What Do Listeners Want?

This article is featured in the Sustaining Worship issue of Ministry During The Pandemic
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After Hans Van Der Geest interviewed more than two hundred Swiss Christians, he concluded that the most important factor in the hearing of a sermon is trust between preacher and congregation.[1] People long to hear “the dimension of deliverance,” assurance that God cares and is able to deliver them from life’s difficulties. Listeners also appreciate help in making meaning with a “transcendent dimension.” People listen to a preacher whom they believe has been called by God, who is a dedicated pastor, and who speaks with integrity and authenticity.

When the magazine Christianity Today surveyed two hundred evangelical pastors and over two thousand laypeople about preaching, it found that, on the whole, laypersons were satisfied with the preaching they hear, even though many admitted that they don’t always understand their pastor’s sermons.[2] (Notwithstanding the recent infatuation with multimedia technology, while many pastors said that their preaching could be improved if they learned how to use visual technology, only 20 percent of the laity thought so.)

Lori Carrell sent a ten-question survey to one thousand randomly selected pastors, asking them to distribute the survey among their congregations. Of that group, 102 pastors and 497 laypersons responded. (Does the small number of pastoral participants indicate a reluctance of pastors to hear from their listeners?)[3] Carrell determined that there’s quite a gap between what preachers presume they are doing in a sermon and what listeners think a sermon ought to be. Preachers are mostly clueless about listeners’ expectations. Preachers believe a good sermon ought to change listeners’ lives, translate the meaning of the biblical text from the past to the contemporary context, inspire, and transmit information about the Christian faith; listeners expect inspiration, life application, information, and insight.[4] When congregations were asked, “If you could get one message across to all preachers in the United States, what would it be?” their chief response was “Know your listeners.”[5]

As a young pastor, I was so curious about my listeners that I administered a thirty-question survey to randomly selected members of my congregation. The survey asked them to rate various aspects of my preaching from “meaningful” to “less meaningful.”[6] I intentionally adjusted some of my preaching practices (attempting to improve my eye contact, removing abstract theological terms, improving my transitions between thoughts) and then gave them the questionnaire again.

I learned that there’s a great gap between what I think I’m saying in a sermon and what listeners hear. I valued careful biblical interpretation; they wanted direct application of the sermon to their daily lives. I aimed for good ideas in a sermon; they appreciated emotional impact. I presented and related a biblical text; they expected the sermon to be my personal testimony. My parishioners were initially positive about my preaching and reluctant to criticize my sermons. (There’s a “halo effect” that makes people reluctant to criticize their preacher. “Why would an astute person like me put up with a lousy preacher?”) Listeners’ positive assessment of my preaching dropped from the first administration of the survey to the second. I don’t think that my sermons got worse; I had, through the questionnaire, produced more perceptive, critical listeners.

For example, one participant said, “I never asked myself, ‘Has the preacher really been fair to this particular passage of scripture?’ The more carefully I listened to your sermons, the more I found myself thinking, ‘Will’s stopped listening to the Bible and has gone to telling the Bible what to say.’” Well, I asked for it.

In my next congregation, I assembled a group, read the given lection for an upcoming sermon, led a discussion, noted their reactions and insights, and asked them how they might develop a sermon on this text. At first, respondents were cautious, respectful, and uncomfortable saying too much. Once they figured out that I really cared about their responses, they became more analytical, discerning listeners.

While I occasionally garnered interesting insights from these pre-sermon groups, and I was often edified by their variety of perspectives, I was also impressed by the different responsibilities between preacher and listeners. It’s doubtful that a truly courageous, challenging sermon will arise from a committee. Biblical interpretation is a complex, demanding process that not every Christian ought to be expected to master. Ordained to oversee and speak to the congregation as a whole, the pastor must submit to the disciplines of scriptural interpretation and representation of church tradition. There are limits to how much our listeners can help.[7]

In one of my early congregations, I handed out sheets of paper and pencils to every fourth person emerging from the service. Each slip of paper had the heading “What did you hear in the Sermon?” Results were discouraging. Listeners were rarely able to recall more than two ideas; sometimes the concepts they listed were nowhere to be found in my sermon manuscript. I learned from this that I was wrong to presume that sermons are about good ideas. Imagination matters more than logic. Bonhoeffer was right: the sermon enables the risen Christ to walk among his people.[8] Good sermons do more than convey information; they provoke an experience of Christ in action.


[1] Van Der Geest, quoted in Allen, Hearing the Sermon, 123–63.

[2] Eric Reed, “The Preaching Report Card: Today’s Listeners Grade Pastors on What They Hear from the Pulpit,” Leadership 20 (Summer 1999): 82–84.

[3] Lori Carrell, The Great American Sermon Survey (Wheaton, IL: Mainstay Church Resources, 2000). The survey questions wereopen-ended: (1) How much time do you think it takes a preacher to prepare a sermon? (2) How long should the sermon last? Why? (3) Do you think most preachers feel nervous before preaching? (4) What is your inner reaction to most sermons you hear? (5) Why do you listen to sermons? (6) Do you regularly talk to your preacher about their sermons? Yes or No? Why or Why not? (7) Describe something you gained (or learned) from a specific sermon. (8) How are you and your preacher alike? How are you different? (9) Please rank in order the following components of the church service based on “impacts my spiritual life the most”: group singing, special music performed by others, prayer, dramatic presentation skits, communion, sermon, testimony or personal sharing, and liturgy. (10) If you could get one message across to all preachers in the United States, what would it be?

[4] Carrell, The Great American Sermon Survey, 150–54.

[5] Carrell, The Great American Sermon Survey, 95.

[6] The survey and its results are at William H. Willimon, “Lay Response to Preaching,” in Concise Encyclopedia of Preaching, ed. William H. Willimon and Richard Lischer (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1995), 302–4.

[7] Contra Lenny Luchetti, Preaching with Empathy: Crafting Sermons in a Callous Culture (Nashville: Abingdon, 2018).

[8] Bonhoeffer, quoted in Willimon, Preachers Dare, 18.

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