Preaching is usually thought of as something ministers do, but what would happen if we turned things around and considered preaching to be something listeners do? If we were to re-think preaching as the center of a unique form of spiritual and theological listening, would we be required to change some of our usual homiletical assumptions?

In the past century homileticians have shown increasing interest in reconsidering preaching from the perspective of the listener. The seeds of this interest were probably sown by Harry Emerson Fosdick, who argued that the key to preaching was a kind of pastoral “clairvoyance,” or an ability to get into the shoes of one’s listeners. These seeds were watered and cultivated by Reuel Howe and the dialogue preaching movement in the 1960s and blossomed in the narrative and inductive preaching of the seventies and eighties. New fruits of this “turn to the listener” approach can be found in collaborative, conversational, and cross-cultural forms of preaching taking place today.1 The current shift in theological education toward the historical and sociological study of religious practices also encourages a more comprehensive analysis of sermon listening as a Christian practice.

Four years ago, Ronald Allen, a homiletician and New Testament scholar at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, received a grant from the Lilly Foundation for the Listening to Listeners to Sermons Project, designed to study more carefully what, in fact, listeners are up to during the sermon on Sunday morning. Allen’s research team interviewed 263 people in 28 churches of various shapes, sizes, locations, denominations, and racial-ethnic composition across the mid-section of the country. I had the opportunity to sit on the advisory board of this project, and this article represents only one perspective on this project as a whole. Other aspects are examined in a set of four books published by Chalice Press between 2004 and 2005.2

In light of this study, I want to address a small cluster of interrelated questions: What kind of practice is sermon listening? What existential, social, and communal needs does sermon listening address? What goes into it? What skills does it require? What are the implications for preaching and homiletics when we take the practice of sermon listening as normative for thinking about those things that are most important when we learn and teach preaching?

What Kind of Practice is Sermon Listening?

The first conclusion that can be drawn is that sermon listeners vary widely when it comes to preparation, self-understanding, and sense of purpose. People prepare for this practice in a variety of ways. Preparation rituals include everything from listening to other sermons on the radio, watching Meet the Press before arriving at church, teaching or attending Sunday school classes, or arguing about politics in the church kitchen. Preaching plays various roles in the lives of Christian folk and is understood in many different ways. For some, sermon listening is like emptying a suitcase filled with trouble and anxiety every week. For others it is the hitching post for their desire to learn doctrinal orthodoxy or to discern best forms of moral or ethical behavior. For still others it is the masthead of the church’s faith, a place they look to for leadership, vision, inspiration, and imagination. For many it is simply “time out,” a space in which they can pick and choose sentences or words that can be connected to their daily lives in order to provide illumination or guidance. The more one listens to people talk about sermon listening, the harder it becomes to believe that preaching meets a universal need, fulfills a universal purpose, or accomplishes a universal outcome. In each case, listeners specify a very particular contextual need, purpose, or outcome that is at stake, and they use a very particular set of metaphors and images to understand the transaction that is occurring.

It is also very difficult to listen to listeners and discern from them any universal form of “best practice” of either listening or preaching. Listeners are far less interested in objective and universal norms for listening and preaching than they are specific, everyday norms. Listeners tend to draw our attention away from the formal canons of communication theory toward more organic, local, relational, kinesthetic, and embodied aspects of human interaction. The Christian practice of listening seems to focus less on the preacher’s eloquence, style, biblical profundity, or inventive brilliance, and more on relationship, vision, honesty, candor, faith and faithfulness, situational suitability, and spiritual wisdom. Listeners seem to desire a communication event that, no matter how poorly rendered in language and speech, is nonetheless a very real and very particular thing: this faith speaking to this faith, this hope speaking to this hope, this love speaking to this love, and so on.

The Christian practice of sermon listening is also doggedly determined and resilient. Listeners demonstrate a tremendous repertoire of resources for finding some aspect of meaning, usefulness, and “good news” in sermons week after week. No matter what the text, no matter who the preacher, no matter what other distractions are present, listeners will not be deterred from finding or encountering what they come to find or encounter during the 20 or so minutes allotted to the sermon. One of the more striking examples of this was a person who, because the preacher’s message represented nothing substantive, was nonetheless able each week to attend to the voice of God in silence, under and around the droning of the preacher’s voice. Listeners are only too willing to step up to the plate and assume the role of meaning maker when there is little forthcoming from the pulpit itself.

Ultimately, preaching is understood by most listeners to be part of a set of practices of spiritual listening and discernment in their lives. Listeners are always ready to attach the insights they have during the sermon on Sunday morning to other thoughts they are having about people, actions, events, and circumstances around them in the world and in their everyday lives. For many regular listeners, sermon listening seems to fit into a larger set of practices of listening for truth, direction, insight, wisdom, meaning, and vocation, many of which they would not consider explicitly Christian in nature.

