Adapted from Preaching That Matters: Reflective Practices for Transforming Sermons , by Lori J. Carrell, a book that Ronald J. Allen calls “inspirational, challenging, and practical–all at once.”
Thousands of listeners from across the United States can contribute to your thinking about the potential value of preaching. These adult listeners attend all kinds of churches—tiny and mega, but mostly medium; healthy and troubled; mainline, evangelical, Catholic, and community. Their responses have been gathered through multiple studies. Fifty-four pastors will arrive at the Center for Excellence in Congregational Leadership (CECL) in a few months, ready to hear feedback from their listeners. Their parishioners have recorded responses to recent sermons through ten-question surveys. If these new listener-respondents are like the thousands surveyed previously, they do not usually provide their preachers with feedback. More than 78 percent of listeners say that they have “never” discussed a sermon with their preachers, so how could you possibly know what your listeners are thinking? I am writing to share compiled results of listeners’ responses about the value of your preaching, to apologize for our previous silence, and to set the record straight. Pastor, here’s why we listen and why your preaching matters to us.
We Listen to Your Preaching Expecting Inspiration
When asked to list the elements of the church service “most likely to have an impact on my spiritual journey,” the number one answer from listeners was “the sermon.” Preachers did not predict their listeners would answer that way! Said a listener from a coastal state, “I like good music and my church friends, but I come on Sunday hoping for inspiration from the sermon, inspiration to encourage my spiritual growth.” When asked to give advice to pastors, another wrote, “Recognize the power of your words.” The role of inspiration in preaching is often overlooked by pastors who may be focusing on explanation and exposition. Please hear the affirmation of your role as a leader of a community of Christ-followers who are seeking spiritual growth through the inspiration present in your preaching. Perhaps you thought their silence suggested they were not responding. Think again.
We Look to Your Preaching for Spiritual Leadership
We can download daily devotionals and upload viral videos, but where do we gather to hear a community leader speak with us about important issues? In the United States, in 2013, that place is still the church. One listener admits, “I can get better presentation from television preaching, but I want to hear this person I know, this person who knows me, this leader in our community of believers. . . . I really believe God speaks through the pastor to us.”
Though some analysts predict that a few podcasting superpreachers will soon proclaim to a great global pew, right now most Christ-followers are seeking spiritual direction from the public spoken words of their pastors. Your physical presence in the congregation creates the opportunity for relationship with the listening community. The credibility emerging from that relational connection is a critical contributor to the potential power of your preaching. Listeners expect spiritual direction from your preaching.
We Rely on Your Preaching for Spiritual Content
Preaching is unique among sources of advice. Listeners are clear that they want biblically based content in sermons. One dissatisfied listener complained, “At our church, we’re encouraged to be nice, be kind, have a positive attitude. How is that different from everybody else? What does it have to do with the Bible or God?” In less than the split second it took to push the Enter key just now, a Web search for spiritual growth help provided 52,800,000 links for me to browse. And yet, listeners find unique value in sermon content. They keep coming back to church. Why? They are seeking spiritual content from your preaching; quite specifically, they want to hear from God.
If you are a preacher who sometimes wonders what parishioners are expecting, please hear this crucial response from your previously silent listeners: We are listening to you for spiritual content, which we have determined is a priority for us, listening to hear God’s voice through you, listening for something we don’t hear or view or download anywhere else.
We Listen to Your Preaching Expecting Long-Lasting Impact
Even listeners who say a particular sermon merely reminded them of something they already knew resolve to “think about” the content during the week. Now that’s determination! Listener optimism about the value of preaching is reflected in another significant response: a vast majority of the thirty thousand plus listeners participating in this research thus far anticipate that sermons—regardless of topic or preacher—are likely to affect their spiritual journeys “in lasting ways.” Even when the pastor hasn’t used inspirational language, hasn’t included ideas for implementation, or hasn’t even asked for change, listeners are still committed to contemplating the content, because they perceive there is potential for spiritual growth to occur. And many who didn’t find content that might lead to spiritual life-change this week still say, “I am motivated to come back to hear more sermons.”
We listeners crave your spiritual leadership. Overwhelmed? Doubting your impact? God has a well-established pattern of calling inadequate people to monumental tasks, speaking through them in spite of their deficiencies or failures. I heard one of you preach about that just last Sunday.
