The preaching event involves not only God, the preacher and the biblical text, but the people who listen to the sermon. Unfortunately, writing and teaching in the field of preaching has focused predominantly on getting the text right (exegesis), getting the style right (rhetoric) and most importantly getting God right (theology). These are, no doubt, essential concerns and skills for effective preaching, but something is missing. Getting the listener right is a paramount, though often neglected, consideration in preaching today.
Effective sermons engage the varied listening styles represented in the congregation. Too often, we preachers become stylistically self-absorbed. We are tempted to let our stylistic preferences dominate our preaching. The only problem with my preferences is that they center on me, the preacher, not the needs of the people to whom I preach. Sometimes we preachers promote our personal style from preference to principle without realizing we’re doing it.
Our preferred preaching style matters but no more, and perhaps less, than the listening styles of the people to whom we preach. The most fruitful preachers have learned to overcome their personal preferences in order to address the diverse needs of listeners. Let’s explore four primary ways listeners engage sermons so our preaching can impact more lives.
1. Some Listen with the Mind for Exegetical Information
Some people want the sermon more than anything else to inform them concerning the world in which the Bible is set. People who want to be in the biblical know care deeply about the meaning of words and the historical background of the text you’re preaching. You can see these listeners perking up and jotting notes when the preacher shares an informative exegetical gem. They actually do want to know what happened to the Jebusites!
These listeners typically want a logical sermon outline with clear points drawn from the deep study of one biblical text. People who listen to the sermon for information tend to appreciate sermons titled: “3 Conflicts in the Corinthian Congregation,” “Principles of Love According to Ecclesiastes 4:9-12” and “Learning from the Seven Churches in Revelation.”
Can you picture someone in your congregation who listens to the sermon with the mind for information? Dave wanted my sermons to drip with exegetical meat. No word study could be too detailed, no historical background too exhaustive for Dave. When I wrote my sermon, I pictured how Dave and those similar to him would receive it.
2. Some Listen with the Heart for Illustrative Inspiration
Many people listen to the sermon primarily for inspiration, not information. This is not to say the inspirational sermon cannot inform; it’s just that the primary aim is inspiration. These listeners want their hearts touched through the message. They want to be inspired to live for Christ in the world. These listeners often check out during the Greek word studies but lean forward to hear illustrations that hit the heart. More than other types of listeners, those who listen with the heart appreciate the testimonial accounts of the preacher—including when they’re overdone! They don’t care much about the logic and flow of the sermon as long as stories for the heart are interspersed throughout the message. Some inspirational sermon titles might include: “God Comforts the Broken-Hearted,” “You Matter to God” “God Can Redeem Your Dark Past.”
Joe seemed to access my sermons through his heart. There were many Sundays when I saw tears flow from his eyes, especially while I told stories about God’s gracious, life-transforming interactions with people. Do you have some Joes in your congregation? If so, picture their faces as you develop the sermon.
3. Some Listen with the Soul for Theological Reflection
Listeners who crave the space for deep theological reflection are similar to those who are engaged via exegetical information. The distinction is that the information-hungry listeners want to get into the details of the Bible passage, while theologically reflective listeners want to focus on the forest rather than the trees. People who listen to the sermon mostly for theological reflection want to explore and grasp the nature and purposes of God.
While most listeners are comfortable with concrete language, theologically reflective listeners feel right at home in the conceptual realm. Examples of sermon titles for reflective listeners might be: “Why Is There Pain in a World that a Loving God Created?,” “Implications of the Incarnation” and “The Trinity as a Model for Christian Community.”
Patrick listens with the soul for theological reflection. After my sermon was delivered, he often wanted to discuss other angles on my topic that I failed to consider. He didn’t do this arrogantly; he just enjoyed having thoughtful theological discussions that related, even if loosely, to the sermon. He didn’t accept simple answers to thoughtful theological questions. Do you have a Patrick or two in your congregation, someone who wants the sermon to create space for reflection from various theological vantage points? Include in the sermon what will engage those listeners.
4. Some Listen with the Hands for Practical Application
There are people who listen to the sermon for practical wisdom they immediately can apply to their lives. They want the sermon to give them something they can do now to live for God. These application-oriented listeners are not chiefly interested in theological reflection, hearty inspiration or exegetical information alone; they are doers who want the sermon to provide practical life application.
If the sermon is of the linear propositional sort, it should delineate application with every point. The narrative sermon, built on plot rather than points also should explore several avenues for application. Here are some sermon titles that might fall into this category: “How to Develop a Healthy Marriage,” “Ways to Develop Your Relationship with Christ” and “5 Insights for Holy Time Management.”
Rich worked on Wall Street. He is a bottom-line guy in a bottom-line world. While he needs to be stretched toward theological reflection, he must be able to see the light of application at the end of the sermonic tunnel. To ensure that my sermons have ample application, I think of Rich. I ask myself questions such as, “How will the biblical theology of my sermon apply to marriage, dating and parenting, to finances, work, and emotions?” Think of the Rich in your congregation when you write your sermons.
Your congregation consists of diverse people who listen with their minds for exegetical information, their hearts for illustrative inspiration, their souls for theological reflection, and their hands for practical application. No listener should be put in an airtight box, however, because the preaching needs of that particular listener may change, sometimes week to week.
On any given Sunday, worshipers show up hungry to reflect on the deeper questions of the souls because their coworkers are asking those tough questions. The following week, they show up wanting practical application they can embody in new dating relationships. The week after that, they hope the sermon will provide the information and inspiration needed from God’s Word to help with career decisions. The diverse and shifting needs of listeners require the preacher to connect as much as possible with those who listen for information, inspiration, reflection and application.
Sidebar: Practical Exercises
Snapshots: Identify people in your congregation who typify one of the four primary ways listeners engage the sermon. Once you have identified a person for each listening style, put their pictures in the four corners of your computer screen as you write the sermon. This practice may seem strange, but it works—trust me. Just make sure one of the four people doesn’t walk in while you’re writing the sermon. That could be a problem.
Single Sermon: Consider ways your upcoming sermon can intersect with the four kinds of listeners. What parts of your sermon will inform and inspire, as well as make room for reflection and application? After you write the first draft of the sermon, designate each major move or part with information, inspiration, reflection or application. Discern which listener needs are neglected or overused. Then, edit the sermon to connect with more listeners.
Sermon Series: Sketch out a four-week sermon series, designing each sermon to address primarily one of the four listener needs. Week one of the series might be developed to appeal mostly to those who listen with the heart for inspiration. Week two can be designed mostly to address those who listen with the mind for information. Write the sermon for week three to appeal mostly to those who listen with the soul for reflection. Finally, the fourth sermon might be written to engage those who listen with their hands for application. The order of the four can vary, though the progression from inspiration to information to reflection to application works extremely well for the sermon series and the stand-alone sermon.
Lenny Luchetti is Associate professor of proclamation and Christian ministry at Wesley Seminary at Indiana Wesleyan University in Marion, Indiana. You can follow him on Twitter @LennyLuchetti.