Many preachers view preaching as simply a time to speak. They fail to recognize that effective preachers need to listen attentively to their listeners.1 Every listener provides valuable feedback during the sermon, and wise preachers will learn to listen attentively to this feedback in order to connect more effectively with their congregation.
In some cultural settings, spontaneous verbal feedback from the listeners during the sermon is not only accepted but encouraged. For example, a core component of African American preaching can be described as the process of call and response, or call and recall. This process requires verbal feedback from a participating congregation. Henry Mitchell suggests that “if the Black preaching tradition is unique, then that uniqueness depends in part upon the uniqueness of the Black congregation which talks back to the preacher as a normal part of the pattern of worship.”2 This verbal feedback by the listeners becomes a powerful dynamic. Common verbal feedback, in addition to the traditional “Amen,” includes comments like “Lord, help us”; “Make it plain”; and “Stay right there!” With these verbal responses as much more than a perfunctory acknowledgment of the preacher, the listeners actually preach back to the preacher. Mitchell notes that “most preachers of any culture would gladly welcome such stimulation and support.”3
Indeed, when preaching, I am energized by thoughtful verbal feedback. On one occasion while I was preaching to a large congregation, one section of the congregation was particularly responsive in providing this feedback. They were my “Amen corner.” I felt so connected with this small group that I had to be careful not to ignore the rest of the congregation.
At times, a preacher might even make a variety of appeals for verbal response, such as “Can I get a witness?” or “Can I hear ‘Amen’ out there?” When verbal communication occurs between the preacher and the listeners, both must be attentive to the other. This verbal feedback can help the preacher to connect more effectively with the church.
A preacher may also seek to encourage verbal feedback by building dialogue into the sermon itself. One way to do this includes designing the sermon as a conversation between two or more individuals in the presence of the congregation. The participants may include the preacher, other specialists, and representatives from the congregation.
I experimented with this interactive form for a sermon on healthy families.4 Three teenagers and a marriage and family counselor joined me on the platform for a lively discussion.5 The impact of this interactive sermon was profound. In this setting, the congregation overheard the conversation and felt involved in a way that would be difficult to achieve with a monologue.
Some preachers have sought to increase verbal feedback from listeners by adding a discussion time at the conclusion of the sermon. Listeners might be divided into small groups with preassigned group leaders, and each group could be directed to discuss questions arising out of the sermon. Following the discussion time, the congregation could gather again for group reports and a closing act of devotion.
Another option would be to give permission for time-out if a listener has a question or needs a point of clarification, with listeners indicating their intention by raising a hand. The preacher would recognize the question or comment, address it, and then continue.
The most interactive form of preaching would involve free discussion between preacher and listeners regarding the meaning and implications of a given passage of Scripture or biblical theme. The listeners might be encouraged to study a certain Scripture passage during the week and bring questions to the worship service. Clear guidelines must be given to the participants in order to avoid disorder or confusion, such as, suggest that questions of explanation precede questions of application, that comments/questions must be on the topic/passage under discussion, and that individuals be limited to one question.6 This form of interactive preaching not only encourages personal Bible study but also involves your listeners in the act of preaching.
In addition to listening to the verbal feedback, preachers need to listen to the nonverbal feedback. Even when you are the only one speaking, your listeners will inevitably communicate nonverbally. Nonverbal feedback includes facial expressions, hand and arm gestures, postures, positions, and various movements of the body, legs, and feet.
Nonverbal feedback provided by listeners is generally more reliable than verbal. Research by Albert Mehrabian suggests that 55 percent of communication comprises facial expression and body language, 38 percent tone of voice, and only 7 percent words.7 If feedback results in inconsistency, that is, if nonverbal and verbal feedback are not congruent, Mehrabian asserts that “a person’s nonverbal behavior has more bearing than his words on communicating feelings or attitudes to others.”8 An effective communicator will be attentive to nonverbal feedback and will learn how to decode these silent messages.
Much of the nonverbal feedback will probably be unintentional and unconscious. Perhaps the most noticeable nonverbal indicator of noninvolvement is a listener taking a nap during your sermon. Some young people will lean forward with their heads almost resting on their knees. Other typical nonverbal indicators of noninvolvement include most leg and foot movements, grooming behaviors, self-manipulations (scratching, fiddling with one’s keys), and postural adjustments.
