Having preached nearly every week for over 30 years now, I have heard the phrase thousands of times: “Nice sermon.”
To be honest, I’m still trying to decide how I feel about it. Some people say it with great sincerity, while others say it almost as a reflex. Some signal with their facial expression and body language that a particular sermon has really encouraged them or made them think. Others say the words, but their eyes or tone of voice tell another story.
Of course, immediate feedback is not the most appropriate measure of the value of preaching. If the purpose of all worship—including preaching—is to build up the body of Christ (as Paul states quite plainly in 1 Corinthians 14), then the real test of whether or not preaching is any good is in how much congregations and the individuals in them come over time to embody the grace and values of Jesus. Still, preaching won’t be very edifying if the people tune out. This makes understanding preaching from the congregation’s point of view extremely important.
The problem is that people are rarely going to tell you the truth about your preaching, even if you ask them to. Even if it were easier to get people to be honest about our preaching, it would remain quite difficult for most of us preachers to make ourselves that vulnerable.
Since direct feedback is so hard to get and so hard to take, perhaps some more general sense of what people need and want from preaching can be helpful. Based on my experience and careful listening to a great deal of “indirect feedback” through the years, here are seven thoughts that are often going through the minds of those in the pew when we who preach step up to the pulpit.
1. Don’t waste my time.
The speeches of one 20th century politician were described as “thousands of words wandering around an empty plain in search of an idea.” The same could be said of more than a few sermons. “Appropriate” sermon length is largely a matter of tradition but, whether short or long, sermons shouldn’t meander or go off on tangents. Use your preparation time to come up with a clear idea you want to communicate and then say only what needs to be said to get that idea across. Create clear and meaningful transitions. Start and end strong. Make every minute count.
2. Don’t show off how smart (or holy) you are.
Preach to edify, not to impress. You don’t have to keep reminding me you can read Greek and Hebrew, or that you like to study Barth’s Dogmatics in your spare time. And while you are at it, go easy on the illustrations that cast you in the role of “hero” or “saint.” Name dropping is a big no-no, too.
3. I’m not stupid, so don’t talk down to me.
I’m not here for simple answers and a pat on the head. Don’t be afraid to challenge me or to admit that serious thinkers can have sincere disagreements about the meaning of texts or the proper interpretation of doctrines. A sermon shouldn’t resemble a seminary lecture, but it shouldn’t sound like a children’s story, either.
4. Make me feel something.
I’m not just here for some ideas to consider. I am here to be motivated, comforted, and inspired. Don’t manipulate my emotions, but at the same time don’t ignore them. I want to weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice, just like the good book says. I want to feel the same kind of compassion Jesus felt when he looked out at the crowds, or at Zacchaeus in the tree. And I want the things that break God’s heart to break mine, too.
5. Spare me the self-help mumbo-jumbo.
There are plenty of perfectly good selfhelp and motivational speakers out there, and if I wanted advice or a pep talk, I would seek them out. I come to church for other reasons. I want to understand God’s perspective on things. I want to experience God’s love and hear God’s call to use my gifts in service to God and others. I already spend too much time thinking about how I can be happier, healthier, wealthier, and more popular. I come to church to be reminded that it really isn’t all about me after all.
6. Be real. Don’t try to entertain me.
Nothing is a bigger turn-off in a preacher than phoniness, and the phoniest preachers of all are those who start to think of themselves as entertainers. Sure, it feels good when people laugh at your jokes, but try to not tell a joke unless it is somehow related to your serious points. Be just as cautious about stories that you know can bring people to tears; use them sparingly. If people begin to sense that you are “performing” rather than preaching, they are going to judge you on that basis. You don’t want that. Unless you are the second coming of Meryl Streep, the reviews may be brutal.
7. What does this have to do with my life?
The sermon may be well-crafted, reasonable, touching, and sincere, but if it doesn’t connect with my life, my struggles, and my effort to follow Jesus in everyday life, what good is it? What am I supposed to think, feel, or do differently in light of the lessons found in scripture? As you craft your sermon, imagine me saying, “So what? Why should I care? What difference does it make?” If you can’t answer those questions, get back to work. The sermon isn’t ready yet.
Parishioners don’t expect every sermon to be perfect. They understand and accept that there may even be a “clunker” now and then. But they rightfully expect preachers to be committed enough to our craft to keep working at it. No matter how long we have been preaching, there is always room for growth and improvement. Taking a workshop or reading books on preaching can help, but so can listening to the folks who listen to us.
James Benedict is a retired Church of the Brethren minister living in New Windsor, Maryland.