Eight Themes From People Who Listen To Sermons
If you had one or two things you could tell your preacher that would help energize you when you are listening to a sermon, what would they be?
That question was the last one put to 263 people interviewed for a study sponsored by the Lilly Endowment and Christian Theological Seminary. The purpose of the interviews was to give the interviewees an opportunity to name qualities in preaching that engage and disengage listener interest. The interviews took place in the Midwestern part of the United States in twenty-eight congregations – nine made up primarily of African Americans, fourteen compromised mainly of persons of non-Hispanic European origin, and three of mixed ethnicities – from thirteen denominations and Christian movements. The people interviewed come from both genders, the span of ages, as well as different denominations and locations (urban, suburban, small town, rural).
Some items in the interviews explored how the parishioner’s perception of the character of the preacher (and sense of relationship with the preacher) affect the parishioner’s willingness to listen to the sermon. Other questions were asked about the listener’s perception of the content of the sermon, the feelings stirred by the message, and the preacher’s embodiment (delivery) of the sermon.
The last question in the interviews gave respondents an opportunity to identify what they would most like for preachers to do to engage them.
It is tempting to think, “If ministers just take up the suggestions of these 263 laity, they will learn how to preach engaging sermons.” However, two factors remind preachers that the conclusions of the study can only be dialogue partners in the pastor’s ministry of preaching. First, an important finding of the broader study is that the listening climate varies from congregation to congregation. This article lifts up themes that are widely articulated in the churches in the study, but these respondents do not speak for all worshippers everywhere. Ministers need to give their own congregations the opportunity to say what local listeners find energizing.
Second, preachers are called to articulate messages that are consistent with the deepest Christian convictions, even when local preferences do not measure up to the fullness of God’s purposes. A preacher must wrestle with the degree to which the preacher can incorporate listener preferences into the shaping of the sermon and still remain faithful to the gospel.
I discuss the eight leading responses in the approximate order of frequency with which they are mentioned in the study. Toward the end of the article, I list several other responses that do not appear as often but that are still suggestive. Of course, several of the interviewees’ comments illustrate the fact that these categories are not separable but mutually affect one another.
Embody the Sermon in a Lively Way
The most frequent responses, and sometimes the most detailed, to the question that is the title of this article concern embodiment, a term replacing “delivery” in preaching circles. This change in nomenclature is happening because the word “embodiment” better captures the fact that the sermon comes alive through the preacher’s whole person in the pulpit. The word “delivery,” on the other hand, can suggest a relationship between minister and message that is no more than that between parcel post carriers and the packages they leave at your door.
Several listeners begin their responses to the title question of this article with words reminiscent of these. “If I can help any preachers, number one, I would say, ‘Work on your delivery. Make it interesting.” When asked about specific recommendations for improving the embodiment, the most frequent mentioned is, “Don’t read.” Enlarging the spin of this comment, another adds, “Just open up and talk to us, but don’t read.”
A closely related signal of good communication is eye contact. One says directly, “If you’re not looking out at us but looking off in the distance, there’s no feeling that I have to look back at you.” Few listeners remark on the degree to which their perception of the sermon is affected by the presence or absence of notes, but a couple say, “Good speakers can use notes without it appearing that they are using notes.”
The use of the voice is important. At the simplest level, “Number one, speak clearly so that everybody can understand everything you’re saying because if they don’t hear what you’re saying, they don’t get anything out of it.” In addition to being able to hear, a large number of these listeners respond positively to expression in the voice. “I like the variation, the modulation in the voice, and the engagement, like you’re telling a story.” An auditor in a different congregation goes on,
I’m saying learn to make variance in your voice so that it’s not monotone. Learn to use it for emphasis. That can be soft. That can be loud. Use the fluctuations and projections so that you have people’s attention. I think there are usually some places in sermons that should be emphasized more than others, and those are the ones where the voice plays a bigger part.
Gestures often draw recommendations from these advisors to preaching. “To be bolder with gestures or more dramatic – that makes sense.”
Some listeners like it when the preacher leaves the pulpit. “Preachers in general, I would tell to get out from behind the pulpit and be real and loosen up a little bit.” Another requests, “Come down out of that pulpit sometimes and come down into the aisle and really talk to the people. Sometimes I think that makes a big difference, because . . . when you really come down and talk to the people, and you’re on their level, it’s a little more personal for them.”
