Chapter 30

View from the Pew

How to hold the attention of the easily distracted.

Edward Rosenbaum's visits to the hospital were not like yours. He never had to complete reams of forms or endure the nervous tedium of the waiting room. When Rosenbaum entered, he passed through a private door and rode on a special elevator. He even called the doctors by their first names.

It took only a few Sundays in the pew to discover how much competition the preacher faces during the message.

But once he was diagnosed with cancer, things changed. The next time he entered the hospital it was not as chief of medicine and president of the staff but as a patient. The experience was transformational. In his book A Taste of My Own Medicine, Rosenbaum writes: "I have heard it said that to be a doctor, you must first be a patient. It wasn't until then that I learned that the physician and patient are not on the same track. The view is entirely different when you are standing at the side of the bed from when you are lying in it."

The same could be said of preaching. When I joined the faculty of Moody Bible Institute, after nine years of pastoral ministry, I found that my experience of the preaching event changed radically.

It took only a few Sundays in the pew to discover how much competition the preacher faces during the message. One Sunday the background noise in the church seemed to be unusually high. It was certainly higher than anything I had encountered during my years in the pulpit. I could barely hear what the pastor was saying above the din of rustling pages, scribbling pencils, and tapping feet. "How can you worship with all this noise?" I asked my wife. She just laughed. "Welcome to the congregation," she said.

In order to impact my listeners, I must first get their attention. Once I have my audience's attention, I must say something worth keeping it, and say it in a way that moves them to respond. My rule for preaching: state your principle, paint a picture, then show your listeners what the principle looks like in their own life situations. Do this for every point in your message, and you will be more likely to carry the audience with you.

State Your Principle

Today's listeners have been conditioned by watching thousands of hours of highly produced, visually-oriented stories that have been neatly packed into segments of 15 minutes or less. Some of these stories are built upon a simple plot structure that raises a problem and resolves it in 30 to 50 minutes.

The obvious response to this cultural trend would seem to be sermons that are short, narrative, affective, and nonpropositional. However, true biblical preaching, even when it is primarily narrative in structure, must be propositional at its core. This is unavoidable because it is the communication of truth. New Testament language is absolutist, repeatedly emphasizing that biblical preaching is the communication of the truth.

In view of this, the first step in preaching must be to determine the propositional core of the sermon. What is the primary truth I hope to communicate to the listener?

We cannot ignore the impact of television on our listeners, but neither can we afford to sacrifice biblical content in an effort to make our sermons more "listenable." The message must be grounded in propositional truth, and that truth must be stated clearly.

Paint a Picture

Propositional truth is foundational to the sermon, but it does not guarantee results. We often encounter those who understand the truths we preach and even affirm them, yet continue to act contrary to what they know and say they believe. Cognition isn't the problem, motivation is.

Visual language and metaphor help to bridge the gap between cognition and motivation. Warren Wiersbe says: "When confronted by a metaphor, you might find yourself remembering forgotten experiences and unearthing buried feelings, and then bringing them together to discover new insights. Your mind says, 'I see!' Your heart says, 'I feel!' Then in that transforming moment your imagination unites the two and you say, 'I'm beginning to understand.'"

Metaphors are important in preaching because they lie at the very core of human understanding. According to George Lakoff, professor of linguistics at the University of California, and Mark Johnson, professor of Philosophy at Southern Illinois University: "Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature." Metaphors help us to understand one thing by pointing to something else and saying, "This is that."

Stories are also an important factor in motivating listeners to change their core values. An effective story captures my attention on several levels. It captures my interest because it deals with "reality." I may not be interested in theology, but I am interested in real life. A story has the power to touch my heart because I can identify with the problems, circumstances, or emotions of its central characters.

Show What It Looks Like

The ultimate goal in my preaching is action. To facilitate response in hearers I must help them to see what that response looks like in their own life situations.

With sermon application I struggle between two extremes. When my applications are too general, listeners affirm the truth of what I say without seeing that they need to act on it. As long as Nathan preached to David in parables, David could affirm the heinousness of the sin the prophet had described without referring to himself. It was only when the prophet moved to application and declared, "You are the man," that David said, "I have sinned against the LORD."

On the other hand, when my applications are too specific, it is easy for listeners to disqualify themselves by noting that they do not fit the specific conditions described in my examples. This kind of case study approach was often employed by the religious leaders of Jesus' day, allowing the Pharisees and Scribes to exempt themselves. One of Jesus' purposes in the Sermon on the Mount was to help his listeners see the general principles behind familiar truths that had been particularized away. On the other hand, an overly specific approach to application can lead to legalism, a focus on the letter of the law without regard to its spirit. Effective application must be both general and specific.

Above all, application must be relevant. While preparing a message on the second chapter of Hebrews, I thought of Joyce, a woman in my congregation who was dying of cancer. Her gaunt face, ravaged by the effects of the disease, came to mind as I meditated on Hebrews 2:15, a passage which says that one of the purposes of the incarnation was to "free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death." I had just completed two or three paragraphs of cliches, assuring the congregation that the true Christian does not fear death.

"Do you think Joyce believes that?" an inner voice seemed to say. I could not be certain of the answer. How would I feel if I were dying and had to listen to my own sermon?

The next question was even more disturbing. "Do you believe that?" I had to admit I did not—at least not as a matter of personal experience. I could affirm it as a point of faith. But if I was honest, I had to admit that, even as a Christian, I often struggled with a fear of death. Suddenly the tone of my sermon changed. Platitudes would never do. The thoughtful listener would see through them and know I was only whistling in the dark. If I was going to preach this text truthfully, I would have to spend some time sitting next to Joyce and confront my own fear of death.

Like doctor Edward Rosenbaum, to preach effectively I must first take into account the view from the pew.

John Koessler is professor of pastoral studies at Moody Bible Institute, Chicago, Illinois.