Listening to Listeners

August 16th, 2021

Oskar Schindler was a German businessman living during the Nazi regime. The movie "Schindler’s List" portrays Schindler saving Jews despite the considerable personal risks and costs. When asked why he, a German, would care for Jews, he replied, “I knew the people who worked for me. When you know people, you have to behave toward them like human beings.” Empathy, for Schindler and for the preacher, stems from knowing people. Knowing people intimately enough for the cultivation of empathy requires being present and attendant to people in our preaching context. Easier said than done.


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Evidence suggests a disconnect between the pulpit and pew, the preacher and the people. The preacher still talks and the people still listen, but for empathy’s sake the preacher must find a way to listen to the people talk. Dr. Lori Carrell surveyed preachers and their congregants to study the relationship between pulpit and pew. She published the results in her book The Great American Sermon Survey. The data revealed an acute disconnection. Out of the 102 pastors who completed the detailed survey, only one of them had a “formal procedure for involving listeners in sermon preparation.” Yet, when Carrell asked 479 listeners, “If you could get one message across to all preachers in the United States, what would it be?” the second highest response was essentially “know your listeners.” People want a preacher who relates to them. One of the primary problems with preaching today, according to Carrell’s data, is a lack of empathy among preachers.

Listeners are most open to the sermon when they sense an empathic bond with the preacher. According to Carrell, few preachers build this kind of connection into the homiletic process. She wrote a follow-up book in response to the data from her survey titled Preaching That Matters. Carrell found that those who intentionally listened to congregants in order to know them more intimately and preach more incisively “made significant gains in the transformative quality of their sermons.” Empathic intimacy cultivated in the preacher toward congregants awakens the power latent in the preaching event. Yet, 87 percent of the preachers in Carrell’s study prepare their sermons entirely in isolation.

There are two preaching trends that contribute to the preacher’s isolation from congregants. One is the dichotomization of the preacher’s role between prophet for God and priest for people. Most preachers tend to perceive ourselves as prophets who represents a holy God to sinful people. The prophet preaches to confront, correct, and challenge people. The prophetic role is, of course, a necessary one; but perhaps we have leaned so far into that one role that the other side of the preaching coin has been shortchanged.

The preacher is not only a bold prophet who represents God to people but an empathic priest who represents people to God. The priest preaches to intercede, advocate, reconcile, confess, and articulate for people. The prophetic and priestly roles are required in the preacher or the congregation will become lopsided toward truth or grace and miss the beautiful blend of both.

Sermonic words must not only be faithful to the will and way of God (prophet) but to the hopes and hurts of humanity (priest). As we preach, people must feel as if we’re articulating for them what they feel, know, and hope for but can’t voice themselves. Listeners are most impacted not by eloquent or entertaining preachers but empathic ones. The empathic preacher puts to words for me what I feel deep in my soul but can’t articulate. I would contend that the priestly empathy of Jesus drew people to him. The Samaritan woman at the well sensed that Jesus knew all about her, warts and all, and still loved her. She said to people in her town, “Come and see a man who has told me everything I’ve done!” (John 4:29a).

The second trend that leads to a relational disconnect between pulpit and pew is the specialization of the pastoral role. Today, even a midsize congregation might have on staff a teaching pastor, care pastor, outreach pastor, youth and children pastor, and maybe even an executive pastor to keep all the pastoral roles and responsibilities distinct. While there are clearly benefits to pastoral specialization, there are major downsides too. One of the premier downsides of disintegrating the pastoral roles of care, leading, preaching, and so on is the dilution of empathy. It is quite fashionable today for the preaching pastor to spend twenty to thirty hours in isolation from people in order to craft sermons and work with the “worship production team.” The assumption is that those who listen to our sermons can get in the way of sermon preparation. Specialty preachers may be rhetorically eloquent, but if they lack the eloquence of empathy, the sermon’s impact is diminished. I would contend that the most fruitful preachers in the church are not the visionary kings or clerical CEOs, who sit in spacious offices cloistered off from regular folk. No, the best preachers are empathic shepherds who incarnationally go out to the fields where the sheep dwell; their words are sheep-scented. The church I most recently served as lead pastor had a growth spurt; it tripled in size in seven years. There were many reasons why the church grew into an ethnically, economically, generationally, and educationally diverse body. Some, though I humbly admit not all, would say that preaching was one of the ministries that influenced the increase. The people who seemed to appreciate my preaching the most did not cite my rhetorical skill (another confession) but my empathic connection to the diversity of people God brought to us. They wouldn’t use the term “empathic” to describe my preaching, but that’s what they meant. “I feel like he gets me. . . . He comes across as one among and not above the congregation. . . . He puts into words what I experience but can’t express.”

The problem, however, was that I allowed the trend toward specialization to infiltrate my ministry and reduce my empathy. This weakened my preaching. The more the church grew, the more time I spent cloistered in my study isolated from people. When I stood up to preach I felt awkwardly severed from my people, like a substitute teacher. My sermons had, I think, eloquence and exegesis but not much empathy. I lacked the passion and power that results from being empathically in touch with the congregation. When I leaned into the trend toward specialization, which for me meant isolation, I experienced some of my worst days in ministry. Thankfully, I learned the importance of empathy, albeit the hard way.

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