What is Happening While the Sermon is Preached?

Al Fasol  |  Southwestern Journal of Theology Vol. 40 - Summer 1998

Effective preaching is a complicated process involving at least six major disciplines. In order of priority, these six disciplines are: a high view of Scripture, sound hermeneutical principles, valid theological conclusions, rhetorical rules, sermon delivery, and congregational analysis.[1]H. C. Brown, Jr. in A Quest for Reformation in Preaching (Waco, TIC: Word Books, 1968), p. i, described the six-fold scope of preaching as “…the correct use of Biblical content, hermeneutical princi­ples, theological perspective, psychological orientation, and oratorical principles.” To me, “proper use of Biblical content” overlaps “hermeneutical principles” and “theological perspectives.” Also the terminology, “psychological orientation” is unfortunate. Hermeneutics, theology, and an ontological discussion of Scripture are properly given major emphasis in all evangelical seminaries. These three disciplines are foundational to effective preaching; they are the intake that will govern the output of preaching; — the “inhaling” processes which are essential to the exhaling process.


Rhetoric, Delivery, and Congregational Analysis

The second tier of disciplines-rhetoric, delivery, and congregational analysis-are also essential to effective preaching. Since the 1960s, these disciplines, especially rhetoric, have. been disdained not only by many schools, but by many communicators as well.

For since by means of the art of rhetoric both truth and false­hood are urged, who should dare to say that truth should stand in the person of its defenders unarmed against lying, so that they who wish to urge falsehoods may know how to   make their listeners benevolent, or attentive, or docile in their presentation, while the defenders of truth are ignorant of that art? …While the faculty of eloquence, which is of great value in urging either evil or justice, is in itself indifferent, why should it not be obtained for the uses of good in the service of truth….[2]Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, trans. D. W. Robertson (New York: The Liberal Arts Press 1958) 118-19.

Rhetorical rules aid effective preaching by organizing the preacher’s thoughts into clear proclamation of the truth. Rhetorical rules also guide the preacher to rich, compelling vocabulary.

Sermon delivery has long been a “step-daughter” discipline. The most often heard fallacy is, “Why study speech? After all, everyone can talk.” The issue is not who can talk but who can communicate. The second but most often heard fallacy is, “If we give them enough biblical information, they don’t need instructions in how to communicate.” The number of people who avoid worship because of ineffectively delivered sermons stand in multitudinous and mute response to that fallacy. Fred Craddock states:

Our task is not just to say the word, to tell the truth, but to get the truth heard, to effect a new hearing of the word among those who have been repeatedly exposed to it….Undoubtedly there are many powerful and life-changing ideas lying impotent in pale paragraphs and slipping unheard past bored ears, written and spoken by great thinkers who had not time or interest to give to such marginal matters as how one person communicates to another.[3]Fred Craddock, Overhearing the Gospel (Nashville: Abingdon 1978) 19.

Congregational analysis has received scant attention in seminary curricula, preaching conferences, homiletics textbooks, and in conversations about preaching. If mentioned at all, congregational analysis is often summed up in a terse sentence: “Be sensitive to your people,” or “Get to know your people and their needs in your visitation.” The implication is that the preacher will alter the sermon in some way that will help the congregation understand   and respond positively to it.

Augustine made several references to the congregation, but never in an analytical manner:

But if those who hear are to be moved rather than taught, so that they may not be sluggish in putting what they know into practice and so that they may fully accept these things which they acknowledge to be true, there is need for greater powers of speaking.[4]Ibid., 121.

Calvin included the congregation in little more than an incidental way: “Whenever we see the Word of God purely preached and heard [emphasis mine], and the sacraments administered according to Christ’s institution, there, it is not to be doubted, a church of God exists.”[5]John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, vol. 2, ed. John T. McNeill (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), 1023. Incidental as the reference may be, Calvin did intend to include hearers in his definition.

John A. Broadus also made several references to the congregation. Most of the references were made as a passing remark. In his discussion of application of the sermon, however, Broadus spoke emphatically about those who hear sermons. “We are not to speak before the people, but to them, and must earnestly strive to make them take to themselves what we say. Daniel Webster once said, and repeated it with emphasis, ‘When a man preaches to me, I   want him to make it a personal matter, a personal matter, a personal matter!’ And it is our solemn duty thus to address all….”[6]John A. Broadus, A Treatise on the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons, rev. and ed. E. C. Dargan (New York: George H. Doran Co., 1897), 245.

Homer K. Buerlein, a Presbyterian, wrote a book on sermon preparation and delivery. Buerlein is neither a preacher nor the son of a preacher. Buerlein is that rare, careful listener of sermons. After attending worship services for fifty-five years, Buerlein gave preachers a rare gift-a voice from the pew detailing what he likes best and least about preaching. Buerlein observed:

Like a marriage partner, congregations are patient. They are pleased to receive what they consider a reasonably good sermon. But how much more wonderful a gift the sermon would be with all the wrappings.[7]Homer K Buerlein, How to Preach More Powerful Sermons (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1984), 77.

