Listen Up

March 21st, 2013

One evening in 1953, a Methodist lay speaker phoned me, said he had a bad cold, and asked me to preach for him the following Sunday.

I was 18. Three months earlier I had made my commitment to the ministry and preached my first sermon at my home church, First Methodist in Jonesboro, Ark. Since then I had preached two or three times in country churches nearby.

The lay speaker said the service started at 9:30, and told me how to get to the church.

“Go out old Greensboro Road past Buck Snort Hill,” he explained. “They named it Buck Snort Hill back in the old days because it was so steep deer would snort when they ran up it. The church is over on the left, just a little past the hill. You can’t miss it.”

I assured him I would be there.

Sunday morning came and I headed for New Haven. Driving along the gravel road, I kept rehearsing my one and only sermon. Before long, I came to a steep hill that I assumed no buck could climb without snorting. Over on the left was a church. A bunch of cars and pickups—looked like fifty to me—were in the parking lot. I was excited to see such a big crowd. My reputation as a great preacher was obviously getting around.

I parked, grabbed my Bible, and hurried inside, greeting people enthusiastically on my way to the front of the sanctuary.

Just as I stepped behind the pulpit, a man came in the back door with a Bible under his arm and a puzzled look on his face.

“You’re just in time,” I said, hoping to put him at ease since he was a few minutes late. “We are about to get started.”

"Who are you?” he asked.

“I’m Boyce Bowdon and I’m here to fill in for your pastor who is sick.”

"Son,” he said, “I am the pastor and I’m not sick.”

What was wrong with this guy? Or was I the one with a problem? Surely, I wasn't at the wrong church. Just to be sure, I asked him. “Isn't this New Haven Methodist Church?"

He shook his head. "No. This is the Church of Christ. The Methodist Church is three miles up the road, on the left, just past Buck Snort Hill.”

I apologized and left as quickly and quietly as I could.

After I drove up the road for about five minutes, I came to a very steep hill—this had to be the one a buck couldn’t climb without snorting. Over on the left, nearly hidden in the midst of trees, was a little church. Three or four cars and trucks were parked in the shade.

When I got inside the first person I met was a woman who must have been ten years younger than I am now but seemed ancient to me back then. I asked her if this was New Haven Methodist Church. She smiled pleasantly and said, “Has been for a hundred years and far as I know it still is.”

More than half a century has passed, but I still haven’t forgotten the valuable lesson I learned that day: When you are going to preach, not only is it vital to think about your message; it's vital to think about the people you hope to reach with yours message. Where are they—not only geographically? Where are they in their life journey? What matters to them? What do they want? What do they need? And most important of all: What good news from God do you have to share with them?

To reach people, we must present a message that is relevant to them. It must be timely and significant for them. How can we do that?

To present a message that is relevant to them, obviously we must know them. How can we know them?

The best way is to invest as much time as you possibly can with them. When you are with them, don't try to impress them with how brilliant and spiritual you are. Keep your focus on them.

A United Methodist hospital chaplain recently gave me this insightful advice about visiting people in the hospital and elsewhere: "You need to do three things," Beverly Powell told me. "Show up, shut up, and listen up. There's no point in showing up if you don't listen up."

The key to reaching people is listening to them. And the key to listening is caring. And the key to caring is loving. Unless we genuinely love people, we cannot understand what they are revealing to us by what they say and by what they do not say.

The Apostle Paul summed it up beautifully: "If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal" (I Corinthians 13: 1).

The more we love people, the more effectively we will reach them with God's transforming love.

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