However, other members of the interview churches stress that movement needs to be purposeful. “Some preachers are nervous and it comes out in the way of jitteriness. Maybe they can’t stand still. Maybe they pace. I think you begin to worry about that movement. ‘Oh, my gosh, they’re going to knock over that glass of water.’” In such circumstances, “You become more involved in that kind of thing and not hearing what they’re saying.”
Stay within the Time Frame
Almost as many listeners in the study urged preachers to keep the sermon within a time limit as called for lively embodiment. Speaking in behalf of many other interviewees, one says as directly as possible, “Stay within the time frame.” To be sure, different congregations are socialized to expect sermons of different length, varying from ten minutes in an Episcopal congregation made up of persons of non-Hispanic European origin to thirty minutes (or more) in an African-American Baptist congregation. Of course, listeners in all traditions acknowledge occasions when the sermon seems to take the wings of the Spirit in ways that bypass the ticking of the clock. Indeed, one commentator allows that length is not as much a function of chronology as it is of meaning. “What makes the sermon too long is if it gets too far away from me personally and you lose my interest.”
Yet, with respect to the usual Sunday service, we hear significant numbers of people in all congregations who say something like, “I am annoyed when someone gets up and goes on for an extra half-hour and that happens without them telling me they’re going to do it. I think you start and stop when you’re supposed to.” One interviewee offers a loose quantification. “I think it’s probably time to wind it up – the sermon. Like we’ve had that high moment. I think sometimes it decreases its power by maybe ten percent with an extra five minutes.” Another says, “The best thing about our minister’s sermons is that the minister knows when to quit. The minister knew when the point had been made, and stops.” An extensive remark is unusually vivid:
I had this one teacher in college that talked about the concept of chasing a rabbit. When teaching a dog to hunt, you have to train the dog not to chase the rabbit too much before the dog brings the rabbit back to you. I think that’s a good point for pastors, not to chase the rabbit too long or too far, because eventually you’ll forget where they were trying to take you.
Many congregants speak indirectly about the length of the sermon in remarks that echo the following. “Just tell me what you want me to know.” When that happens, another listener adapts to preaching a proverb that sometimes appears in other life settings. “Recognize that less is sometimes better than more.” This person prescribes, “Once you’ve made your point, move on.”
Be Clear about What You Want to Say and Stick to It
Most of the listeners suggest that pastors make a single point (or a limited number of points gathered around a single focus). One interviewee underscores this idea. “Don’t just ramble. Stick to whatever the point is at that particular time. Make it and then sit down. Don’t just be filling up the time.” In like fashion, “Make your point so clear that I couldn’t miss it if I had to trip over it.”
A corollary is to make the big point once. “Make your point and move on. Don’t belabor. I’ve heard that more than once where one time would have been adequate. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to tell me the same thing in a different way four or five times. I’ve heard a lot of sermons that could have been half as long.” Indeed, one listener observes, “Some preachers get to the point and then start a whole new sermon.”
The impulse for a single point comes through another voice from the study in connection with other theme in this article. “Well, strictly from a technical point concerning the design of the sermon, I can only handle one point. If you give me one point, give the basis. Give me the evidence. I’m listening. I’ll hear you. Give me a story. Give me your personal consideration. I’ll take it into consideration.”
Preach from the Bible
As a seminary teacher of the Bible, I hoped that preaching from Scripture would be the most frequent response to the question behind this article. While the total number of respondents may place this response fourth in frequency, many are quite intense. A number of interviewees answer the question we are pursuing in this article with a sentence that contains a list of qualities that would energize their listening. Almost all of these one-sentence answers include the Bible being at the center of the sermon. For instance, “I think keeping it relevant, keeping it based on sound Scriptural doctrine, and giving it in a way that keeps your attention.”
Other listeners voice this concern more fully. “The main thing that’s important to me is that the Scripture be the basis, because really when I come to church I want to learn and grow. If all I have is someone’s opinion or a bunch of nice statements strung together, I don’t fee like I have learned very much.”
Many of the listeners in this project are aware that the Bible was written for a different time, place, and culture, and that the sermon needs to take this into account. “Use direct biblical reference – text, and context in which it was written, what it meant in that day and what it means for us in this day.” Several listeners want not only empirical information about the Bible but they appreciate it when you “go back and try to get a feel or think about what was going on at the time the scripture was written.”
