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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 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 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.

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 12 most common themes in the interviews.

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...

David Buffaloe

commented on Sep 10, 2012

Good article - makes me ponder

Keith B

commented on Sep 10, 2012

I'd like to know more about what specifically they want addressed. Is it better parenting tips? Or relationship advice? If so, that's not the job of a pastor. Yes--in the preaching of the word, those issues will come up...but it's not the end-all description of our job. Yesterday, I preached from James 1....and yes--the issue of anger and relationships came up. But it was in the context of the passage. The sermon wasn't ABOUT those issues--it was about the text.

Laurel Bunker

commented on Sep 10, 2012

Sometimes the challenge in conversations like this is that we can focus too much on what individuals want rather than what we, the pastors and preachers (through prayer, discernment, relationship, time, etc) know that they need. If we lean too much toward catering to what people want, what will be forefeited. The old testament prophets, the disciples, the apostles, Christ himself always brought the issues of the day to the people, but they also did it in a way that many of them did not like because it brought out sin and conviction. A message preached under the anointing and with a holy awe of God will achieve its purpose.

Lynn C

commented on Sep 10, 2012

Personally, as a member, I would much prefer to hear expository preaching, where the complete Bible is taught chapter by chapter. All of Scripture is "profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work," so we need to hear the whole counsel of God--not just select passages that fit particular topics. It is not possible for a preacher to know how to "apply" any Scripture to the lives of each individual listener. Nor it is even his responsibility--it is the job of the Holy Spirit to bring to our remembrance all that we have learned, at the time we each need it. All you have to do is teach what it says and means; God will help us recognize how and when the living and powerful Word applies to our individual lives.

Steven Leapley

commented on Sep 10, 2012

I have two thoughts, one from each side: First side is that I think it is good for preachers to gain what their congregants need/want to hear about. I think there is a place to put controversy into the pulpit, if done appropriately. The second is that it is the job of the preacher to pray through what God wants the congregants to hear. I think preachers dont spend enough time preparing the sermon (most do, but others dont). I can see both sides. I am curiuous as to your thougths on that. Respectfully, Steven

Paul Bates

commented on Sep 10, 2012

It has been my practice to speak from the directives I receive from the Holy Spirit as it pertains to the specifics of the challenges within the congregation and community. A few years ago I tried something during the summer months when so many families are coming and going and overall attendance isn't consistent. A few months before summer we placed boxes around the church entitled "Sizzling Summer Hot Topics." Attendee's were encouraged to anonymously offer topics to which they felt unsure or confused about. Many of the topics were controversial from a "politically correct" point of view. Our staff sought direction from the Holy Spirit and chose six "suggestions" to which I preached God's perspective of those questions. I was able to offer God's point of view on homosexuality and understanding the role of the Holy Spirit to name two. It allowed us to maintain some energy during the down summer months in addition to addressing some of the questions and concerns of our attendee's.

Terry Frazier

commented on Sep 10, 2012

One thing (among many) that I learned in Bible college, especially in speech classes was how important it is to know your audience or congregation in this case. I sometimes do get suggestions about sermon topics from my folks and I do listen to what they ask for. I don't always preach a message on what they request but I do listen. I think that it is a good idea to at least have some idea as to what will keep people engaged in a sermon. this is not to say that we have to alter the content of our messages but rather listen to people about delivery style or other things that preachers can do to engage our congregations more fully and isn't that one of our main objectives as preachers is to keep the attention of our folks so that they can take what they hear from God and apply it their lives daily? Overall, I liked this article. It gave me some things to think about doing.

Derrick Tuper

commented on Sep 10, 2012

I think it's good to be in touch with your congregation to know what it is they need to hear. In building relationships, we find out at any given time what people are thinking about or struggling with. We can then incorporate that into a sermon topic that feeds not only them but many others; especially if it's a topic that everyone benefits from like "dealing with others" or "having joy". Often times, however, delicate subjects are better suited being discussed during a mid-week bible study. Not that we should shy away from preaching about them but people generally have questions and comments and a group bible study can offer the necessary format for answering questions and retorts.