In the last ten to fifteen years, a major transition in worship styles finally broke into the consciousness of evangelical churches. The transition began immediately after World War II, gained impetus in the 1960s, stalled in the hedonistic 70s and 80s, and seemed to arrive in the 90s. Most of the changes in worship style centered on music, but the changes here also affected preaching. The term user-friendly became a cliche shortly after it was coined. Whether we use a trite or new expression, one thing is certain: preaching for the foreseeable future will include much more congregational awareness and involvement.


Equitability and Faithfulness

Homiletical theorists of the closing decades of the twentieth century have attempted to shift the weight of the responsibility for preaching to create a more equitable-and faithful­ balancing of text, preacher, and people all under the grace-filled, mysterious direction of God through the Holy Spirit.[8]Beverly Zink-Sawyer, “The Word Purely Preached and Heard,” Interpretation 51 (October 1997): 342.

The question still remains. How do we “create a more equitable …balancing of text, preacher, and people ….”?

Evangelical congregations generally do not welcome questionnaires about their worship experience. Other ways to analyze our congregations must be found. Fortunately, a great deal of research has been done in the education field, and some of these results can be transferred to the preaching event.

The research cited in this article will deal exclusively with how people receive messages. With that in mind, this article describes one fundamental method for balancing the text, preacher, and people.

The more we know of how messages are received, the much better equipped we are to prepare those messages. The area of research this article deals with is called neurolinguistics. Robert Dilts asserts, “Neuro-Linguistic Programming is a model of communication that focuses on identifying and using patterns in the thought processes that influence people’s …behavior as a means of improving the quality of their communication.”[9]’Robert Dilts, “Application of Neuro-Linguistic Programming to Business Communication,” Applications of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (Cupertino, CA: Meta Publications, 1983), 1. The following summary of this research will, of necessity, be simplified.

Cresencio Torres and Judy H. Katz agreed with Dilts and expanded his definition:

The basic premise of NLP is that people operate and make sense of their experience through information received from the world around them. This information is filtered through their sensory systems, producing an internal response which is communicated to others through language.[10]Cresencio Torres and Judy H. Katz, “Neuro-Linguistic Programming: Developing Effective Communication in the Classroom,” unpublished paper presented at the annual meeting of the Association of Teacher Educators (63rd, Orlando, FL: February 1983), quoted from the abstract of the paper.

The three ways congregations receive messages are referred to as auditory, visual, and kinesthetic. Each of these ways of receiving messages has been described in one key word. The key word for   the auditory person is information. The visual person’s key word is picture. The key word for the kinesthetic person is participation.


Obviously, an auditory person is keenly interested in listening, but the auditory’s listening is primarily tuned toward information. The auditory reminds us of Sgt. Joe interjects, “Just give me the facts.” The auditory likes to hear the historical background of the text. That Philippi was named after Philip of Macedon by a group of Greek exiles 350 years before Christ was born is information they will store for possible use on another occasion.

Auditorys love to hear the preacher exegete a passage. The auditory will appreciate knowing, for example, 2 Corinthians 5:11 really focuses on integrity, and that the phrase, “terror of the Lord,” really means having deep reverence for God. The auditory loves to know what to believe and why he or she believes it. Auditorys feel they are being fed when the preacher teaches the biblical basis for salvation by faith rather than by works.

The auditory is serious minded:

In church, audios usually sit near the rear, since they need   only to hear. They do not like a lot of touching and hugging. Audio dominant persons usually have difficulty getting in touch with their feelings …. If you ask an audio person for information, their minds will go back to the setting where the information was first given, and remember the sounds, and…the words the person used to give the information.[11]Ken Batts, “Communication and the Sermon,” unpublished doctoral seminar paper (Fort Worth: Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1991), 15.

Predictably, auditorys appreciate good sound systems. Key auditory words are hear, word, analysis, ideas, concepts, listens.

The preference for sitting toward the rear is an attempt to be removed from close (emotional) contact with the authority figure. Close contact leads to involvement of feelings which interfere with the reception and processing of information. (As mentioned, this summary is simplified. Many congregants sit in various places, including toward the rear, for other reasons. Some sit toward the rear for better acoustics, for more comfortable room temperature, because of some physical ailment, because of a restless child, or perhaps to get to the cafeteria as soon as possible.) One wonders, though, if many auditory listeners sit toward the rear because of some child hood trauma with an authority figure such as a parent, teacher, or preacher. Sitting close to an authority figure would cause them to cringe and make concentration difficult.