What Goes into Sermon Listening?

So what does it take to engage in the Christian practice of sermon listening? What skills or sub-practices make sermon listening what it is? What powers or human resources does preaching hook into that listeners must cultivate within themselves to be more faithful listeners?

Most listeners, it seems, are in the process of developing better powers and practices of spiritual discernment, and they value preachers who treat preaching as a key part of their discernment process. This does not mean they are looking for answers or for “need-driven” preaching. During preaching, however, they are actively trying to discern what God has to say about various human questions or yearnings. They are actively seeking God’s perspective and vision for themselves, their families, and the world around them.

At the same time, sermon listeners are developing their ability to make ethical judgments. Sermons present listeners with a unique block of time to reflect on what is right and what is wrong. For some this takes the shape of a simple law-and-order mentality seeking rules to follow and roles to play. Others are looking to develop more dialectical and complex forms of judgment. In either case, preaching appeals to each listener’s directional compass and to the compass of the congregation as a whole.

Sermon listeners also bring to preaching a desire to grow—m
orally, ethically, spiritually, theologically, and personally. Sermon listeners want new and generative insights and vision from the pulpit. They are not interested in remaining the same. This is true even in churches where dogmatic certitude and orthodoxy are paramount. Sermon listeners do not want the “same old same old.” They want new insights, even if those insights are the further development of things they already know.

At the same time, preaching appeals to a listener’s developing sense of identity and character. The preacher is under intense scrutiny during preaching, as are the dispositions that are fundamental to the preacher’s message and style: compassion, fear, joy, love, anger, and relative openness to others. Sermon listening is a time in which a great deal of character watching, character evaluation, and character formation is taking place.

Sermon listeners also bring their minds to church on Sunday mornings. Many testify that sermons are a time in which peculiarly Christian forms of critical thinking are being developed and shaped. Communal and individual values are being identified, deconstructed, and renegotiated by listeners during preaching. Many listeners want to learn how to critique and revise cultural and intellectual assumptions from the perspective of Christian belief. Even in churches with relatively uneducated congregations, listeners bring a high expectation that their ability to think as Christians will be sustained and enriched during a sermon.

Finally, listeners bring a developing theological imagination to sermon listening. They are symbol and metaphor sponges, absorbing images, turns of phrase, aphorisms, and analogies to understand how it is that God and the world are related to one another. While they are listening they are connecting stories, images, words, and symbols to their own lives at a rapid pace, and the juxtapositions that take place cannot be controlled, no matter how carefully the preacher seeks to de-narratize, de-image, or de-illustrate his or her preaching. Listeners are prone to take even single words and phrases and place them alongside some ordinary experience in their everyday lives, creating metaphors from which meaning explodes. For listeners, this imaginative process is, in many cases, at the very heart of the theological dimension of sermon listening. Sermon listeners are experimenting with theological worlds and worldviews on the spot, trying on metaphors, images, and ideas like garments, adopting some and rejecting others.

Implications for Preaching

These findings have a number of implications for preaching. First, after listening to the expansive variety of roles that preaching plays in the lives and faith practices of believers, most preachers are likely to feel the relative inadequacy of the typical round of larger purposes for preaching that we learn in our homiletical classrooms. We will discover that it is important not to subsume listeners’ discreet purposes and uses for sermon listening within large subheadings such as “education,” “converting,” “meeting existential needs,” and “proclamation of the gospel.” Where some of these classical understandings of preaching seem to fit, most fail to capture the complexity and density of meaning that sermon listening seems to have for listeners. Listeners’ responses suggest a very complex relationship between classical sermon models and the ways that listeners are listening to sermons. Purposes for preaching are always powerfully conditioned in their reception by a fantastic and fluid array of personal and contextual variants.

Second, from the perspective of the practice of listening, preachers should probably abandon the search for a more or less unified set of best practices when it comes to preaching. Preachers may want to adjust their sights and focus on what constitutes more faithful, transformative, or helpful practices of preaching in a given situation at a given time. Practitioners of the Christian practice of sermon listening seem not to require the consistent use of a particular method of homiletics. The ad hoc homiletic theories that they construct in their interviews are usually characterized by a desire for real, experiential, situated, face-to-face conviction, connection, and vision, and not by a desire for brilliant, persuasive, or hortatory powers.

