The story of Eutychus (Acts 20:7-9) is a two-edged sword. It cuts on one side with humor and on the other with tragedy. Yet this story is repeated unknown times in churches each Sunday. Those of us who face our congregations weekly with hearts full of God’s good news probably feel the tragic side of the sword as we watch people nod off to a rendezvous with Morpheus. The temptation often is to blame the congregation for the problem; to call them lazy, or worse, apathetic.
But we preachers must not be too hasty to call names or shift blame for the problems inherent in the act of preaching. We must face the reality that the apparent apathy of many toward preaching is not just their problem, but it is “ours,” too. We participate in it and must, for the outset, own our own apathy. In fact, more than one preacher has been known to cause less than enthusiastic attitudes toward proclamation.
Harold Cooke Phillips tells the story of a hard-working Scottish washwoman who attended church regularly. Her pastor was curious about her, so he asked why she came so faithfully.
“Is it that you enjoy the beautiful music?”
“No, it’s no’ that.”
“Perhaps you enjoy my sermons.”
“No, it’s no’ that.”
“Then what brings you here every week?”
“Weel, it’s like this. I work hard a’ week, and it’s no’ often I get sic a comfortable sate wi sae little tae think about.”
Look at the problem from a more serious angle. Norman Pittenger quotes an unknown poet who wrote:
I came to you in anxiety, and you give me uncertainties…
I came without meaning, and you preach nonsense.
I came in confusion, and you cry “Miracle.”
If my only choice is to be a Christian or a modern man,
I have no choice. Modernity is my name–I am its child.
This story and poem are actually mirrors which reflect the situations confronted by both the presence in the pew and by the person who stands to proclaim the Word of God. Both the preacher and the worshippers contribute to the problem and are injured by the problem of apathy. Both seem to be screaming, at least silently, “What can we do about it?”
Understanding Apathy in Pulpit-Pew Relationships
The late 1970s and early eighties were a backlack of the sixties. The turmoil of those years slowed, and much social activism stagnated. American society, as a whole, reeled and floundered, or at least hesitated.
The swinging of the pendulum did not bypass the Christian church. Just about the tithe some of us were beginning to grasp some of the great social issues, the mood changed and moved to the right. Many were left stranded ideologically, like dinosaurs which could not adapt to a great climate change and which thereby became extinct. The mindset of middle-class America, many of whom populate the churches, seems to be a “let’s-wait-and-see” attitude.
David K. Switzer has reminded us that apathy is but one of many responses one may have when he feels his important relationships are threatened. Social conditions are such that they do pose a threat to our relations with others, to upset the proverbial applecart. This is one reason why a minister must be careful to maintain his or her own personal vision of the transforming power of the love of God in the face of a seemingly apathetic congregation.
The ancient stoics used to speak about apatheia, the rejection of emotions. Even though they saw such rejection as a virtue, the effective minister of today cannot afford the luxury of emotional anesthesia. Emotional flatness has no place in ministry, even though all ministers will encounter church members affected by such emotional stagnation. These members have “an unconscious protest against dissatisfaction, boredom, or loss of interest in the adventure of living,” as Paul Johnson put it.
Many reasons exist for this seeming loss of adventure. Anger, personal crisis, and anxiety are but a few of the barricades preventing people from living freely under the mandates and privilege of the Gospel.
Speaking of the “angry/numb” Daniel G. Bagby notes that the severity of the stored-up anger can produce what he calls as “anesthesia of feelings.” This condition is often interpreted by others as apathy. Persons with such unresolved anger are called “inactive” or “unconcerned,” but they actually may feel ignored by others in the church. Says Bagby, “The new shade of apathy is designed to protect them from caring so much that they continue to suffer. They never quit caring; they just inoculate themselves from its intensity in order to survive in or outside the church.” (Understanding Anger in the Church)
Wayne E. Oates notes that apathy seems to be almost divine protection of the total person against massive overwhelming assaults upon the integrity of the self. The problem is that such apathy may be adopted as a way of life. Such “apathetic selves” are well known by most ministers. Oates makes a perceptive comment which should be heeded by all preachers.
