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Riveting Sermons

How to Get and Keep Listeners' Attention

Of the thousands of sermons I've heard in my lifetime, I remember only a few; but those few glitter in my memory like diamonds scattered on a beach. One of the brightest did not shine with humor (though I recall laughing at points), nor did it shine with a showy delivery (though I distinctly remember the passion in the preacher's voice). That sermon riveted my attention because the preacher spoke about something vital to me. He exhorted us to "guard our hearts, for the heart is the wellspring of life," and you could hear a feather drop in the sanctuary, because my church had just lost our worship leader, who was having an affair. We sensed we could fall just as the worship leader had.

Every sermon cannot, indeed should not, strive to be a once-in-a-lifetime sermon. But every sermon should rivet attention on the Word. How can we increase the level of attention granted our sermons? Here is a clue.

On Thanksgiving Day, my family and I visited Old Sturbridge Village in central Massachusetts. This town recreates New England life in the year 1837. Actors in authentic costumes role-play to give tourists a feel for that era. Only a few tourists dialogued with the banker, lawyer, or minister. Instead, the crowds gathered in a dining room at noon to watch our New England ancestors eat Thanksgiving dinner. Dozens of tourists packed themselves into a stuffy room for a vicarious feast of turkey, potatoes, squash, pies, and cider. The smells and sights riveted our attention. My stomach growled as I watched the actors—who were obviously enjoying this part of their jobs.

Why did the crowds gather to watch the meal while only three or four people dialogued with the Congregationalist minister? Because we were hungry. When people are hungry, they pay attention to food. So it is with a sermon. In Desiring God, John Piper argues that humans are hungry. We crave joy. Deep needs for security and significance reside in every heart. When preachers surface needs such as these and demonstrate how God meets them, they rivet attention.

Here are three ways to identify deep needs. These are more than techniques; they must be a lifestyle.

Listen to your neighbors.
Listen to your neighbors' prayer requests—broken health, wayward children, jobless breadwinners. Preach to the suffering, and you will never lack an audience. Listen to your neighbors talk about money, relationships, recreation, death, and truth. Listen to the subtext: their attitudes. Can money give security? In your sermon, illustrate this and offer real security.

I understand that Bill Hybels often does sermon prep in the coffee shop or locker room. He sits and thinks, How would these people respond to my central idea? What objections would they raise? What misconceptions do they have? I have a friend who opens his pictorial church directory and "listens" to so-and-so air her opinions on his thesis.

Listen to yourself.
What do you care about? You care about the same things all humans care about: security and significance. While it is true that preachers find these commodities in places our listeners rarely venture (like the Septuagint and PreachingToday.com), all of us are trying to satisfy the same hunger. Apply the Word to yourself, and it will likely apply to your people in the same way.

For example, one thought that has crossed my mind more than once, is Will I have the same standard of living when I retire as I do now? I am confident God will meet my needs when I'm old and gray, but, frankly, I hope he also meets my wants! When I include that concern in a sermon, I'm confident others will identify with me.

Listen to authors.
When you read, pay attention to the subtext of attitudes, values, and beliefs. Magazines sell because they address issues we care about. Fiction sells because it deals with universal themes.

I'm currently listening to a recording of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court by Mark Twain, and I'm learning much about the American ethos. Democracy, equality, and achievement are foundational terms for us. Someday I know I'll talk about that in a sermon.

Whether listening to a sermon or touring a 19th century village, hungry people pay attention to food. To gain attention and feed the flock, preachers must speak to the vital needs of their listeners.

Jeffrey Arthur is professor of preaching and communication at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

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