One listener expresses particular appreciation for a technique that would be easy for other ministers to take up. “When the preachers are discussing a text from the Bible, they put it in context. More often than not, the preachers set the context of the Scripture before they read it. ‘This is Paul’s message. This is the reason the apostle was writing the message.’ To me that adds so much more than just standing up there and reciting.”
At the same time, several listeners caution that the sermon needs to maintain balance between focusing on the “pastness” of the Bible and interpreting the significance of the Bible for the sake of the congregation today. “Give us the appropriate background that we need, but don’t spend all of our time on that. Tell us how we can use it and how it applies to us.” Another says more simply, “I want the sermon Bible based, but I want it related to what’s going on in the world.”
Many congregants agree with the spirit of one who speaks of the Bible as offering a theological frame out of which to understand the whole of life.
I think you do have to bring the sermon out of the Bible. You can’t just talk about what happens in the world today. First of all, we’d all be so depressed we wouldn’t be able to handle it. But to be able to have the perspective that you’re not alone. That we all struggle with those things. That we can get these together, and we have to look at the big picture. These are just daily struggles. It’s not whole life. Whole life is a different issue. Those are the things that engage me most.
Apply the Sermon to the Congregation
Many of the listeners with whom we spoke stress that they want the preacher to apply the sermon specifically to the congregation and its context. For example, one says, “Relating the sermon to daily life, I think, would be tops on my list. What two or three things can I carry away from here that are just naturals for me to go out and say, ‘This is something I can do.’” Another listener suggests that, “If the pastors have preached particularly to an event going on, I usually will tell them that they really reached me, but no long sermons for me.” We hear similar resonance in other remarks. “I don’t think sermons [even from the Bible] are effective if they’re not connected to everyday life.”
A note found in many other remarks comes out in the following, “I would always enjoy something that relates to contemporary life or my life. That always engages me in the process.” This person cites several examples from “water cooler conversations” such as “a mom who drove into a tree the other night and killed herself and those two kids” and “how 168 families put their lives together after the Oklahoma City bombing.”
Another person not only suggests the importance of applying lessons from interaction with the Bible to today but proposes a way for doing so.
It seems to me the prime opportunity is for the person giving the sermon to try to read him or herself into the more serious aspects, the most important meanings of Scripture and then relate to them current realities. It’s not these stories that happened a long time ago and they’re important because Jesus said this or did that, but that they’re the words lighting our way. Lighting our path as we go forward in very troubled times either personally or collectively.
One of the best ways to apply the sermon, according to several parishioners, is to tell a story that brings the message to life. “One of the best ways to [connect the sermon to everyday life] is, ‘This is the message. Here’s a story to illustrate about Joe or about me. People can then relate to that.” This emphasis is reinscribed by another interviewee: “Good examples and illustrations are helpful to me. They put topics in perspective.”
A recurrent stress is that preachers can apply the sermon most effectively when they know the congregation. “I think it is important for preachers to be aware of what’s going on in the world, of what’s happening among the members of the congregation.”
Several people specifically ask for guidance in mission. “Tell me what I can do today to do the right thing and to make a difference.” An echo of this desire comes from another congregant in another community. “For that minister to give a sermon that will show me how I can help or do things – that would be an energizer where I can say, ‘Oh, yes. That would be something I can do.’”
Share Your Own Story with the Congregation
The minister’s own story – particularly the minister’s struggles with being faithful in personal and social issues and with theological ideas – helps many listeners in our sample tune into the sermon. One says simply, “Tell the truth and use your own personal testimony. You can talk a lot about what’s in a book, but nothing is quite as engaging as when you talk about your own struggles and your own personal experiences and how God has delivered you.” A member of another congregation in the study speaks in like manner.
“I would say this more than any other thing. The more you can connect and expose yourself personally, the more the congregation listens. That doesn’t mean to stand up and say, “I’m sleeping with half the congregation,” but, “Here is my personal struggle and here is how I’m working through it.” Those messages connect much more personally and much more frequently than the authoritarian messages.
Indeed, another listener says, “I really love the sermons that are about things that we’re uncomfortable about, and the times when the ministers say, ‘You know, I just don’t get this. I just really don’t understand this, but here’s what I’ve been thinking about.’ I love it when people get up and say, ‘I’m struggling with you on this.’”
I am surprised that when asked to tell one or two things that would energize their attentiveness, few of these listeners indicated a desire for sermons to touch them emotionally. However, calling for preachers to share their own stories is the context in which most of the listeners who speak about emotion or feeling as something they would like to receive from a sermon. In this vein one congregant says, “Our preacher draws so heavily on that person’s personal experience . . . the preacher frequently makes me cry. I think that’s because of the things the preacher is talking about.”
