Captivating Your Congregation
When pondering this topic, my mind immediately went to Acts 20, where we read of Paul worshiping with the believers in Troas. I’m sure most of you may be familiar with the story of this man Eutychus, who listened to Paul preach for some time. His name meant “lucky” or “fortunate,” yet unfortunately, he was sitting by a window when he fell asleep during Paul’s sermon and thus fell to the ground. (I’ve always felt a good amount of encouragement while reading this story, that even Paul had people fall asleep on him.)
One time, I received an email from a church member who said, “Hey, I just wanted to apologize for falling asleep in your sermon today. I was really tired.” Then, he added, “I’m sure you see people falling asleep all the time, but I was on some new medication and just couldn’t stay awake.” I didn’t really know how to respond to that word of encouragement…
All in all, I think what we’re after is what we read in Nehemiah 8, where Ezra brought the Word and his people became so attentive to the book of the law, eager to learn and without distraction. Sometimes, we can feel like the stewardess on an airplane who gives instructions to people who do not pay a bit of attention to what we’re saying. So, how might we cultivate more engaged listeners with a greater ability to remember our sermons? Let me say a few things first about the listeners and then a few things about preachers.
Four Steps for Your Listeners
First of all, we need to encourage our people to be present regularly. This notion may seem very basic, but we are fighting consumerism and the idol of comfort. Being present as often as possible is so important for listener engagement because our habits shape us. Encouraging people to be present as much as possible is likewise very important. Christopher Ash writes, “God doesn’t give us quick fixes that come from hearing one or two Sunday sermons. He shapes and molds our minds and hearts and our character over time by the steady drip, drip, drip of His Word. We need to hear Christ proclaimed again and again.”
Secondly, encourage them to prepare for the gathering. Consider giving them, as we do at our church, a newsletter to provide them with the Scripture plan for the next few weeks of sermons so that they can pray and read the Scripture beforehand—perhaps as a family—to prepare their hearts for the gathering.
Thirdly, we need to try to warm up the room as leaders. I try to do this in the welcome and pastoral prayer times. Let your people know they’re loved by what you say to them during this time, and you can even express your care for them through your prayers. I believe that loved people are listening people. When our congregation knows they are loved, they’ll be more inclined to be engaged in what you’re saying. So, work to shepherd your people from the pulpit, to envision your listeners throughout your sermon prep, and to love them as you’re leading them through the text.
Finally, encourage them to engage. Remind them of the importance of listening to the living and active Word of God (Hebrews 4:12). You can do this in a variety of ways, but think about the parable of the four soils—that the Word sometimes falls on a path, sometimes on stony ground, and sometimes where there are thorns (Matthew 13:3-9; Mark 4:2-9; and Luke 8:4-8). Jesus says, in those contexts on the path, that the devil takes away the seed; when it falls on stony ground, it has no roots; and when it lands in the thorns, that’s when people are distracted. Listening to a sermon is not like watching television, where your intake is passive. Active listening requires our listeners to engage. Remind them regularly that what they’re hearing is God’s Word. We live in a day in which people are just really used to looking at talking heads, and we don’t want to ever be another talking head. We need to remind them, as Peter says in 1 Peter 4, that what we’re talking about are the very oracles of God. Therefore, our people need to give way, way more attention and consideration to what they’re hearing in a sermon than what they’re watching on television.
Six Steps for You
In order to cultivate more engaged listeners, let me first encourage you to write your sermon for the hearer and not the reader. Use words that call for attention. Say, “Hey, listen up.” Or as one of my friends says, “Come in here real close, as I have something to say to you,” or even, “Notice this!” Engage them with rhetorical questions. Often, I’ll write something in my sermon and then turn it into a “How many of you have ever…?” question to get audience engagement. Preaching is an oral event; we’re not writing for the reader, but for the listener.
Secondly, be interesting and clear. This is a very basic concept, but it’s so important. Dan Doriani once said in a preaching class, “Preach to an intelligent 11 year old.” Preach on a level that’s accessible. While it can still be deep, Luther even used to say that he preached to the children. So, make your sermon clear. Have a good, big idea, then run that big idea throughout your sermon. People should at least be able to walk away knowing what your dominant idea was. You may not be able to preach dramatic, sensational sermons, but I think you can be clear if you work at it and that it will bless people. This act on the part of the preacher is a battle. Even Paul asked of the Colossians, “Pray for me that my words may be clear” (Colossians 4:4, NIV).
Thirdly, try to maintain interest as you preach. One of the ways to maintain interest is by building tension. Ask good questions, incorporate insightful content, and apply the text as you’re working through your sermon. Don’t just save it for the end; you want to have these moments of tension where you’re keeping your people engaged and interested all along the way.
Fourthly, work to maintain good eye contact. To do this, I really suggest starting your sermon prep early in the week, so that by the time Sunday comes, you can preach from the heart. You may have notes in front of you, but you should still be able to preach from your notes without it being noticeable—that’s when you’re preaching from the heart to the heart. If you start later in the week, you’ll have a tendency to take your first draft to the pulpit, where you’ll be more concentrated on what you’ll say next rather than maintaining good eye contact. It’s also very important to maintain good eye contact as you’re applying the text. There’ll be times when you should be looking down and drawing people’s attention to the text, but when you’re trying to exhort them personally, it’s a great time to look at them.
Fifth, work at having a good ebb and flow in your sermon. We all need mental breaks as we listen to others talk. When we don’t give our people mental breaks, their minds will take their own mental breaks. So, alternate intensity with illustration by using stories well.
Finally, as much as possible, have them take what you’re preaching, and say it, write it, discuss it, and think about it. In other words, reflect on how your sermon could be considered outside of its initial listening environment. The more your people can engage with the material, the better. That could even mean establishing a sermon-based small group sometime during the week where they can engage in what’s being communicated from the pulpit. More people could also be engaged in your sermon if they know that they’ll be talking about it later in small group.
In Prayerful Expectation
As you think about these principles, consider how they can help you cultivate more engaged listeners. Write your sermon for the hearer instead of the reader. Be interesting and clear. Try to maintain interest throughout the body of your message. Maintain good eye contact, especially when applying the text. Incorporate a good ebb and flow within your sermon. Then lastly, have your people discuss what you’re saying, write what you’re saying, and engage with it as much as possible outside of simply listening to the sermon.
Prayerfully consider these tips and prepare expectantly for all that the Lord can do through your faithfulness in His ministry.
Published July 24, 2023