“Much that is called irreligion is apathy to that which has been presented as religion. The person is simply “left cold” by the whole interest. His religious history in itself may reveal that this is a reaction to disappointment, disillusionment, hurt, and exploitation in relation to “religious” persons, personages, and institutions.” (Protestant Pastoral Counseling, p. 208).
Jesus Himself faced some of the same problems. Apathy would describe a large part of his audiences.
In all of the above material I have simply tried to lay a foundation for understanding apathy in pulpit and pew relationships. In the remainder of this article, I will deal specifically with issues related to preaching, beginning with some of the criticisms leveled against preaching.
Criticisms of Preaching
Frederick Buechner wrote, “Sermons are like dirty jokes; even the best ones are hard to remember.”
Those of us who preach wish remembering the sermon were the only problem involved, but we know it is not. On the whole, the Christian Gospel is good news; it announces “The most wonderful thing has happened!” Dorothy Sayers once said she could not see how anyone could make this good news dull and uninteresting. Thinking about Sayers’ comment, J. Winston Pearce wrote, “Yet somehow preachers manage to make the story dull. And when the people hear a dull sermon on the facts of the Gospel, the interpretation of those facts, they somehow get the idea that the facts are dull and their meaning unimportant.” Pearce pointed out that many people are unable to distinguish between dull preaching and exciting events.
No age has been free from criticism against the pulpit, including the nineteenth century, the so-called “Golden Age” of preaching.
I want to deal briefly with some contemporary criticism which are raised in two notable books by Clyde Reid and Reuel L. Howe. In his book, The Empty Pulpit, Clyde Reid listed seven criticisms against preaching:
– Preachers tend to use complex, archaic language which is hard to understand.
– Most sermons are boring, dull, and uninteresting.
– Most preaching today is irrelevant.
– Preaching today is not courageous preaching.
– Preaching does not communicate.
– Preaching does not lead to change in persons.
– Preaching has been overemphasized.
Ruel Howe catalogues six criticisms in a similar fashion in Partners in Preaching:
– Sermons contain too many complex ideas.
– Sermons have too much analysis and too little answer.
– Sermons are too formal and impersonal
– Preachers assume laymen have a greater degree of theological and biblical knowledge than they do.
– Sermons are too prepositional and contain too few illustrations.
– Too many sermons reach a dead end and give no guidance to commitment and action.
Another criticism was unknowingly voiced by a preacher recently when he said to his congregation, “Now, before I preach, I want to say something.”
Given the extent of the problem, we are lead to ask why people listen to sermons at all and why preachers keep on preaching. Webb B. Garison asked these questions and compiled the following list of answers in The Preacher and His Audience. People listen to sermons:
– Out of loyalty to an institution.
– For no recognized purpose at all (perhaps habit).
– For fellowship.
– To worship.
– From the desire for information.
– out of respect for traditional authority.
– Out of curiosity.
– For the sake of exhibition.
– As an emotional outlet.
– Because of personal problems.
And why do preachers preach?
– Because of loyalty to an institution.
– For material gain.
– As an agent of an absolute authority.
– For a sense of personal triumph.
– To dispense information.
– To change lives for the better.
Are any of these reasons for listening or preaching enough? Will they transcend the criticisms and carry the word of the Gospel forward?
Variable Approaches to Preaching
Given the apathy of many toward it, how can preaching be done effectively? How do we preach in such a way as both to interest people and to effect a change in them?
First, and most obviously, if we are apathetic and uninterested in our own message, we will never positively influence anyone to accept the Gospel. Think of those times you have heard someone preach when you know his or her heart was not in the message. A well-known preacher within my own denomination (Southern Baptist) recently stated that he “feels” only about one fourth of his own sermons. This announcement startled me because this man influences so many people.
