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How Do People Listen To Sermons?

By Ronald J. Allen
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.

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