you think of a sermon that you found particularly stirring?"

Not really, because I usually find something in most sermons. Reverend [pastor's name], I love Reverend [name], but I love all ministers. They have to be doing some terrible things for me not to like them. I was raised to do this, and it became a part of me, part of my life, part of my being. The Reverend loves people and is always telling them that. Reverend [name] loves them and lets them know. Usually Reverend says, "If you don't' like me to love you, there's nothing you can do about that." The Reverend is a trip. So that opens the door when you know somebody really loves you and cares for how you are. It brings you closer. If a minister stands away and just shakes your hand, "How are you doing today?" Well, it's just a form you go through, but our Reverend doesn't let you do that.

Although the question asked about pathos, the parishioner answered in almost purely ethos terms. When we read the transcript from start to finish, it is clear that relationship is central not only to listener's perception of the preacher and the sermon, but to this person's broader theological world view and to what the listener values in the congregation itself.

The Three Settings Interact with One Another.

Dale P. Andrews, of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, suggests a graph to represent the interaction of the settings with one another in a listener. In Figure 1, each quadrant represents a different setting. The setting through which the parishioner listeners the sermon is plotted in one quadrant. The rays extend from that point to show the force of the interaction of the other settings. The rays can be narrowed or widened to show the relative influence of the different settings. Figure 1 helps us visualize how the settings interact in the interviewee discussed immediately below who listens on ethos settings and for whom logos is the most important secondary setting but for whom pathos and embodiment also play roles.

Listening through Ethos Settings

The person who listens through ethos settings experiences the sermon through their perception of the character of, and relationship with, the preacher. We hear this phenomenon in an interviewee who is a teacher. When asked about the purpose of preaching, this person says,

I think preachers are instructors like I'm an instructor. They're trying to help people see connections. They're trying to help people feel connected, to have a relationship with God and to Jesus. I would assume they are working to create some feeling of community in the church.

One of the important qualities of preaching is that it "brings people together." The interviewee repeatedly returns to the importance of positive identification with the preacher, as when asked about a high point in the person's history of listening to sermons.

I can't think of a particular instance, no. But I think the things I do remember are when a minister or someone preaching will personalize the sermon a little bit. Disclose a little bit of something about him or herself that shows that person has grappled with the issues. That person is only human after all as we all are. That person doesn't put himself or herself above the congregation in some way. I think those things, when they're connected to the main theme or lesson, for me are really poignant, and often times those are things that I remember long after a lot of the other material.

This interviewee wants to know that the preacher is human in the same way that the listener is human especially that the preacher struggles with life and its issues in ways that are similar to the listener's own struggles.

This orientation becomes even more apparent when the interviewer asks, "Where does the authority lie for you when the person gets up to preach."

A lot of authority for me comes through a relationship with that person and feeling like I can trust that person and that person has really spent time grappling with issues and preparing and talking about issues related to worship and sermons. Some of it is through experience. Somebody can lose credibility if they haven't done those kinds of things. I think experience with a person over time and listening to a lot of sermons can make a difference for me. I don't think that I think about ministers as being authority figures as much as wise people who have leadership skills who can help me think about things differently.

The interviewer presses "If in the sermon the preacher is asking you to think about something in a new way, what would the sermon need to have in order to get you to think about it in a new way?" Again, the centrality of ethos comes into focus.

That's a good question. I think if it was consistent with the values that I already hold, it would have more credibility. If I could understand how it would certainly help people either myself or others, and it was made clear, I think that would give it credibility. I think someone that I trusted in general from experience I would listen to more than someone new that I hadn't ever really known before. If I have a relationship with somebody either just from listening to them a lot or know them that usually can give credibility if they are going to challenge me in certain ways.

This person will respond positively to preachers who, over time, demonstrate that they labor hard on the congregation's behalf, demonstrating care, diligence, and integrity, a preacher who "really spent time grapping with issues and preparing." This listener will typically enter into a sermon when the listener perceives being in positive ethos with the preacher. In such a relationship, the parishioner is open to challenge.