Conversely, increased involvement by your listeners would be manifested by nonverbal cues such as decreased distance, more direct body orientation, greater facial expressiveness, increased postural openness, and more frequent head nods. Every preacher rejoices to see listeners smiling and nodding their heads.
Eye contact, or lack of it, may also be an indicator. As a general rule, increased eye contact between you and your listeners occurs as a positive indicator that you are connecting effectively. I remember a young man in Allentown, Pennsylvania, who always sat toward the front of the church. It was evident from his verbal and nonverbal feedback that he was earnestly seeking a closer relationship with God. When listening to a sermon, he was looking either in his Bible or directly at the preacher. His eye contact told the preacher that they were connecting. Today, that young man is a preacher.
However, eye contact cannot be interpreted without attention to surrounding facial cues. For example, if a listener looks at you with open eyes, unfurrowed brow, and a smile, it would appear to indicate a positive feeling, or perhaps even an invitation for interaction. However, if the listener squints with a stern expression, it more likely indicates a negative response. Facial cues are the channel by which nonverbal emotional messages are most often and most clearly displayed. Miller notes that “body language tells you not only if you are heard, but whether you are being understood.”9
Nonverbal feedback may vary, depending on culture, although many detailed similarities in expressive movements between different cultures, such as smiling, laughing, and crying, also exist. Examples of differences include a fl ashing of the eyebrows, which is considered indecent in Japan, whereas in Samoa it is an accepted form of greeting. Think about your cultural context, and make sure that you are correctly interpreting the nonverbal cues of your listeners.
Your listeners may not always give you verbal feedback while you preach, but they will all send you silent messages— facial expressions and body language. Learn to read these spoken and silent messages so that you can connect more effectively with your listeners. Verbal and nonverbal feedback may cause you to change your rate of delivery, restate an important point, or add a sentence of clarification. The goal is simple: Listen attentively and adjust your verbal and nonverbal delivery in order to connect effectively with your listeners.
Perhaps you are thinking, How can I be so attentive to the verbal and nonverbal feedback of my listeners while I’m reading my sermon manuscript? You can’t! Freedom from a sermon manuscript becomes an essential step for any preacher who wants to be more attentive to feedback.10 After reading a recent article on preaching effectively without notes11 and implementing the five steps outlined in that article, a pastor sent this testimony: “Your tips were just what I needed. I wanted to let you know that at least one pastor’s preaching life was changed!” The listeners will be changed as well because that preacher will be able to listen more attentively to their verbal and nonverbal feedback and thus better connect with them.
Once you realize that effective preaching embraces dialogue rather than monologue, you will be unwilling to ignore verbal and nonverbal feedback. You might even consider asking your listeners to intentionally provide clear verbal and nonverbal messages during your sermon. However you do it, by learning to listen to feedback you will be a better preacher and better able to connect with those who have come to hear from you the Word of Life.
1 Preachers also need to listen attentively to God during the preaching of the sermon. See step #5 of “Preaching Effectively Without Notes” in the October 2006 issue of Ministry, 16.
2 Henry H. Mitchell, Black Preaching: The Recovery of a Powerful Art (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1990), 100.
4 This sermon is part of a six-part series called Healthy Christians. It is available on DVD at http://www.acn.info/catalog/product_info.php?products_id=82&osCsid=c5abf8360592b801ae86dff2bbef826d as part of Adventist Preaching, volume 11.
5 This sermon can be viewed at http://www.forestlakechurch.org. Go to sermon archives, 4/16/2005.
6 These guidelines prevent one individual from monopolizing the discussion and keep the discussion focused on the assigned passage or topic.
7 Albert Mehrabian, Silent Messages (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1971), 43.
8 Ibid., 44.
9 Calvin Miller, The Empowered Communicator: Seven Keys to Unlocking an Audience (Nashville: Broadman
& Holman Publishers, 1994), 184.
10 See “Preaching Effectively Without Notes,” Ministry, October 2006, 14, 16, 17.