Focus on God
One would suppose that people coming to worship assume they are going to hear about God in a sermon. However, when asked to identify one or two things that would energize quite a few of the listeners in the study say they long to hear what God offers and what God wants. The following line sums up a concern from a variety of people in the 28 congregations. “I think it’s important that people know that God is there to help them and be with them and see them through these bad times.”
Another hearer addresses the preacher. “First, be real with God. You’re not here to impress me. You’re here – and this is what your job is and it’s what I look for from you – to hear God so that you can give me what God has for me, for your congregation.” Without interpreting a perspective on God, a sermon is not truly a sermon.
Another listener recommends, “Teach us about God and about how things work.” This listener wants to know how God is at work in things that happen in the world. Another listener succinctly hopes that the sermon will help the congregation to “Find God. Find yourself. Figure out where you’re at in God’s way because when you find God, you’ll find the love that it’s going to take to project everything out [the way things are supposed to be].”
Another listener is quite direct in wanting to get an interpretation of God’s perspective. “This [the content of the sermon] is something God would have me do that I can do to help me improve my life, to improve my relationship with my neighbor, to my family, to my church, to my community, whatever. That would be number one on my list: daily application.”
In these respects, some of the interviewees call for courage. “Approach life from an honest standpoint. Don’t pull punches. Talk about the difficult things. Bring them up. Try to relate them to what God’s will would be. Be brave. Don’t back off from things. Don’t just say what you think the congregation would want you to say.” From another congregation, we hear examples of such preaching. “Don’t be afraid to say, ‘This is how it is. God wants us to feed people. God wants us to clothe people. God wants us to love one another and to help one another. If you were going to tell me them anything to energize me, it’s ‘Don’t be afraid to take a stand.’”
Many participants in the study say they are engaged by sermons that cause them to think about God in a fresh way. Many of these folk want to come away from the sermon with important ideas about which to think during the week, and some like to be stretched intellectually. A few hearers put this item at the top of their list. “For me, [the first way to energize me] would be for the sermon to be thought provoking, yet non-prescriptive and not to separate the spiritual from the intellectual.” We hear such motifs in one who says, “Leave room for thinking. Don’t close the subject – open it up.” Another listener says expressly, “Give me credit for being able to handle abstract, sophisticated thought.”
A Strong Pastoral Relationship as Foundation to Preaching
Many hearers in the study indicate that their perception of the minister’s relationship with the congregation enhances (or detracts) from their receptivity to the sermon. When they believe that the preacher is a person of integrity who cares about them and who is faithful in areas of ministry beyond preaching, they tend to take seriously what the preacher says. A lay person says, “My advice would be: what’s more important [than the sermon itself] is what happens when you’re not behind the pulpit, but when you’re out in the congregation milling around with your congregation.”
One auditor says that a key to giving a “meaningful” message is to “know your members, really, so that you know to whom you’re speaking and how appropriate it is.” Another listener addresses the pastor’s relationship, “I think a preacher should have a good relationship with everybody in the congregation. Get to know them and don’t have your favorites.” A member of a different congregation reports similarly, “A minister has to be somebody that I can feel good about, that I can relate to, that treats everyone equally. I don’t like to see a minister split a church.” When the latter does take place, this listener finds it hard to continue to pay attention to the sermons.
On the other hand, when these hearers think the preacher is unethical, or does not care about the congregation, or is careless in other arenas of ministerial leadership, they tend to resist the preaching. “It starts with your own life. I know I’ve heard too many stories of people who lost respect for people who were trying to lead them.” In the same stream of thought we hear, “Actions speak louder than words. If you’re walking around here and you’ve got all these little phobias and all this baggage you’re carrying, then you don’t need to be speaking God’s word” because (a) you can’t hear that word clearly and (b) other people are so distracted by your behavior that they are not going to listen to what you have to say. When asked what this listener would say to such a preacher, the listener replies, “I would just come right and say, ‘You know what? I think you need to de-baggage.’”
