I recently had the privilege of attending the Festival of Homiletics (a week of sermons, lectures, and other things related to preaching) in Nashville. I know. I know. Three sermons and a lecture or two a day and some other conversations in the evenings don't sound like fun to most people. So grant me that preachers are a weird lot to begin with. I heard some wonderful preaching that week. I heard lots of helpful things about how to preach in the midst of a culture that doesn't much care for it. I'll be thinking about some of the things I heard for a long time. I picked up some books (surprise, surprise) to help me with that thinking. They'll be a big part of my summer reading schedule.
Then I came home and heard a tale about a preacher from some friends that made me want to run back to that artificial world we lived in for a week instead of living out here in the real world that hadn't been to Nashville with me.
This guy preaches a much more expository style than I do. That means he usually has a lot more definitive answers in his preaching (and in his life, apparently) than I have or want. Worship in his church is all about the sermon. The bulletin doesn't have much in it that helps people know what to do or say because they aren't supposed to do or say much while they're there. They're supposed to listen to him. There is even a place in the bulletin for people to take notes. Really, it more like a programmed instruction text: When I say this, you write it down so you'll know the answers. Now he's apparently decided that not enough people are playing by his rules so he's instructed the other staff members (One version of the story says the male staff members. I'm not sure.) to sit down front in visible locations, act interested, and visibly take notes so that others in the congregation will follow their lead. (If that’s not a direct quote, it doesn't miss it by much!).
Wondering whether or not people are listening is always an issue for preachers. Wondering if they're paying attention, even if they're listening, is another issue. Sometimes I can tell when I'm not connecting. Sometimes I can even tell when it's because the sermon just isn't working or when it's because they're just not with me. But I can't imagine ever getting to the point that I'd have to instruct people to act interested.
Sometimes the loads people bring to worship with them are just too heavy to let them listen much. I contend that something can still happen that is helpful to them just because they're there. I have also helped to rear two people who are now young adults, so I know all too well that sometimes people are listening when I can't see it happening. And that sometimes they're not listening even if it appears that they are. I know that everyone in worship every week is not hanging on my every word. But I also know that just being among God's people can create an environment in which we can experience things we're not expecting. Telling a child to sit still and pay attention is one thing--whether they ever do or not--but telling adults to act interested is just too much. I work hard at crafting sermons that invite people into the process of communicating with God along with me. Sometimes they work, and sometimes they don't. I think I'll continue to invite rather than command people to participate. Taking notes is optional.
The Flood, Then and Now
3 weeks ago