Listening to Sermons

pewsPastors aren’t always good at listening to sermons.* That makes my experience this month all the more special.

The statement that pastors aren’t the best “listeners,” may sound strange to some readers. There are many exceptions, of course, but the majority of pastors are handicapped by a couple of factors when it comes to listening to their peers preach.

Many of us were formally trained in our homiletics courses to actively critique other preachers. Even when we can get past this, our minds often (involuntarily) leap to how we would expound on various passages.

Wordsmiths within the clerical ranks are particularly vulnerable to this hazard. Grammatical errors screech like claws on a chalk board. Breaks in logic force us to stifle an inner cry for public redress. God-willing, we are able to remain in our seats and avoid causing embarrassment.

When we experience these uncharitable reactions, we silently ask for God’s forgiveness. We request from the Lord another portion of humility. And we try our best to refocus on what the pastor is preaching, rather than how he is doing it.

I recently spent a few days conducting research at Concordia Seminary. I enjoyed attending the daily chapel services while in St. Louis.

One sermon spoke to me with particular power. (Amazing, since the professors who preach in chapel are restricted to seven minutes! Just try to enforce that at a Baptist seminary!)

The Rev. Dr. Tony Cook preached on a passage from  James. He skillfully wove together a number of the elements in his brief ** sermon. Among his warnings, echoing the biblical text, he noted that we too often “place our confidence in the world,” and offer a “confession without compassion.” Too true.

He offered a timely word about the ecclesiastical practice of finding specks in the eyes of those with whom we differ. He said, “We do what Satan cannot. We tear down the Church from within.”

A final important reminder came in his proclamation that “We are made perfect by Jesus, not by our rhetoric about him.”


C.S. Lewis, the Considerate Parishioner

Rev. Will Vaus wrote an informative article about Lewis’ relationship with his home congregation. The article includes a number of beneficial insights. Included in it is the following insight into how respectful he was toward a pastor he found less than stimulating.

Douglas Gresham, Lewis’s step-son . . . showed our mostly-American tour group around Holy Trinity Church [C.S. Lewis’ home parish].

[Gresham mentioned] how Jack sat behind the pillar during the service so that his facial expression could not be seen by the vicar, Ron Head.

“Was that because he disagreed with the vicar’s theology?” I asked.

“No,” said Doug. “It was not so much Ron’s basic theology that Jack objected to, but the slants that he put on it. Ron was a fine scholar of church history and by intellect a High Church Anglican. However, in his sermons there were often many things that would cause a spasm of pain or perhaps a look of total boredom to cross Jack’s face.

Sitting as he did out of sight of Ron, Jack could yawn if he had to without causing pain to a man whom he regarded as something of a bore, one who had become lost in the trivial aspects of his calling whilst ignoring some of the essential ones. Ron was a very nice and indeed I think a good man and none of us would have hurt him for the world.”

In fact Jack referred to Ron Head as “a very trying curate” in a letter written to Mrs. Mary Van Deusen on April 22, 1954. Head was curate at Holy Trinity from 1952 to 1956, prior to serving as vicar. On December 28, 1953, Lewis wrote to the same Mrs. Van Deusen and said:

“I think someone ought to write a book on ‘Christian life for Laymen under a bad Parish Priest’ for the problem is bound to occur in the best churches. The motto would be of course Herbert’s lines about the sermon ‘If all lack sense, God takes a text and preaches patience’”

A Preacher in His Own Right

C.S. Lewis, though he was a layman, was invited to preach on a number of occasions. Another professor offers a great analysis of Lewis’ own preaching here. Hal Poe*** writes:

Forty years after his death, C. S. Lewis still offers preachers a model for how to approach the serious task of bringing the word of God to a congregation of believers or an audience of unbelievers.

The attitude toward preaching that Lewis represents does not produce dull or boring sermons. Rather, it engages people in a way that they must come to grips with what God has said.


* Actually, there are a number of things that pastors are not particularly adept at . . . but those are stories for another day.

** Brevity is not an enemy to powerful communication. Poetry, for example, says in a phrase a truth prose might require several paragraphs to explain. In addition, we’re familiar with writers like Mark Twain who echoed Blaise Pascal’s 1656 statement that “I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time.”

*** Yes, Dr. Poe is an indirect descendant of the famous writer of the macabre.

The rather discomforting painting at the top of this column is Church Pew with Worshippers, painted by Vincent van Gogh in 1882. (I’m happy to say I’ve never preached to a congregation that looked quite as miserable as this one.)

17 thoughts on “Listening to Sermons

    1. True. That’s why it is so very wonderful when we lose ourselves to the power (anointing?) of a sermon and get swept along by the joy of the good news, oblivious to the medium of its delivery.

  1. John J Flanagan

    I am not a preacher, only a church member in an LCMS congregation, but I have listened to all sorts of preachers inside and outside of the denomination over many decades. One pastor told me, and I paraphrase it: “that each preacher has his own style and delivery, his own tone of voice and his own methods….but the key is to remain humble and to keep one hand on your Bible as you speak from the lectern.” It is easy for any of us to criticize a sermon, but if the substance is the salvation message, focuses on Christ, and reinforces the idea that all are sinners in need of grace…..then we can say it is still a good sermon.

  2. if you were raised in church attendance, what did you think of preaching as a child or adolescent? was it attending to pastors–or how were you inspired to become a pastor? what was it like for you then?

    1. Interesting questions. I suppose each individual’s answers would vary widely. Being a military kid, we moved all the time, and the only pastor I recall from my youth was the one who taught most of my confirmation classes. I liked him, although as I now think about it for the first time, I don’t recall any of my pastors’ sermons during my youth as being particularly inspiring.

      I felt called to the ordained ministry my senior year in college, a wholly unexpected event. Turns out my grandmother later told me that when I was a baby (she was with my family when I was born) she prayed that I would grow up and become a pastor. To my knowledge, she had never shared that prayer with anyone else until after it was answered.

      1. “a wholly unexpected event”

        thanks. v. interesting post, and gives evidence of commitment to a felt duty on the part of Lewis and yourself. thank you.

      2. It’s unimaginable to me that some clergy don’t possess a “felt duty” in terms of communicating the hope that is within them… but ample evidence bears out that sad fact…

  3. My pastor (now retired) used to say there was one lady he always liked to look at when preaching, because she would always smile encouragingly. It made me think how important it is not only to support your pastor, but to look engaged as well.

    1. Eye contact and attentiveness are quite important in any conversation, but since the congregation is too far from most pulpits go get true eye “contact,” the impression the pastor gets of a congregation’s attentiveness is doubly important. Thanks for sharing this reminder.

  4. Yes I am the same way as Lewis and many other preachers. I have to be careful to not critique but to listen to concept. It happened to me this last Sunday the preacher interpreted the Hebrew incorrectly (a entry level mistake not a nuance) and that occupied my mind for some time finally I had to ask God to help so I could actively participate in listening to the sermon. The message was great but I lost some of it due to a simple error.

    1. Ah, the proper interpretation of Hebrew… it can be a stumbling block to many. And, our critical and easily distracted minds… can be a stumbling block to even though of us who are not philologists.

  5. Pingback: Please Shorten that Sermon « Mere Inkling Press

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