Edward Rosenbaum’s visits to the hospital were not like yours. He never had to complete reams of forms or endure the nervous tedium of the waiting room. When Rosenbaum entered, he passed through a private door and rode on a special elevator. He even called the doctors by their first names.
But once he was diagnosed with cancer this relationship took on a different cast. The next time he entered the hospital it was not as chief of medicine and president of the staff but as a patient. The experience was transformational. In his book entitled A Taste of My Own Medicine, Rosenbaum writes: “I have heard it said that to be a doctor, you must first be a patient. It wasn’t until then that I learned that the physician and patient are not on the same track. The view is entirely different when you are standing at the side of the bed from when you are lying in it.”
The same could be said of preaching. The sermon sounds very different from the other side of the pulpit. When I joined the faculty of Moody Bible Institute, after nine years of pastoral ministry, I found that my experience of the preaching event changed radically.
The Challenge of Listening
Occasionally one of the members of my church would chide me after the service for preaching too long. “Good sermon, pastor” he would say on the way out the door. Then with a smile he would add, “But if it can’t be said in twenty minutes, it doesn’t need to be said.” Although I did not agree with him, in those moments when I emerged from the prophetic rapture of sermon delivery, I had to admit that not everyone in my audience was as interested in listening as I was in preaching.
There was Dave, three rows back on the left hand side, bobbing his head drowsily. Behind him sat Jim, with eyes closed, unashamedly asleep. Meanwhile, a tired mother near the back tried to divide her attention between my message and the child seated next to her, who was busily asking questions about the picture she was coloring. Not one of these people appeared to find the worship experience quite as compelling me.
The Noisiest Pew in Church
It took only a few Sundays in the pew to discover how much competition the preacher faces during the message. One Sunday the background noise in the church seemed to be unusually high. It was certainly higher than anything I had encountered during my years in the pulpit. I could barely hear what the pastor was saying above the din of rustling pages, scribbling pencils, and tapping feet. Scanning the congregation for the source of the disruption, I was dismayed to find that it not only originated in my pew, it was being generated by my own children. When I raised my eyebrows to signal my displeasure to my wife, she gazed placidly ahead, apparently unconcerned about the racket being made by these unruly creatures.
I used to imagine what it would be like to worship with my family on Sunday. I envisioned the children eagerly sitting next to me, listening to the preacher with rapt attention. I thought that we would discuss the sermon together on the way home in the car, as I added my own valuable insight. The Sunday my youngest took a pencil from the pew rack and launched it across the sanctuary, it occurred to me that my perception of life in the pew may have been somewhat unrealistic.
“How can you worship with all this noise?” I asked my wife. She just laughed. “Welcome to the congregation” she said.
The comparative silence of the worship service masks a cacophony of hidden sounds and disruptions: the air conditioner hums, a man coughs, a baby cries. In the distance a siren blares and a passing motorcycle backfires. In addition to these normal background noises listeners must contend with the clamor of their own thoughts. They may be anxious about problems faced in the preceding week or preoccupied with their busy Sunday schedule. Every sound competes for the attention of the audience.
In order to impact my listeners, I must first get their attention. Once I have my audience’s attention, I must say something worth keeping it, and say it in a way that moves them to respond. The rule for preaching that I give my students is this: state your principle, paint a picture, then show your listeners what the principle looks like in their own context. Do this for every point in your message and you will be more likely to carry the audience with you.
State Your Principle
Today’s listeners have been conditioned by watching thousands of hours of highly produced, visually-oriented stories that have been neatly packed into segments of 15 minutes or less. Most of these stories are built upon a simple plot structure which raises a problem and resolves it in 30 to 50 minutes. Even more subtle in their impact than the situation comedies and dramas that are alleged to be television’s main offering are its real fare: the commercials which are sprinkled throughout each show and whose thirty seconds often cost more to produce than the entire program for which they provide financial support.
William Willimon has observed: “Our culture is dominated by communication technology that provides neither exposition, understanding, nor information. TV has made entertainment the focus in presenting experience, and it has shaped its own kind of audience. Commercials in particular disdain exposition because it takes time.”
The obvious response to this cultural trend would seem to be sermons that are short, narrative, affective, and non-propositional. However, true biblical preaching, even when it is primarily narrative in structure, must be propositional at its core. This is unavoidable because it is the communication of truth. Moreover, New Testament language is absolutist, repeatedly emphasizing that biblical preaching is the communication of the truth (2 Cor. 4:2; Eph. 1:13; 4:21; Col. 1:5; 2 Thess. 2:13; 1 Tim. 2:4; 3:15; 4:3; etc.).
In view of this, the first step in preaching must be to determine the propositional core of the sermon. What is the primary truth I hope to communicate to the listener? In order to respond to that truth, my audience must know what it is.
We cannot ignore the impact of television on our listeners but neither can we afford to sacrifice biblical content in an effort to make our sermons more “listenable.” The message must be grounded in propositional truth and that truth must be stated clearly. Truth, however, as important as it is, is not enough.
Paint a Picture
In a recent class dealing with the formulation and delivery of evangelistic messages, I noticed a common pattern among my students’ sermons. After a brief reading of the sermon text, the student would invariably leave it behind to meander down the Romans Road. When illustrations were used, which was rare, they were inevitably the tired old war horses that the students themselves had heard from other preachers. The most unnerving element of this experience was the sense of self-recognition it produced. I knew where I had heard these sermons before. I had preached them in the pulpit of my church. As I listened, it occurred to me that what we were really practicing was a kind of “word magic” — an attempt to elicit a response by chanting theological truths and bible verses over the congregation. Even worse, we were preaching evangelistic cliches!