Third, preachers must not assume that they are in some way able to create a single, unified worldview within congregations, families, or social situations through their preaching. In a post-enlightenment world in desperate need of something tangible to live by, it has become increasingly popular to say that preaching “builds worldviews,” “re-stories our lives,” “constructs alternative frameworks for living,” or “creates new plausibility structures.” This simply cannot be borne out by this study. Listeners’ responses imply that they are incorporating sermon ideas, images, and metaphors into a process of shaping—and in some cases transforming—existing worldviews individually and communally. In some cases, especially in more conservative-evangelical or radical peace-tradition congregations, listeners associate preaching directly with the formation and legitimization of what they feel are alternative ways of thinking or practicing their faith in the world. In all cases, however, preaching seems to be subsidiary to an already existing set of ideas and practices that it seems to influence or revise but not to “construct” or “create.”

Fourth, preachers may want to find ways to link preaching to other forms of ethical, spiritual, and theological discernment being practiced by their congregations. Where are the places on a day-to-day basis—whether at work, in the marketplace, in public forums, in family gatherings, or at church meetings—where people find themselves listening for purpose, direction, or meaning? How can preaching relate itself directly to these other practices of discernment? In other words, how can preaching become involved in and contribute to a larger public theology?

Fifth, preachers might take more seriously the desire among their listeners to grow or even “convert” ethically, morally, theologically, and spiritually. Listeners would encourage us to be more responsive to the search for direction, vision, and character that is taking place in the pews. This is not a call for the preaching of “works” but encouragement to preach with a bold theological and ethical imagination and a stronger vision of the work of the Holy Spirit in the world.

Sixth, preachers need to pay more attention to what is happening at the level of relationship during sermon listening. Evidently, the Christian practice of sermon listening is a profoundly relational process. A great deal of what takes place during sermon listening occurs as a direct result of the quality of the relationships that exist between the preacher and the listeners. The depth, breadth, and consistency of these relationships has a great deal to do with what is being heard and appropriated during sermon listening.

Seventh, the heterodoxy of listening practices suggests many new directions for homiletical practice. It could be that by listening carefully to less experienced listeners we will begin to see how it is that preaching might be renewed in this or any generation. It might also pay great dividends to listen further to those who resist uncritical practices of listening, especially so-called marginal persons: critically reflective women, victims of abuse or violence, gays and lesbians, and others. By further investigating these practices of listening we gain access to visions of what preaching might become within a new ecclesial reality. It is here that a broader and more focused study, building upon the Listening to Listeners Project, might help to transform the practice of preaching as well as our practices of sermon listening.

Finally, while there are many rational aspects of preaching that shoul
d occupy our attention as preachers, there are clearly many unconscious, extra-rational, and perhaps super-rational elements within the sermon listening process. Listening to sermon listeners talk about sermons reminds us that there is a power at work during preaching that enables a largely uncontrolled and uncontrollable transaction of grace to take place. While preachers may have some directional control over the broad field in which the work of the Holy Spirit takes place, the infinite range of potential juxtapositions between the words spoken from the pulpit and the lives of listeners produces a range of possibilities for the Spirit to address listeners that goes far beyond anything that can be managed grammatically or rhetorically by the preacher. There is something exhilarating about the ways in which the Holy Spirit is weaving our preached words into the lives of listeners. Perhaps it is time to lessen our focus on rhetorical, semiotic, and sociology-of-knowledge approaches to homiletics and pursue preaching more as a part of a mysterious inter-human, inter-subjective, and inter-textual articulation and discernment process that the Holy Spirit is bringing forth within congregations and worldly situations all of the time. Within this larger field of vision, the practice of sermon listening is a moment in which this process is raised to immediate consciousness and ritualized to remind us that the discernment of the Word is indeed always already happening in our lives, in our churches, and in the world around us. The Word of God is being articulated at many human intersections, and Christians are simply people who practice faithfully the art of seriously listening for this Word.

1. See, for instance, John S. McClure, The Roundtable Pulpit: Where Preaching and Leadership Meet (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 1995); Lucy Atkinson Rose, Sharing the Word: Preaching in the Roundtable Church (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997); James R. Nieman and Thomas G. Rogers, Preaching to Every Pew: Cross-Cultural Strategies (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Press, 2001); Joseph R. Jeter, Jr., and Ronald J. Allen, One Gospel, Many Ears: Preaching for Many Listeners in the Congregation (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2002).
2. To date, the Listening to Listeners to Sermons Project has resulted in four books published by Chalice Press as an informal series under the title Channels of Listening. These include: Listening to Listeners: Homiletical Case Studies (2004); Hearing the Sermon: Relationship, Content, Feeling (2004); Believing in Preaching: What Listeners Hear in Sermons (2005); and Make the Word Come Alive: Lessons from Laity (2005).