Study Confirms and Challenges Preachers

Man in Pew(Creative Commons image by PJOnori on flickr)

It seems like a no-brainer.

Yet preachers rarely seek direct input from listeners about how we might improve our preaching. What do people in the pews want from a sermon. A few years ago, a cadre of teachers of preaching sought to ask listeners what we could learn about preaching from them. We invited people from the pews to teach us how they listen.

Supported by the Lilly Endowment, we interviewed 263 people who regularly listen to sermons to identify qualities in preaching that most engage (and disengage) them. The interviewees include younger, middle aged, and older adults in small, medium, large, and mega congregations largely associated with the historic denominations such as the African Methodist Episcopal Church, various Baptist bodies, Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, Disciples, Episcopalians, Church of the Brethren, Lutheran bodies, Mennonites, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and United Methodists.

The detailed findings are reported in four books listed at the end of this article. For now, I report some points at which our research confirms common wisdom in preaching and some points at which the study challenges prevailing assumptions.

The study’s most important finding may be the high value listeners place on sermons. Almost every one of the 263 interviewees indicates that preaching is meaningful to them. They look to sermons to help them make sense of life by helping them identify God’s presence and purposes, and helping them figure out how to respond faithfully. In today’s congregation, when so many responsibilities lay claim to a minister’s time, members encourage ministers to give the best of themselves to sermon preparation.

One of the most reassuring discoveries is that most listeners think the Bible is a significant resource for interpreting God’s purposes. Their perspectives on the authority of the Bible vary, of course, and no one wants the sermon to be nothing more than a history lesson. Yet virtually all interviewees want to know what the Bible encourages people to believe and do. They also want the preacher to help them connect the world of the Bible to the world today.

Midway between confirmation and challenge, many listeners stress that they want the sermon to connect with their living experience today. They want to know the implications of what they most deeply believe for their work places, homes, schools, civic affairs, and leisure activities. Along this line, they yearn to know that preachers understand what their worlds feel like. They are willing to be challenged (see the next point) but they want to know that the preacher understands the complexity of their lives. One of the most communicative ways for preachers to do so is to draw from the preacher’s own life experience.

The most surprising challenge to emerge from the data is a request to preachers to bring controversial issues into the pulpit. Yes. You read that correctly. Many of the listeners want ministers to help them wrestle with God’s purposes in connection with matters such as war with other nations, abortion, and same-gender relationships. As someone said, “Who else is going to help us think about these things from God’s point of view?” The respondents in our study do not want preachers to tell them how to vote or what to think, but they do want help interpreting issues from a theological point of view and considering possibilities for faithful responses.

The study also challenges ministers to listen to members of their own congregations regarding characteristics in the content, development, and embodiment of the sermon that help local listeners enter the world of the sermon and those that prompt congregants to keep their distance. Such an effort requires courage on the part of the preacher as well as candor on the part of congregants. But such listening can take place in ways that minimize anxiety and that foster mutual encouragement. Indeed, listening to listeners can become a means of enacting the priesthood of all believers.

Chalice Press has published the project’s four books. John McClure, et. al. Listening to Listeners: Homiletical Case Studies (2004), contains detailed analyses of six interviews (including one small group) as well as suggestions for interviewing in a local congregation. Ronald Allen, Hearing the Sermon (2004) examines relationship, content, and feeling as settings through which listeners receive sermons. Mary Alice Mulligan, et. al., Believing in Preaching: What Listeners Hear in Sermons (2005) describes clusters of listener perceptions on God, the Bible, embodiment and several other major topics, and explores preaching strategies for congregations of diverse listeners. Mary Alice Mulligan and Ronald Allen, Make the Word Come Alive: Lessons from Laity (2006) summarize the twelve most common themes in the interviews.