Anthony R. Watson

commented on Sep 10, 2012

I thought that, as preachers, we are to preach what thus saith the Lord, and not what thus saith the people. Jeremiah's preaching, for example, is a case-in-point.

Bill Williams

commented on Sep 10, 2012

@Anthony, do you consult commentaries when preparing sermons?

Mario L. Apellido Sr.

commented on Sep 11, 2012

In my own situation as a Pastor of small group congregation, I always pray to God, Christ Jesus to use me for His glory. Admitting i am just His creation and without Him in me i can do nothing and suddenly, my prepared sermons turn out to be just a guide as my sermon goes on. There are lot of things that comes out to make the preaching so interesting not only in my part as preacher but the listener seems so excited to hear the next thing to come. What i mean is; all is excited to what scripture that will show the truth and light to what we are now listening. And it seems am actually part of the listener and so excited to read every scriptures that fills up and complete our worship and a lot of time it will end up a full satisfaction on people's faces. Amen.

Mike Ingo

commented on Sep 11, 2012

I understand where you are coming from. I also think the key is in the sentence, "they do not want to be told what to think." People will always have itching ears. As for the controversial issues; if you come down on their side they will listen; if not, they will not accept your view (or Gods) anyway. People believe what they want to, and do what they want to in the end. I just stick with preaching the Word, doing my best to make it applicable, and leave my opinions out of it. Thanks Bro. for the info! Be Blessed!

Bill Williams

commented on Sep 11, 2012

@Mike, when the article states that they do not want to be told what to think, I do not take that to mean that they have "itching ears". I take it to mean that they want to be trained how to understand the Bible for themselves so that they don't have to be dependent on the pastor to do their thinking for them! It's one thing to say, "This is what the Word says--take it or leave it." But the best pastors I've had were the ones who showed me how to interpret the Bible for myself. If you are a pastor, I'd encourage you to avoid becoming cynical about what people believe. People CAN change their beliefs to reflect more faithfully the teachings of the Bible. But we need our pastors to teach us how.

Michael Dissmore

commented on Sep 12, 2012

Jesus said "It's not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick." The context shows that the Pharisees were unaware of their spiritual sickness. Jesus didn't preach to them because they ignored the symptoms of their disease and wouldn't receive the medicine they needed. Too many people today are in the same situation: they sit in the pews and think ?this sermon doesn?t apply to me? even though it does. If we preached based on the input of such people, they would never hear what they need to hear. Not to sound arrogant, but I preach what I believe the people need to hear, not what they want to hear. Paul charged Timothy (and us) to ?Preach the Word.? Yes, and we should also teach them how to apply it to their current life circumstances. I agree that people should be challenged. All of the hearers need to be transformed into the image of Christ. That won?t happen if the sermon keeps them in their comfort zones. I cringe when someone tells me after the service ?nice sermon? because I then know that I haven?t cut them with the double edged sword. I?d rather disturb people about their own behavior and stir them to want to change. Few are going to willingly ask for that.

Gordon Dorsey

commented on Sep 12, 2012

SHALOM SAINTS the idea is the pastor cannot seek messages from his congregation , this is pulpit nightmare if a pastor leans in that direction.THE pastor is the one who is seeking GOD for revelation from GOD for messages . if he goes this route his church will become a sermon selection event!we like this we dont like thatdont preach this yes preach that.the pastor can becomr trapped in his sermons and he is at the mercy of the his congregation.once you start it`S almost inpossible to change. as a pastor it is are job to seek and prepare the word .AMEN SHALOM SHALOM

Zachary Bartels

commented on Sep 19, 2012

Yes, let's tell people what their itching ears want to hear, and in the way they want to hear it to boot! [facepalm]

John E Miller

commented on Sep 27, 2012

Zachary I have to agree with you. This is the "seeker sensitive" approach under camouflage.

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