Listening To The Listeners

Listening to Listeners

Haddon Robinson Making a Difference in Preaching

Haddon Robinson

Haddon Robinson taught preaching for many years at Denver Theological Seminary.  The title for this post is the title of  one of the chapters in his book, Making a Difference in Preaching.  Listening to listeners is one of the keys to preaching more effectively to your particular audience.

What do you think of sermons?

“What do you think of sermons?”  That was the question that the Institute for Advanced Pastoral Studies asked general churchgoers here in the US, and here are some of the answers that were given:

“Too much analysis and too little answer.”

“Too impersonal and too propositional–they relate nothing to life.”

I think I like this one best: “Most sermons resemble hovercrafts skimming over the water on blasts of hot air, never landing anywhere.”

Robinson notes, “No wonder sermons are occasionally mocked as ‘the fine art of talking in someone else’s sleep’.” ( Making a Difference in Preaching, p. 129).

Are you listening to the listeners?

There are a variety of ways to listen to the listeners.  Here are some that have the potential to enrich your preaching.

Listening Before the Sermon

One way of doing this is to listen before the sermon.  For awhile, I had a sermon preparation group.  We would meet on Wednesday evening, and I would give them a brief summary of the Bible study I had done on the passage I planned for the coming Sunday.  They would have read and reflected on the passage before coming to the meeting.  Then they shared their own reflections, as well as gave me abundant illustrative material.  Note that this takes quite a bit of work to pull off, but I’m sorry I didn’t keep this up longer.

Wesley gets feedback

(c) John Wesley

Another way to listen to listeners before the sermon is to actually practice preach it to someone.  Robinson tells the story of John Wesley, the great preacher from the 18th century.

John Wesley read some of his sermons to an uneducated servant girl with the instruction, “If I use a word or phrase you do not understand, you are to stop me.’  By this exercise the learned Methodist developed the language of the mines and marketplace. (Making a Difference in Preaching, p. 132-133).

Some pastors practice their sermons to their wives to get feedback.  That’s an okay practice, provided the wife is willing. But I suspect that feedback from the “real” audience is more beneficial.

Another way of accomplishing listening to listeners is this: a pastor produced a brief Bible study for small groups that met on Wednesday.  He based the material on the passage to a be preached on the coming Sunday.  Then the leaders would report to the pastor what the group discussed in regard to reflections and affirming stories.

After the Message

You can also listen to listeners after the message.  In the church where I am presently working, the preaching pastor has a Sunday School class after the service that he calls, “Digging Deeper”.  Anyone interested can gather with him to ask questions, share reflections, etc.  It is also a time when he hears how the message connected with the real people of his congregation.

Reuel Howell suggests in his book, Partners in Preaching, that feedback sessions are more productive if the pastor isn’t present.  He suggests having a group of six or seven people, including at least a couple of teenagers, gather to answer the following questions:

  1. What did the sermon say to you?
  2. What difference, if any, do you think the sermon will make in your life?
  3. How did the preacher’s method, language, illustrations, and delivery help or hinder your hearing of the message?
  4. Do you agree with any of it?  What would you have said about the subject?

The session is taped for 30 minutes, and when the tape runs out, the session is done.  The pastor then listens to the tape later.

One more suggestion.  Most of the time I have worked with a group of volunteers and staff to plan worship services.  In my last church we used, for awhile, an evaluation sheet that asked people to react to various aspects of the worship service, as well as the message.  Twelve of these sheets were handed out each week randomly, with the request to return them to the information booth. That provided valuable feedback on various parts of the service.

The point is this: if you listen to listeners, you’ll become a better preacher.





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