Listening Through Logos Settings

The person who listeners through logos settings is most engaged by the content of the sermon. We hear this in an interview with a congregant who left two other denominations because this person did not like their formal statements of belief, and joined the current denomination because of "approach to theology." For this person, preaching is "the cornerstone of worship Give me the one thing that you demand out of sermons: it would be content." Expanding, the interviewee says,

I think we all like to hear our theological ideas confirmed. I have listened to wonderful speakers who did not share my theology. I try to separate those. They do a wonderful job preaching. They do a wonderful job in delivery. Theologically, they are not where I am. No matter how hard I try to appreciate what they're doing, there's not a connection. I think it's automatically connected if they and I are theologically connected. I think what has meant a lot to me in the [name of denomination] Church is mostly the theological connection.

At the same time, this listener is aware that people have powerful feelings. However, respondent sees a direct relationship between the ideas in the sermon and emotions. This person replied, when asked for one or two things to tell preachers that could energize listening:

The one thing I would tell them is what they are doing in their role [explaining the theological beliefs of the community in the sermon] is very, very important. They are probably looked upon, and I think traditionally the minister has been looked upon as a spiritual advisor, a spiritual leader of great importance because our passions are formed from our spiritual ideas. Spiritual ideas are formed from what we hear. I think preachers really need to take that seriously.

The goal of good theology in preaching, according to this listener, is to help the people live better. In the context of the whole interview, it is clear that for this hearer "to live better" is to live more faithfully. Such a life includes "more passion," but the passion is important because it empowers the good life. This listener thinks that good theology evokes such passion. Indeed, the respondent notes that changes in human beings are typically cumulative over time. "I don't think a change in life is a dramatic thing necessarily. In fact, it would worry me if it were a dramatic thing. If I saw someone suddenly behave differently or perform an action, I think it would be much more on an emotional basis than a reasoning basis." Significant and lasting life change comes about rationally.

Listening Through Pathos Settings

The person who listens to the sermon is through pathos settings must be stirred at the level of feeling. Without a pathos experience, this listener does not feel that she or he has heard a complete sermon. We hear a pathos motif in the words of a listener asked, "When does the sermon have authority for you?" The parishioner states, "A sermon has authority, in a very human way has authority, when it has touched a point or hit on a point that I know deep down to be true even if, for whatever reason, I don't want to admit." Similar statements are a theme in this interview. When asked to recall an emotionally stirring, the interviewee recalls two such messages.

The sermon that was preached the day that I was ordained as [a leader in the congregation] was quite moving. Emotionally I was pretty heightened that day. Basically, a sermon about hearing the call of God and that gift that all people of the church bring I think was a pretty power, impressive message for me ... A year later when they installed and ordained the next class of [congregational leaders], our pastor preached a that sermon as well. It was about hearing the call of God and heeding the call of God. I remember starting to cry in that sermon the same way I had the year before, because it was just a powerful message to say I don't always know why I feel compelled to do this or agree to do this, but I did feel called.

This listener's descriptions of reactions to these sermons show that emotion functions as spiritual confirmation for this hearer. The listener interpreted the coming of the feeling during the sermon as affirmation of the call to leadership in the congregation.

Several years ago, this listener had drifted away from church. A pathos experience was key to the congregant's return. The story emerges when the interviewer asks, "Have you heard a sermon that caused you to think differently or to act differently?" This listener was visiting another congregation located in another city.

I'm trying to think exactly what the preacher's message was. The reason that I'm probably here today and what happened. I was worshipping at [name of congregation] and I found the preacher to be an incredibly effect preacher and an incredibly effective speaker and very emotional. The first time I saw the preacher cry in the pulpit, I was incredibly, incredibly moved that the preacher revealed such vulnerability to the hundreds of people that were sitting in that house of worship. Seeing the preacher's passion — the preacher is a sort of hippies' crusader if you will for peace and justice and human rights — moved me. I had up to that point sort of emotionally resigned from the church and said that the church is a mess. It's got to get itself together before I want to be a part of it again. Part of the word that was revealed to me that day was the fact that you've gone around and visited different denominations and different places of worship and not become a member, just sort of stayed on the periphery waiting for the church to smarten up. Once they get straightened out, then you'll go. I had this call about why not be a part of the solution. I was like, "Whoa." So now I can't wait for them to do it, then I can go join, but I have to take a role in helping to change or help it emerge, help it grow, help it evolve. While I can't tell you exactly what was being said in the pulpit at that moment, that definitely changed my course because I became a member of a church that really impacted me. That ended up bringing me to this church.

