Grab Peoples’ Attention As You Preach

Grab Peoples’ Attention As You Preach

While I was in seminary I spent a summer in a church in Canada to get credit for “field work”.  I preached every Sunday morning and evening for 12 weeks while in a medium-sized church in a medium-sized town.  The first week there was a shock to me.  You see, the church had a large contingent of dairy farmers in it.  They began their Sunday morning very early, driving cows into a barn, feeding them and milking them.  Then they would get ready and come to church, where they would sit in a warm sanctuary and relax.  By the time I preached, many of them would begin drifting off into sleep.  I realized then that I really didn’t know how important how important it was to grab peoples’ attention as you preach to them.  I thought people would just naturally listen.

The Problem of Lack of Attention

Bryan Chapell has taught on written on preaching a great deal.  He wrote in his book, Christ-Centered Preaching,

Despite the fondest wishes of a preacher, most parishioners struggle to pay attention to each word from the pulpit, just as most preachers do when they happen to sit in the pew.  (location 7678).

So you need to grab peoples’ attention as you preach to them.  I’ve written about this before in this blog, but in this post we’re going to begin a series of reflections on how to hold peoples’ attention.

Are People Paying Attention As You Preach?

Different church traditions have different signals that people are paying attention.  In my black Pentecostal friend’s church, the people are shouting, “Amen”, clapping their hands, waving them above their heads.  All of these actions indicate they are engaged.

In my tradition, people show their attention by looking at you pretty intentionally, with eyes open and mind attentive. Some even take notes.  I’ve learned, however, that there are actions that I can make that will be helpful to grabbing their attention when it starts to wander.  Here are some of those actions.  A disclaimer here: most of these are covered in Brandon Hilgemann’s excellent book, Preach and Deliver

Ask Questions to Grab Peoples’ Attention

The best sermons are a cross between a monologue and dialogic presentation.  One way you can engage people in a dialogue with you is to ask questions that engage their minds.  With a question you get people to think.  This was a beautiful tactic of Jesus.  As you read through the gospels, you find Jesus asking questions of his disciples.  He asked questions like, “Who do people say that I am?”   The disciples had to think before they gave an answer.

In your sermons, find those places, those moments, where you can ask a question that will invite people to think, to wonder.  I’ve even asked people to respond by shouting out their answers.  I’ve found that tactic wonderful, but do note that it is easier in an intimate sanctuary rather than a large one.

Tell People How To Respond

A second tactic is to tell people how to respond.  Here are some examples from Hilgemann:

  • “Raise your hands if…”
  • “Amen?”
  • “Nod your head if you agree that…”
  • “Tell the person next to you…”
  • “Look at this…”
  • “Listen close, because this is important…”
  • “Stand up if…”
  • “Repeat after me…”
  • “Close your eyes and imagine this with me…”

Sometimes you don’t even have to verbalize the action you want.  All you have to do is to do it yourself.  For instance, when you ask a question, you can demonstrate for people the response you want.  “Have you ever thought that?”  Then raise your own hand.  People will respond by raising their hands.

Be aware, however, that people don’t like to call attention to themselves or stick out.  They will need your invitation to participate.

In the next post we’ll continue to explore this topic.  For now, think about how you are going to grab peoples’ attention as you preach to them.