After the dinner, the speaker and master of ceremonies were standing in the lobby greeting the people who had attended. A six-year-old boy ran up to the speaker and said, “Your speech stunk.” Embarrassed, the master of ceremonies asked the boy to run along. But the boy ran right up to the speaker again and said, “We’ve heard all your jokes before; they’re not even funny.”
Embarrassed, the master of ceremonies again asked the boy to run along. But he ran right up to the speaker again and said, “I bet you they never invite you back.” Just then the boy’s mother, who was standing a short distance away, saw what was happening. She ran up to the speaker and quickly said, “Please forgive my son. I have no idea what he said to you. But he is only six years old, and he is just at the age where he repeats what everyone else says.”
Not everyone will tell you how they feel about your preaching, even though it could be most helpful if they did. However, they often express how they feel to their mates or closest friends. Undoubtedly, they’d have several good things to say, but they might also express a few frustrations. Listen and learn from those frustrations, and you’ll be a better preacher.
“You talk too long.”
They are the kind of couple any pastor would crave to have in his church. An extremely godly couple, they volunteer throughout the church, serve on church committees and go on short-term mission trips. As we interacted across the table, she said to me, “I love our pastor. His messages help me. I just wish he didn’t talk so long. I just can’t handle fifty-minute messages.”
Few people can. A person’s attention span is normally thirty minutes. The amount one retains after thirty minutes is vastly different than the amount retained before thirty minutes. It doesn’t matter how good a communicator is; go beyond thirty minutes and people start looking at their watches, thinking about their calendar for the next week, or reflecting on the events of last week.
Besides, how would you prefer to have people leave? Saying, “I wish he would have spoken longer” or saying, “I wish he would have stopped sooner.” If they wished you had spoken longer, they will probably come back to hear you again. That’s exactly what you want them to do—come back again and again and again. Thirty-minute messages will ensure this a lot more than fifty-minute messages will. I often remind preachers that God has called them to preach on eternity; he has not called them to preach for eternity.
“You talk too much about yourself.”
One person said of a noted speaker, “I enjoy listening to him, but too many of his stories are about himself, his wife and his children. Eventually, I get tired of hearing about them.”
A certain amount of information about your family can be helpful, especially when you show struggles you’ve had as a family. Audiences need to know that your family isn’t perfect either. Transparency helps, but too much of it comes across as self-centered. Instead of asking me to come into your world, it’s important you step into mine.
When you purposefully and anonymously share conversations about people who don’t live behind the same walls you do, two things strike me: one is that you are “other-centered,” not self-centered. A second is that you enjoy people, even those who are not part of your immediate family. You come across as a speaker who cares. So if I want to ask you a question about a struggle I’m going through, you appear to have the interest and time to talk. You’ve struck me as an “other” centered person.
“Your messages are too dry.”
A pastor called a woman who had not been to church for some time and asked, “Where have you been?” She replied, “Well, you know how it is. The kids have been sick, and then it’s just rained, rained, rained, rained.” He said to her, “Why don’t you come to church? It’s always dry there.” She said, “Yes, in fact that is another reason I have not been coming. It’s just so dry there.”
When people come to church, they need to be refreshed. The last week has been difficult. They want to know how to get through the next week. Dry messages don’t help them; ones that invigorate them do. Three things help to liven up a message:
Illustrations. People love stories. True-to-life ones that happen on the sidewalk, in the café, in the workplace and in the home capture my attention. Stories taken from newspapers, magazines, TV shows and the movie theatre enliven me and get my attention. I’m not talking about stories for stories’ sake, but stories for the sake of biblical illustration. Illustrate what you’re speaking on from the Scripture with something so real, I feel like I was there and saw it taking place. This is why speakers who are interesting to listen to don’t just study the Bible; they also glance at the newspaper.
Humor. Some of the illustrations need to contain humor. I travel across the country, and people constantly tell me about the speakers they enjoy. When I delve into why they enjoy them, they often remark, “He has a great sense of humor. He makes me laugh.” People want to laugh and need something to laugh about. This doesn’t mean you need to be a stand-up comic; God has called you to be a communicator, not a clown.
But part of effective communication is the use of humor. Because people enjoy humor so much, it’s an essential part of growing churches by conversion. Thom Rainer, in his book Surprising Insights from the Unchurched and Proven Ways to Reach Them, comments, “‘I tell you,’ an opinionated pastor told us, ‘You find a church that’s reaching people, you’ll find a church that laughs together.’”
Passion. If what you are saying doesn’t excite you, it is not apt to excite me. It’s more apt to put me to sleep. By the same token, I’ve never heard of a sermon given out of excitement that people called “dry.” Again, don’t misunderstand: people are not expecting you to be a “life of the party” person. But they must know that what you’re speaking about has grabbed hold of you, and you are passionate that it needs to grab hold of them. You are so passionate about what you’re saying, I get the idea you can’t wait to say it.
Now put yourself in the shoes of those who listen to you every Sunday. Consider again these three items: “You talk too long. You talk too much about yourself. Your messages are too dry.” If these characterize you, those who respect you may not want to share these three things for fear of hurting your feelings. Work on changing these three things, and you will see the results firsthand. Those who come will be eager to come back. You might even hear them say, “I don’t like it when we’re gone on vacation. I miss hearing you.”