The view from the pew

Preaching takes on a different perspective once we look at it from the other side of the pulpit. The people in your pews know what they want from a sermon. Here are eight characteristics given by a former producer of sermons, now turned consumer.

Eldred Johnston is rector emeritus, St. Mark's Episcopal church, Columbus, Ohio.

After forty years and two thousand sermons, I retired in 1972. All at once I was looking at preaching from the other side of the pulpit, a new perspective for me. For the past ten years or so I've been in the pew as a listener in scores of churches across the country. I don't claim to be competent enough to teach you how to preach, but of one thing I'm sure: I know what I want from a sermon now that I'm a consumer and not a producer.

1. Clear auditory reception. Speakers who don't use adequate vocal volume or who have never learned to enunciate clearly or use a microphone are wasting my time and theirs.

2. / want you to acknowledge my presence. This is not a TV sermon where the preacher and I will never meet. You are my pastor; I am a member of your flock. The true shepherd knows his sheep, their particular needs, scars, and hopes. If you keep your nose in a manuscript or continually stare above the heads of the congregation, you might as well be delivering a radio sermon as far as I'm concerned. I expect you to glance my way now and then and act as though you see me. A little eye contact goes a long way toward transforming even a dull monologue into a living dialogue.

3. Simplicity. I don't want seven points, or five points, or even the classic three points—just one distinct point. To try to do more in approximately thirty minutes is sheer folly. I'm not asking for simplistic thinking, but for effective communication. Jesus' parables are classics because they gave His hearers one clear and impressive point to take back into daily life.

I said I wasn't going to tell you how to preach. But please let me say this: Decide on one clear, specific purpose for your sermon. Write it in large letters and pin it above your desk so you never lose sight of it as you prepare. Avoid generalities; be specific. On Easter, for example, don't try so hard to help me appreciate the resurrection; show how the resurrection can make a difference in my Monday morning life.

4. I want to feel that this sermon is based on a message from God, Too often today the term preacher means the typical TV clergyman who continually assures you that God loves you and therefore every thing will turn out right as long as you keep those letters and postcards coming.

The Biblical meaning of preacher is derived from the word prophet—"one who speaks for God." As I listen to you I want to feel that you have had an intimate conversation with God in which you were a keen listener. I want to feel that the ultimate authority for your sermon is not Plato, or Freud, or Luther, or Cranmer, or Peale, but the God of Moses, David, Jeremiah, and Paul. I want to feel that you are not speaking casually, but that you have a sense of divine compulsion and urgency in your message.

5. I want to feel that you are in touch with reality. We are not in a Middle Eastern country of the first century. We are not in medieval Wittenberg, Elizabethan England, a celestial kingdom surrounded by angels and saints, or in a science-fiction world of the twenty-first century. We are in the real world of the 1980s and enjoying many material advantages but facing the desperate problems of crime, nuclear warfare, sin, economic instability, and human insensitivity. I want to feel that you have not been living an insular life, but that you are involved in the same world I am.

6. I want intellectual stimulation. I want to feel that you have wrestled with difficult concepts and philosophies and are challenging us to do likewise. The famous preachers of our Christian tradition have not been preoccupied with creating euphoria, but have appealed to the powers of reason and logic with which God has endowed us. If I want a polished presentation of mere crumbs of intellectual nourishment I can turn on the TV preachers and watch camera shots of flowers, water fountains, and swaying singers.

7. I want color and warmth. We are not in your pews as a seminary class to listen to a theological exposition. We are all sorts of people with all sorts of back grounds and experiences and we are easily diverted, especially if you lapse into lengthy scholarly discourse. Nothing puts me to sleep quicker than drab, pedantic, predictable theologizing. An X-ray of Miss America may be ever so accurate and scientific, but it's not going to hold my attention. Something in me is attracted to beauty, warmth, and color. Wrap the bare bones of your sermon in the living flesh of adjectives, illustrations, similes, analogies, et cetera.

8. Finally, I want a renewal of my faith in God and hope for the future. In this world of violence, international tension, increasing computerization, and depersonalization there isn't much to sustain us from week to week. We urgently need as never before the strength that God can bring us through the sacraments, the church community, and preaching.

Here's an easy method for testing whether your sermon can deliver all these points and more. In your mind, change the setting from a public situation to an individual one. Take away the pulpit, the pews, the choir. Move to a kitchen table. You're on one side, a couple of your friends are on the other. Notice how the volume of your voice drops, the frequency of your gesticulations decreases. Your theology becomes more modest, less confident. Notice your increased concern for the response of your listeners. You might even look to them for help in this vital quest for God's word, God's love, God's peace.

If you can preach in the same way to me from the pulpit I'll have what I want from a sermon, and so will your members.

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Eldred Johnston is rector emeritus, St. Mark's Episcopal church, Columbus, Ohio.

July 1983

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