Propositional truth is foundational to the sermon but it does not guarantee results. An approach that amounts to “word magic” operates under the false assumption that change is largely a matter of cognition. It assumes that all our listeners need to motivate them to change core values is an understanding of what the Bible says. Yet we often encounter those who understand the truths we preach and even affirm them, yet continue to act contrary to what they know and say they believe. Cognition isn’t the problem, motivation is.
Visual language and metaphor help to bridge the gap between cognition and motivation. Warren Wiersbe explains: “When confronted by a metaphor, you might find yourself remembering forgotten experiences and unearthing buried feelings, and then bringing them together to discover new insights. Your mind says, ‘I see!’ Your heart says, ‘I feel!’ Then in that transforming moment your imagination unites the two and you say, ‘I’m beginning to understand.'”
Metaphors are important in preaching, not only because they provide variety, but because they lie at the very core of human understanding. This is especially true of abstract concepts. According to George Lakoff, professor of linguistics at the University of California, and Mark Johnson, professor of Philosophy at Southern Illinois University: “Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature.” Metaphors help us to understand one thing by pointing us to something else and saying “This is that.”
Stories are also an important factor in motivating listeners to change their core values. An effective story captures and holds my attention on several levels. It captures my interest because it deals with “reality.” I may not be interested in theology, but I am interested in real life. A story has the power to touch my heart because I can identify with the problems, circumstances, or emotions of its central characters.
Even more importantly, stories provide me with an opportunity to “test drive” the truths emphasized in the sermon before being asked to make a personal commitment. It is no coincidence that nearly one third of the Bible is cast in story form. Jesus used metaphors and stories constantly in His preaching.
Another advantage of these tools is their ability to help counter the time lag that exists between preaching and listening. In The Christian Communicator’s Handbook Dr. Tom Nash, professor of communications at Biola University, notes that the average speaker says 120 to 150 words per minute, twice as slow as the comprehension rate of a relatively poor reader and twenty times slower than a good reader: “That means that something like 95 percent of the information processing capacity of the brain is unused when listening to speech.”
No wonder church members seem distracted when we preach! The brain has too much free time on its hands. Nash emphasizes the need to “cut through the listeners’ fog” by using personalized language and telling stories: “Give audience members something to think about or imagine to help keep their minds occupied so they won’t start thinking about other things.”
Show Them What it Looks Like
Metaphor, story, and visual language are not ends in themselves. They serve the propositional truth that lies at the heart of the message. However, once that truth has been clearly stated and illustrated, implications must be drawn for our listeners.
Jesus was application-oriented in His preaching. After preaching a message to His disciples that included both propositional truth and metaphoric action, He promised: “Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them” (John 13:17). The ultimate goal in my preaching is action. I want my listeners to be doers of the word as well as hearers. In order to facilitate their response I must help them to see what that response looks like in their own context. To do this I must take their place in the pew before I stand in the pulpit.
When it comes to sermon application I struggle between two extremes. When my applications are too general, listeners affirm the validity of what I say without taking personal responsibility for acting on it. As long as Nathan preached to David in parables, David could affirm the heinousness of the sin the prophet had described without referring to himself. It was only when the prophet moved to application and declared “You are the man” that David was able to say “I have sinned against the LORD” (2 Sam. 12:1-14).
On the other hand, when my applications are too specific it is easy for listeners to disqualify themselves by noting that they do not fit the specific conditions described in my examples. This kind of case study approach was often employed by the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, allowing the Pharisees and Scribes to exempt themselves. One of Jesus’ purposes in the Sermon on the Mount was to help His listeners see the general principles behind familiar truths that had been particularized away. On the other hand, an overly specific approach to application can lead to legalism, an attendance to the letter of the law without regard to its spirit. Effective application must be both general and specific but above all it must be relevant.
While preparing a message on the second chapter of Hebrews, I thought of Joyce, a woman in my congregation who was dying of cancer. Her gaunt face, ravaged by the effects of chemotherapy and radiation, came to mind as I meditated on Hebrews 2:15, a passage which says that one of the purposes of the incarnation was to “… free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.” I had just completed two or three paragraphs of cliches, assuring the congregation that the true Christian does not fear death.
“Do you think she believes that?” a voice seemed to say. I could not be certain of the answer. How would I feel if I were dying and had to listen to my own sermon?
The next question was even more disturbing. “Do you believe that?” I had to admit that I did not — at least not as a matter of personal experience. I could affirm it as a point of faith. But if I was going to be honest, I would have to admit that, even as a Christian, I often struggled with a fear of death. Suddenly the tone of my sermon changed. Cliches and platitudes would never do. The thoughtful listener would see through them and know that I was only whistling in the dark, trying to avoid facing my own fear. If I was going to preach this text truthfully, I would have to spend some time sitting next to Joyce and confront my own fear of death.
Edward Rosenbaum was right. To be a doctor, you must first be a patient. The same is true of those who seek to be physicians of the soul. The view is entirely different, depending on which side of the pulpit you are on. To preach effectively we must first take into account the view from the pew.

Share This On: