Daring us to listen

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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. This article is the first part of a conversation on what it looks like to enable all listeners—clergy and lay—to dare to get more out of sermons in light of Christ’s daring determination to get more out of us.

Cameron: You start out by reminding us that we have a loquacious God who also listens. Could you say more about the sort of God we get as the God who listens? 

Will: For reasons known only to the Lord, the Christian faith is auditory, acoustical—a faith overheard.
Our story with God begins in God’s address, “Let there be light…,” and the story continues with creation responding back in sheer becoming. That first human creation even walks around with God in the cool of the evening, talking with God. Something about this Creator adores conversation with God’s creatures.
And even then, the God who calls creation into being with a word has still more to be said, in ways we could never have anticipated. Nobody is born knowing that God is a Jew from Nazareth who lived briefly, died violently, and rose unexpectedly. You can’t come upon the gospel through walks in the woods or sitting quietly with a latte at Starbucks, or rummaging around in your ego. Somebody has got to tell this truth to you. Or as Paul put it, “Faith comes from hearing.”

That’s why we preachers will never be out of a job and why listeners never cease being dependent upon some preacher to tell them the truth they can’t tell themselves. A truth otherwise known as “gospel." 
Cameron: What do you think God is listening for from us, and are we still surprised to discover that God is listening?

Will: Scripture depicts God as a big talker, a God who not only creates, loves, and sustains but wants to tell everybody about it. However (and I make a lot out of this in the book) there’s also the wonder that God listens, relishes continuing conversation, and enjoys hearing us talk back to God—which is what we mean by “prayer.” 

Anyone in love quickly discovers (maybe the hard way) that one of the most important acts of love is listening. Christians believe God does just that.
In fact, I define preaching as when the preacher stands up in the middle of a conversation between God and God’s people, contributes to the conversation—the sermon—and then continues that conversation in the church in the coming week through what the church says and does out in the neighborhood.
Cameron: I think I'm guilty of forgetting that sermons aren't merely a weekly event, that they are actually part of an ongoing conversation, a back-and-forth between God and God's people. It's helpful, even in sermon planning, to remember that with some humility, I think, and to remember the church's place in that ongoing conversation.

Will: Church is where we come to listen to God in the conviction that while we’re there, God is listening to us. Maybe God is listening for us to respond with, “Now that you’ve got my attention (at last!) keep talking. I’m all ears.”  In the gospels, when Jesus says like, “Listen!” it implies that he is looking for responsive listening. He blessed those who “Not only hear the word but do it,” which feels so familiar to me as a wonderfully Wesleyan take on the need for listener response. 
Listening to human beings requires a wide range of listening skills and listener openness. Listening for God, even more so (thus, my book). It’s important to remember that nobody is expected to listen to or respond to God without the prompting of the Holy Spirit. In a sense nobody hears a sermon without external assistance, without an advocate who helps interpret and engage us in our listening—an advocate otherwise known as the Holy Spirit.

An amazing claim of scripture is that God not only speaks but also graciously listens, listening even to the likes of us, through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. This listening is exactly what Paul encourages us with in his letter to the Romans; it’s the gift and guarantee of our participation in the household of God. The practice of prayer rests upon the conviction that the God of Israel and the Church not only is an eloquent preacher but also a forbearing listener.  

Cameron: Our response to the proclamation, especially in the time of worship itself, is hard to capture, to navigate, to express.
As you mentioned, no feedback is worse than negative or critical feedback—and you tell a number of quick stories about one-off conversations you had with congregants following a Sunday sermon. How can we preachers help move folks from response-as-feedback to something more active, even evocative?

Will: Well, don’t knock feedback. As I say in the book, “Some of your listeners are getting the preaching you deserve. When’s the last time you have tried to help your preacher craft more effective sermons? When have you said to your preacher, after a sermon, 'Thanks. That must have taken some courage to preach that sermon. We’re grateful for that’?”

I discuss some of the ways that I’ve tried systematically, intentionally to elicit lay feedback to my sermons. But I share how I learned that because of the demanding nature of sermon composition and delivery, it’s not easy to get useful lay feedback to preaching. Better is for a preacher to covenant with preaching colleagues to give and receive help in order to grow as preachers.
Cameron: I think many preachers would be open to that practice, but don't necessarily know how to start. What has that practice looked like for you in your ministry? 

Will: My ministry has been sustained, over the years, by partnering with two or three colleagues in ministry to share our sermons and to respond to one another. In one group we studied the assigned lectionary texts for the upcoming Sunday then, the next week, one of us shared how we eventually preached the text. I believe in this so much that, in my seminary preaching classes I tell students that “It’s impossible to grow as a preacher without learning how to give and to receive help. So I try to give students the opportunity to grow in their ability to give and receive help with preaching.

One of the most bizarre aspects of a poorly administered United Methodist appointive system is that we are often appointed by district superintendents or bishops who have never heard us preach, even though Methodist laity consistently say that preaching is the most important thing their pastor does. As a bishop, I got video sermons from every full time elder who was up for a move. I listened to one or two of the preacher’s sermons, then wrote a letter in response. The sermons I heard made me proud—most of the time—to be a Methodist preacher.

Be on the lookout for the next half of this conversation—and in the meantime, be sure to get a copy of Listeners Dare and gather some of your most engaged listeners for a conversation on preaching!
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