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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 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 workplaces, 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.

Ron Allen teaches preaching and Gospels and Letters at Christian Theological Seminary where he has been since 1982. Prior to that, he and his spouse, the Reverend Linda McKiernan-Allen, were co-ministers of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Grand Island, Nebraska. He has published more than 35 books.

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Talk about it...

Doris Sparks

commented on Aug 19, 2014

"members encourage ministers to give the best of themselves to sermon preparation"--THAT IS UNTIL THEY START ASKING HOW MANY SHUT-IN, HOSPITAL, VISITOR CALLS WERE MADE AND WHY YOU WERE NOT AT THEIR COMMITTEE MEETING. BY THE WAY PASTORS HERE HAVE _ALWAYS_ TAUGHT THE CONFIRMATION CLASS. When given a list of how many hours each week a pastor should spend doing each of the things, preparing a sermon, visiting, prayer, meetings, reading, etc. the list is usually more than is possible. In seminary our Proclamation Prof made us preach every week of the term because that is how it is in ministry. He said, "I don't want the best sermon you ever preached, just the best sermon for this week." (Sorry about the CAPS)

Tony Bland

commented on Aug 19, 2014

humm.. well this is not surprising to me. what is surprising is that you asked 263 people. when i was called to the ministry the H.S. said i need you to connect the scriptures with their living experience today. and this include all that you said including controversial issues such as Obama care and what to do when the verdict is wrong. also a preacher job is not to tell people what to think, just what God thinks.

Tony Bland

commented on Aug 19, 2014

btw God thinks same sex marriage is an abomination. But you can do what you want to do, after all he gave you free will to choose

Bill Williams

commented on Aug 20, 2014

The Holy Spirit speaks through the people in whom he dwells. What is surprising about listening to the voice of the Spirit through his people?

Chaplain Shawn Kennedy

commented on Aug 20, 2014

Always amazed that universal health care is a controversy in any civilized country.

Zachary Bartels

commented on Aug 20, 2014

Well, whatever the itching ears want...

Bill Williams

commented on Aug 20, 2014

Would you care to elaborate?

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