It struck me recently that preaching would be greatly improved if preachers listened to more preaching. This is difficult when we are the ones charged to preach to our congregations every week. But there is a significant difference between offering sermons and listening to sermons. If preachers could hear sermons more than just preaching sermons, their preaching might improve.
I know that most of us listen to our favourite preachers online or via podcasts, and that has to be helpful. But it is not the same thing as sitting in a congregation in the context of worship and hearing a sermon. Preachers have assumptions. Listeners have expectations. The two are not always aligned.
I had two recent sermon listening experiences that were painful. Everything the preachers said was worthy. I did not have any theological or exegetical concerns. It is just that the sermons were tedious to listen to. It took a significant amount of intention on my part to pay attention – and I will admit that I did not fully succeed. A few conversations after the services indicated to me that other listeners had the same trouble.
I wonder what was going on in the mind of the preachers. I suspect that they were oblivious. They had passion for their subjects. They believed what they were saying. They simply droned on, seemingly unaware of the mind-numbing nature of their presentation. What would they have thought if they knew what was going on in the mind of their listeners.
I’m sure they would have been devastated. Surely, this was not what they intended as they poured themselves into preparation. It is just that somewhere along the way, they forgot about the fact that people have to listen to what they are saying and that it isn’t always easy.
The success of our preaching is largely the work of the Holy Spirit who has promised to work through the faithful communication of the truth of Scripture. I get that on a theological level, but as a listener in the crowd, my experience has not always seemed so fruitful. I don’t want to blame the Spirit. I am sure that I bear some of the blame myself. But there is no doubt that the preacher could do something to make the hearing of their sermons less of a chore. As they care about the gospel, I would think that they would want to.
A good place to start might be for preachers to listen to more sermons. We might have to clear time to visit elsewhere on Sundays, to attend some conferences, or to schedule more guest preachers, but somehow, we need to get the experience from the perspective of our listeners. We need to appreciate what it is like to sit and to listen.
This should be a certain kind of listening, attentive to what is happening inside of us as we hear. Is this sermon a delight to listen to or a drudgery? Do I have to strain to follow? I am not suggesting that we turn ourselves into critics, but that we tune ourselves to the experience of our listeners so that we can be more helpful to them when next we get up to preach.
We may even want to listen to more of our own recorded sermons, though that might be painful. It is easy for us to project difficulties with others without giving the same level of scrutiny to ourselves. Self-awareness is an important trait for preachers.
I do believe that truth has its own compelling power. But I also know that as a preacher, I am called to exercise my gifting to produce something that is attractive to listeners and that will create a hearing. Part of this is about sound and careful exegesis. But some of it, is about being creative and engaging.
So, preacher, have you heard any great preaching lately?