Taking our listeners seriously

Available from MinistryMatters

With the launch of his newest book, Listeners Dare, Will Willimon spoke with Cameron Merrill to share more about Will's vision for how preachers can engage our listeners in our proclamation. As Will notes in the book, any preacher who complains that listeners are oblivious to sermons must reckon with the survey that showed that for 83 percent of Christians, the sermon is the top reason for choosing and staying in a congregation. You can read the first part of this interview here, and then continue below the conversation on what it looks like to enable all listeners to get more out of preaching.

Cameron: Preaching as a monologue is indeed deadly, and as you know, there have been many attempts to make preaching more “conversational” in the actual practice on a Sunday morning—which can so easily fall flat.
How can we preachers encourage our folks to be better active listeners? 
Will: I’ve got some examples of methods I’ve used to get lay feedback. The most important thing we preachers can do is to ask, to encourage our listeners to help us more effectively preach. To be a preacher is to be a listener, developing all sort of skills that enable us more humbly, carefully listen to a biblical text. I encourage my fellow preachers to develop skills in listening nondefensively and astutely to the congregational, cultural context.
I just got home from a visit to my dentist (not my favorite way to spend an hour or blow a hundred dollars). Before I got back home I get an emailed request from my dentist to evaluate the experience. So I ask my dentist, “Do you really want to know how much a dislike visits to your office?” He replies, “I sure do. Once a week we look over our patient feedback and use it to examine our work. How do you expect us to improve if we don’t listen to our patients?”
Now I’m debating if I have the guts to send out post-service sermon evaluation emails to my congregation! 
Cameron: But let's say you do muster the courage—what would you ask?
Will: Well, I might ask the congregation some appropriate questions like, “Did you hear anything in my sermon that opened up the biblical text in a new way?”
“What’s one thing that you’ll take home from my sermon today?”
“Got any suggestions for how I might communicate more clearly or persuasively in my sermons?”
“Are there some subjects you’d like to hear addressed in a sermon?” 
The point is, we can’t expect more than we are willing to invest in from those who listen to our preaching each week. So take them seriously as listeners, and you may be surprised what you find out in return.

Cameron: No one can accuse you of having a low view of preaching or what a sermon can unleash into the lives of congregants, or even the world. What would you say are the limits of a sermon, with regard to what it can accomplish or what we should expect a single sermon to do in the life of the church?

Will: While preaching is the primary, central way God chooses to converse with God’s people, preaching is not the exclusive medium of revelation. Some controversial subjects are better addressed in other congregational settings where there’s an opportunity for give-and-take. Sometimes there’s not enough time carefully, intelligently to treat an important Christian conviction in the short time allotted for a sermon.
I condemned Donald Trump in no more than a dozen sermons during his time in office. Low hanging fruit. But to be honest, I should have realized even then I probably had more pressing matters to address in the church. I also thought it was unfair for me to unload on the rascal in a medium where no one had the opportunity to mount a defense.

I also don’t think the pulpit is the place to share my personal problems, doubts, and struggles. I’m not a fellow pilgrim or searcher, I’m the one who goes to the biblical text, in service to the listening congregation, and then tells them what I’ve heard.

Still, for reasons known only to the Lord, God has used preaching as the essential way of self-revelation so pastors do well to invest themselves heavily in this practice.
Cameron: And in a time when folks aren’t as present to the week-to-week that sermons can sustain, what should change in our preaching to keep that connection viable?

Will: When I wanted to get more out of my grandson’s lacrosse game, I studied a “Lacrosse for Dummies” video. If you want to get more out of biblical sermons, then become better acquainted with scripture (there are multiple means of accomplishing this, you all already know more of them than I could suggest). Some small groups in the church would find their time better spent if they reflected together on their pastor’s sermon from last sermon, or they studied the assigned scripture texts for the upcoming Sunday. It took me lots of training, trial and error, coaching and conversation before I got anything out of watching lacrosse. I got nothing out of it because I didn’t understand the purposes and intentions of the game. It was only after I put something into it that I got something out of it. Maybe preaching, both from the pulpit and the pew, needs similar effort from each of us.
Cameron: In a way that actually feels encouraging, you assert that preaching is difficult, and that it takes a wide array of skills.
What are some of the skills that you see as even more necessary for preachers to hone and refine today?

Will: When laity ask, “Why are there not more great sermons these days?” I reply, “Because preaching is hard!” When one considers all the skills required for effective preaching of the gospel, it’s amazing not that there are few memorable sermons but rather that there’s a good chance you might hear God speak to you in your pastor’s sermon next Sunday.
Good preaching is nourished by faithful listening: listening first to the biblical text and also to the congregational and cultural context. Judging from what I hear on Fox News, we’re in an age where people would rather preach at one another than listen to one another. So to be more faithful to the God who speaks and calls us into the conversation is a significant challenge in our time.
Cameron: It is a serious challenge, absolutely, not least because our world is saturated with talking heads and cheap words. Listening to God, for what God is saying, requires a tremendous amount of patience, and I wonder if our congregations are prepared to give us that space.

Will: As pastors go about their work with their congregations they are in the ideal setting for listening to God and to their people. In fact, I’m so bold to say that if you’re not their pastor, you probably shouldn’t attempt to be their preacher (although I do so as a guest preacher nearly every Sunday!). When you think about it, what are all of the exegetical, hermeneutical skills that we laboriously learned in seminary and course of study, other than skills at listening for God more so and ourselves a little less so?
I hope that my book will help listening Christians get more out of sermons so that Christ will succeed in his never-ending endeavor to get more out of us.
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