I confess that at times I preach because I have to say something rather than because I have something to say. When I do, my people know it, too. If I sound bored with what I am saying, they will be bored also. It is contagious. At the same time, our hearers will be interested in what we say if we are interested.
Communication specialists tell us there are perfectly legitimate means of gaining interest for our sermons. One such specialist, Merrill R. Abbey, has said, “Interest precedes influence. If we make communication that matters, the listener must cooperate. The choice is his; he must want to hear what is being said.” Abbey identifies six facts which help us understand how to achieve interest.
– Develop and maintain interest from the very beginning of the sermon.
– Use contrast and novelty in the sermon.
– Build movement and change into the sermon.
– Stay in touch with broad human interests.
– Touch the internal values and wants of the hearers.
Working on this subject of interest and attention, Faris D. Whitesell and Lloyd M. Perry, in their book, Variety in Your Preaching, offer good advice for sustaining it:
“Positively, the speaker can hold attention by presenting fresh knowledge; by presenting what is novel, exotic, or strange; by attacking principles, parties, men, institutions; by giving the audience special “inside information,” by dealing with common problems, aspirations, crises, temptations, defeats, and triumphs of mankind; by carefully chasing his words; by using effective pauses; by varying the rate of speaking; by stressing important words; by maintaining eye contact; by using proper gestures; by using visual aids; by being as concrete as possible; by stimulating the curiosity of the audience in the opening part of the sermon; by creating expectation and desire; by resting the audience with proper illustrations and touches of humor; by making visible progress toward the goal; and finally by direct personal application.”
When I first read this statement, I felt overwhelmed and wondered aloud, How can I do all that? The answer is obvious: I can’t and neither can anyone else — at least not all the time. This is why the responsibility of the congregation to create the proper climate for worship and preaching must be stressed.
The context for hearing the Word is as important as the content of the sermon. This takes a great burden from the preacher’s shoulders because the Word does not necessarily stand or fall with his or her words. H.H. Farmer said that the context of worship protects the congregation from both the weaknesses and the strengths of the preacher. If the preacher’s utterances are weak, then the other elements of worship are able to speak to persons. If the preacher is strong, and crowds flock to hear him or her, worship is able to speak to persons. If the preacher is strong, and the crowds flock to hear him or her, worship prevents the hearers from worshipping the wrong god, namely, the preacher.
Our preaching should interest people. In order to get a proper hearing for our sermons, we must set the context — in this case, worship. We can put together the most moving sermon of our careers, only to have our efforts stifled by a poorly planned and executed worship service. Something as mundane as. an auditorium which is too hot or cold can be a mortal enemy of the preacher. The same is true of crying children, illegible worship bulletins, and outside noise, although we do not always have control over these distractions.
Worship is an attitude as well as an action. We dare not, therefore, spend all of our time preparing sermons without also preparing the people for reception of those sermons via worship. Thus, worship is more than simply the accessory to preaching.
Once we have gained attention for our message, we can then begin to motivate people to action regarding the Gospel. Alan Monroe has suggested a helpful sequence of motivation. Referring to each item as a step, Monroe spoke first fo the Attention Step, which is self-explanatory. Next is the Need Step — which raises the issue of what needs to change or remain as is. The third step is the Satisfaction Step in which the means of meeting the need (step two) is shown. Fourth is the Visualization Step. Here the hearer is shown the results of doing or failing to do what is needed. Finally is the Action Step, a call to a definite action. I remember this sequence by the acronym, ANSVA. This sequence is a useful tool, but it is not a gimmick with guaranteed automatic results.
There are specific ways of preaching which might prick the interest and action of the apathetic.
Continued in the September/October issue of Preaching.
(c) Don M. Aycock, Adapted from Apathy in the Pew: Ministering to the Uninvolved Johnson City, Tenn.: The Institute of Social Sciences and Arts, 1983).

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