Believing in the potential power of your preaching can begin a radical transformation process. Yes, attention spans are short. Yes, biblical literacy is lower than it used to be. Yes, solidified deposits of individualism and materialism may be barriers to your preaching about New Testament Christ-following communities. But preaching can make a difference. A significant difference. And it’s not just your listeners who have such grand expectations for the impact of preaching. The Message paraphrase of 1 Corinthians1:21 puts it like this:
Since the world in all its fancy wisdom never had a clue when it came to knowing God, God in his wisdom took delight in using what the world considered dumb—preaching, of all things!—to bring those who trust him into the way of salvation.
Affirming that preaching matters is itself transformational. If you actually believe that those minutes you will spend communicating with your congregation next Sunday have the potential to change lives, you may approach the pulpit and your prayer life and your sermon preparation a little differently from the way you did last week, when you wondered if those spoken words of yours were evaporating. Preaching, and all related tasks, may move up on your priority list.
The spoken act of preaching remains the predominant mode of communicating God’s Word to God’s people. Next weekend, next month, and probably next year, you will continue to speak face to face with believers who want to grow spiritually. As a person called to a spiritual leadership role, your commitments to studying Scripture and deepening your faith are both critical to pending transformation in your congregations and communities. What else is needed?
In a recent address to academics who study learning, Georgetown University’s Associate Provost for Institutional Renewal Randy Bass provided a challenge appropriate for both scholars and preachers. He described a visit to the Cape Cod ceramics studio of acclaimed potter Joan Lederman. Joan began decades ago to work with mud discarded from an oceanography institute in her Woods Hole, Massachusetts, community. As Randy (carefully!) examined a piece of her pottery created with sediment from the floors of all seven oceans, he asked her to describe how she deepens her learning, continuing to grow as an artist. Working at her wheel, Joan described a moment-by-moment, heightened awareness of how the mud responds to her touch. That encounter inspired Bass to embrace a similar scrutiny for his work, and to declare that intense inspection of what we do as we do it is necessary for deep learning.
For as long as you continue to speak for God publicly—to preach or teach or proclaim—a close, authentic examination of your sermon communication through reflective practice is needed. Challenge yourself, prayerfully—for your calling to preach is high and holy.
This article is excerpted and adapted from Preaching that Matters: Reflective Practices for Transforming Sermons by Lori J. Carrell. Copyright ©2013 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.
Preaching that Matters: Reflective Practices for Transforming Sermons
by Lori J. Carrell
“Listeners do love their pastors and they agree with the sermon content they hear,” Lori Carrell once explained to a group of pastors, “but most sermons don’t ask for change, and most listeners don’t experience spiritual growth as a result of the sermon.” A participant responded: “Let’s get practical. What changes are worth making, and how do I make them?” In Preaching that Matters, Lori Carrell shares answers to that question, drawing on the experiences of thousands of people—preachers and their listeners—whose effort she has studied over many years. In each chapter of this book, she offers research revelations about high impact preaching that will encourage and challenge readers to continue to grow as preachers.
Features include an interactive Google+ site, downloadable resources, and practical, helpful way to help preachers reflect on the impact of their sermons.
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Choosing the Kingdom: Missional Preaching for the Household of God
by John Addison Dally
As a post-Christendom church reorients itself toward the mission of God, what might preaching look like? Choosing the Kingdom offers concrete suggestions for a reconception of preaching for those whose imaginations have been captured by the possibilities of a missional identity.
Preaching Ethically offers guidelines for preaching in light of a range of factors that might tempt a preacher to misuse the pulpit. The calling to preach the gospel compels us to preach in ways that keep the gospel foremost, treat the congregation fairly, and are true to our own convictions and our personal integrity .
When God Speaks through You: How Faith Convictions Shape Preaching and Mission
by Craig A. Satterlee
Craig Satterlee helps congregations learn to articulate their convictions about the Christian faith and share them in a nonthreatening manner. This prepares them for broader conversation about how people’s faith convictions shape both their lives and the congregation’s worship, life together, and mission .
When God Speaks through Change: Preaching in Times of Congregational Transition
by Craig A. Satterlee
Homiletics professor and parish pastor Craig Satterlee reflects on how to integrate significant transitions in a congregation’s life into the preaching ministry of the church. Issues considered include: (1) the benefits and risks of using preaching to address transition, (2) how to incorporate transition into the form, content, and delivery of the sermon, and (3) how transition affects the preacher’s ability to proclaim and the congregation’s ability to receive the message .
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