A corollary is that preaching can help develop a strong pastoral relationship between the preacher and the congregation. One important way this phenomenon occurs is through pastors sharing their struggles with the congregation. One parishioner reports, “I was attracted to this congregation because the pastors clearly have some of the same problems we have. Sometimes when they’re at their very best, they’ll explain how they’re handling the problems, often with imperfect results.” Hearing such preaching inspired this listener to “just sit and talk” with the ministers and “to relate personal things that happen” which, in turn, further enhances the hearing of the sermon.
Less Frequent Responses that are Still Suggestive
A number of suggestions do not occur as frequently as the ones just discussed, but are still expressed by multiple hearers and point to things preachers can take seriously.
Many listeners stress that they want preachers to prepare messages. Even those who encourage the preacher to be responsive to the leading of the Holy Spirit in the moment of preaching suggest that the preacher come into the pulpit with “a structure, an outline, and a plan.” “The preacher should not come with no preparation.” The first thing another hearer says when asked to name “one or two things . . . ,” is, “Do their homework and be able to clearly articulate what they learned.” Another person approaches each sermon with a commitment to listen. However, “The only time I may be turned off with a minister is when the minister is not prepared or is way off the subject. Then I lose interest.”
Humor is another characteristic that notches a positive response. “I love having humor in a sermon – not lots of silly jokes but some anecdotes are good catches to pull me in, especially if there is something that can relate to actual people and sort of make us laugh every now and then.”
A group of these interviewees say they tend to catch the preacher’s enthusiasm for the subject. As one says, “Try to find a way within your own personality to show some enthusiasm for your subject.” Another reinforces, “I don’t know how I get energy from someone that doesn’t radiate or emit some themselves.” Still another is more modest, but still revealing. “Act like you’re interested in the subject yourself. Just put a little zip into it.”
A positive tone to the sermon – a sense of receiving good news that empowers the congregation for change – is important to many. When reflecting on energizing qualities in preaching, one says, “I like to feel good coming out.” This feeling is particularly important if “There’s something in your life you need to work on.” Asking for “A simple message,” one interviewee goes on, “Stick to it as best you can and try to end on a positive note and give people something to think on.” An educator adds, “Be engaged in the material yourself. Just like I’m a teacher – if I’m not interested in what I’m teaching, you better believe I lose the whole class.” A number of listeners advise preachers to help the congregation recognize shortcomings and things the people need to change, but not to let the sermon become a morass of negativity.
I am surprised that a bevy of interviewees stress that preachers should say what they truly believe. For instance, “You’re not just saying this. You’re saying something that you really believe. When our pastor preaches, it comes across as if the pastor really believes what the pastor is saying. It’s not just something the pastor has been programmed to say.” In a similar line, when asked the question powering this article, another listener responds with just two words: “Be authentic.”
One listener calls attention to a closely related quality of preaching. “I think a person preparing a sermon that’s going to inform and enlighten others must have an experience of being informed or enlightened himself or herself.” This listener wants to feel that each time ministers work with biblical texts and themes, they “learn something” afresh. Such sermons should “convey the experience of encountering and struggling with the lessons of this scripture.”
A few members of the local congregations in the project recognize that you need to keep deepening your powers as a preacher after you leave seminary. As one indicates, “Realize that seminary doesn’t do everything for you. You still want to realize your own weaknesses.” In this case, the prescription is simple. “I think one that that is significant about great ministers is that they recognize their deficiencies and take steps to get assistance, get support.”
A handful of the interviewees sound a note that is appropriate for bringing this article to a close. “I have to help energize myself,” says one. “I have to come with an open heart, open mind, just looking for something. Then, more than likely, I’ll get it.” An important task for ministers and other leaders of congregations, then, is to help people discover how to prepare to receive the sermon so that their experience of the message is enhanced when they hear it.
Ron Allen directed the study on which this article is based. The study has generated four books so far: John McClure, Ronald J. Allen, Dale P. Andrews, L. Susan Bond, Dan P. Moseley, and G. Lee Ramsey, Jr. Listening to Listeners: Homiletical Case Studies (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2004); Ronald J. Allen, Hearing the Sermon: Relationship, Content, Feeling (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2004); Mary Alice Mulligan, Diane Turner-Sharazz, Dawn Ottoni Wilhelm, and Ronald J. Allen, Believing in Preaching: What Listeners Hear in Sermons (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2005), and Mary Alice Mulligan and Ronald J. Allen, Make the Word Come Alive: Lessons from Laity (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2005).
Ronald J. Allen is Nettie Sweeney and Hugh Th. Miller Professor of Preaching and New Testament at Christian Theological Seminary, IN.