The experience of pathos — of feeling emotions stirred by the preacher — had a nearly revelatory effect on this listener. Here we see a dramatic aspect of pathos: when the preacher's pathos comes to expression in the pulpit (struggle, vulnerability, weeping), it appeals to this listener. The listener is moved by the preacher's struggle.

Such experiences are not confined to private revelations. Recalling what happens when the community has been moved emotionally, the listener says,

People don't disperse very fast. They converse. There's a lot of people still milling around the sanctuary reflecting on something that impacted them during that service. That's the number one think I can think. There's a different level of energy. It heightens. It's almost palpable. You can almost feel it and see it jumping from person to person and emerging throughout that room. The hymns are also a little louder. They sing louder. Yes, they do. They do. There's a little bit more movement. There's a little bit more movement when the people are singing. They're not just standing there still, holding their hymnals, but they might sway just a little bit. Even the most staunch of people, you see them sway just a tad. A little bit of nodding going on while they're singing.

This listener believes that pathos in the community intensifies the energy in the congregation. Without pathos, a sermon is incomplete. Healthy pathos not only touches this listener, but also (from this perspective) increases the energy field of the congregation as community.

Next Steps

The diversity of how listeners respond to sermons means that we should no longer speak in broad generalities about how "people" respond to sermons. The combinations of qualities in sermons that persons find engaging and disengaging are limited only by the number of listeners.

For a sermon to have an optimum opportunity to connect with a maximum number of listeners in a congregation, a preacher should include material that speaks to all three settings. Towards this end, a preacher could ask, "What in this sermon will appeal to persons who listen through ethos settings? Logos settings? Pathos settings?" One of the callings of the local preacher is to determine how people listen in the congregation so the preacher can shape sermons to give listeners optimum opportunities to respond positively.

Since we can no longer think broadly of "the way people listen," ministers can no longer use a single approach to preaching. One size does not fit all. A minister needs to be able to preach in a variety of modes so that sermons have a good chance to be heard by different people who respond to the sermon through different settings. This insight means that preachers may sometimes need to modulate, supplement, or even transcend their own preferred patterns of preaching to shape the message for some listeners, purposes or congregations.

This study is only a first step in exploring how listeners respond to sermons. Our data does not allow us to say why people are so diverse in their listening patterns. Are they socialized by the congregations they attend and the kinds of sermons they hear? Are proclivities towards ethos, logos, or pathos powered by DNA? To what degree (if at all) could/should a preacher help the congregation reinforce, enlarge, or change its ways of listening? Are some patterns of listening more theologically adequate than others? How does God relate to this pluralism of patterns of listening?

While it may be challenging to bring such insights into one's practice preaching, one thing is certain. To all of the 263 people interviewed, preaching is very important. Indeed, as one said, "Preaching is to the congregation as fuel is to the car." We hope that our study can help raise the octane in the gospel witness through preaching.


This article is adapted from the first two books to emerge from the study of listeners described herein: Ronald J. Allen, Listening to the Sermon: Relationship, Content, and Feeling as Settings for Hearing Preaching (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2004) and John S. McClure, Ronald J. Allen, Dale P. Andrews, L. Susan Bond, Dan P. Moseley, and G. Lee Ramsey, Jr., Speaking of Preaching: Case Studies in What Listeners Think About Sermons (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2004). Scholars who served on the research team, in addition to the ones already listed, are Jon L. Berquist, Mary Alice Mulligan, Diane Turner Sharazz, and Dawn Ottoni-Wilhelm.


Ronald J. Allen is Nettie Sweeney and Hugh Th. Miller Professor of Preaching and New Testament at the Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, IN.

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