In his classic homiletical work, Between Two Worlds: The Challenge of Preaching Today, John Stott insists that the preacher keep one foot firmly planted in the ancient text and one planted in the contemporary context; one in the biblical world and one in the current world. Through my almost 70 years of listening to and reading probably 15,000+ sermons, I’d have to say most preachers do well at one or the other; some do well at both—or neither!
Because the assigned topic is about receptivity, let’s focus on the foot that should be in the current world: how preaching is received today. My assumption is that any good preacher has done his homework in the ancient text and wants his sermons to be received in a way that generates maximum kingdom impact. But receptivity, how the audience receives the message, is a completely different issue.
The most important factor of receptivity is the work of the Holy Spirit. The anointing of the Spirit on the preacher AND the listener cannot be overvalued or under sought. This requires the preacher to be spiritually prepared when he breaks open the Word, as well as being acutely aware that only the Spirit can bring life (John 6:63). This unction is the supernatural work of the Spirit as the proclaimer speaks the “oracles of God” (1 Pet 4:10). When Peter was filled with the Holy Spirit in Acts 4, this unlearned and untrained man spoke with great power and impact. When Paul mentions his preaching, he identifies this anointing: “our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power, in the Holy Spirit, and with full assurance” (1 Thess 1:5). Without the anointing of the Spirit, our preaching may thrill the emotions or stimulate the mind, but it won’t accomplish the work of God in the listener.
Another factor is the contextual considerations of the listeners. If the sermon is from Ephesians 5 on the leadership of the husband in the home, the listener who had the misfortune of being raised in an abusive home will hear the message differently than the one whose father was godly. This requires that the preacher knows, walks among, and is aware of the struggles of his people (incarnational preaching), that he might shape the message in a way that maximizes receptivity in both. People today are stressed and broken in ways and numbers I’ve never seen before. Being amongst them helps me know how to preach God’s Word to them better. Some preachers isolate themselves, hiding in green rooms or their offices until the appointed hour to get last-minute spiritual and mental preparation. My view is that Sunday morning is not for preparation, but for participation. Get yourself prepared before you show up on Sunday morning! John Bisagno, my mentor, used to say, “Walk through the halls slowly.” Following his lead, every Sunday morning I walked through our commons chatting with people before and after all three services. This enhanced receptivity in a uniquely effective way.
A third factor regarding how our preaching is received today involves relevancy of subject matter. I believe the Bible is relevant from cover to cover on every conceivable human subject: origin of the universe, cultural development, racial tension, pandemics, marriage and family, fear, hope, discouragement, failure, etc. The challenge for the preacher is to remember the second foot: make the subject matter of the text relevant to the cultural and/or personal context of the listeners. If the pastor properly exegetes the text and stops there, he is only giving a history lesson. But if he finds ways to connect to the sitz im lieben of the listener through story, illustration, and application, his listeners will hear more and hear better. Quoting Spurgeon or Maclaren and using a 1980’s illustration book won’t get much traction with today’s listener. Stott says our messages should be as relevant as this morning’s news feed (or Twittersphere).
A fourth factor is personal style. Some preachers come across like a therapist, others like a firebrand, some as a car salesman, others as a principal. I always wanted to come across like a friend; a companion who was trodding the same path as my listeners. When I’m with friends, I tell jokes and utilize humor. When I’m with friends, I talk about the issues of my life, even the struggles. When I’m with friends, any problems they have, I want to be there for them. When I’m with friends, I want to encourage them in the Lord. When I’m with friends, I want to make sure I point them to Jesus and His Word for true wisdom. And sometimes with friends, I must challenge their stinkin’ thinkin’ and resulting actions.
One last factor that is a growing influence on how people hear and receive what we say: attention spans. The average attention span of an American is shorter than a goldfish’s—seriously! In 2000, it was 12 seconds. Today it is less than 8 seconds. That’s an average. The younger the person, the shorter the span. If the preacher doesn’t take this into consideration when he preaches, he’ll miss out on multiple opportunities to keep his listeners tuned in. When I craft my messages, I try to do something every 2 minutes that can help the listener stick with me. I’ll use humor, I’ll pause for a long time, I’ll raise my voice or lower it, I’ll restate what I’m saying, I’ll employ an object lesson, tell a story, or even ask a question. These are the tools of the trade for the preacher who wants to maximize the receptivity of today’s listener.
From my vantage, there is no higher calling on the face of the earth than being a kerusso of God’s Word. This calling doesn’t rely solely on innate talent or spiritual gifting; it requires that we pray hard, work hard, keep learning more about preaching, and keep leaning more on the Holy Spirit.
Russ Barksdale is Founder of Next Level Leadership, someone who’s been where pastors are and knows where they’re going.