Visual people think in pictures. They love adjectives and analogies. At the end of a detailed committee report, the visual will likely respond, “I just don’t see what you are saying.” If an auditory person presented the report, the auditory will be confused by the response. Every base was covered, every avenue of discussion anticipated. How could it have been unclear?” The visual will eventually ask, “Can you give me an illustration (or several illustrations)?” The wise auditory would then make a pertinent analogy (or more than one), to which the visual will respond, “Oh! Now I see what you are saying.”

Visual people appreciate banners, flowers, flags, decorative set­ tings. They enjoy word studies, anecdotes, and sermons that “…paint pictures of what Jesus did and what they can do or be.”[12]Ibid., 15.

Visuals like to sit toward the center of the outside aisles. From this position they can view most of the worship center. Key visual words are see, look, appear, picture, show, reflect.


Kinesthetic listeners focus on emotions and feelings. When asked for information, the kinesthetic will first remember the feelings or reactions experienced when the information was first received.

Kinesthetics, we are not surprised to learn, appreciate touching, patting, hugging, and shaking hands. The kinesthetic needs not only to hear and see, but more importantly to feel, to experience, and often to participate in the sermon.

In some contexts, the kinesthetic was discouraged from saying “amen” too often or too loudly. As much as the kinesthetic wanted to applaud or lift arms in praise, he was told this would call attention to himself and distract others in their worship. The kinesthetic, being generally good natured, refrained from expressing the intense feelings. The kinesthetics known to preachers as people with the “amen” faces: people who smile, nod their heads, laugh or cry whenever the sermon content provoked either. Many preachers have been thus encouraged by the “amen” faces.

Kinesthetics prefer to sit toward the front and center. In this way they can more likely experience what the preacher is feeling, and thus, their own feelings. For many years, in many Baptist churches, the center-front section of pews was virtually a waste land. Kinesthetics were in a minority, and being especially good natured, they would sit where their auditory or visual spouses preferred to sit.

In the past fifteen to twenty years, however, preachers have noticed young people seated in the center­ front section. Preachers wondered if youth ministers or parents were dictating where the youth were to sit. Eventually, preachers realized youth preferred to sit in the center-front. Some of those youth have since become young adults and are still sitting in the center-front section.

The kinesthetic portion of the congregation is growing. The current transition of worship styles in Baptist churches is largely due to the rapid increase in the number of kinesthetics in our congregations. Key words for the kinesthetic include feel, expression, participation, emotion, touch, activity. Baptist preachers who have ears to hear and eyes to see must now also have feelings that reach out and touch.



Consider the following possible conversation by a committee of three persons.

“As I was coming to church tonight, I was saying to myself, ‘What we need to do is tell the church the direction it needs to go.’ I would like to hear from you your ideas. I am open to listen, so tell me what is on your mind.” The visual person says, “I don’t see what you are getting at. Our direction is unclear, and I have difficulty getting a perspective on issues that are fuzzy for me. Why don’t we put up a chart in the hall so people can see where we have been and see our possible future direction. That will make it clear to everyone.” The kinesthetic responds, “I feel badly about what you are saying. I can’t get a handle on what is going on. Our church is not close to each other. We don’t even hug any more. The whole situation is quite upsetting.”[13]Ibid., 16-17.

To resolve the situation, the auditory could say, “I hear what you are saying about a chart. A visual representation is helpful.” To which the visual could reply, “Thanks. I think a chart will make our direction a lot clearer for some people.” Then both the auditory and visual could say to the kinesthetic, “Could you escort some people to the wall where the chart would be? We need you to be there to give people a pat on the back. That would encourage them to attend our meeting and we all can hear, see, and feel what our church needs to get going in the right direction.”

At this point, a preacher may be thinking, “I already have pastoral duties, exegetical study, hermeneutics, theology, rhetoric, and delivery occupying my time. How can I possibly add neuro-linguistic programming to my sermon preparation?” There is some good news in sermon preparation, a preacher is always balancing sermon content with explanation, application, and illustrations. Explanation of the text appeals to the auditory. Application of the text appeals to the kinesthetic. Illustrations appeal to the visual. You are already programmed for neuro-linguistics. When you are explaining the text, use key auditory words; for example, “Hear what the Bible says ….” for application, “Let’s get involved; let’s get up and do what the Bible says.” To illustrate say, “See how the Bible relates to our situation.”

Realistically, all of us receive messages in each of the three channels we just described. For most of us, one channel or the other is dominant. (For a few people, one channel or the other may not be functional.) The auditory is not hindered by illustrations and application. The visual would find the illustrations less meaningful with­ out explanation and application. The kinesthetic needs explanation as the foundation for application. At no time will a large segment of your congregation feel cut off or impatient if you balance the content of your sermons so as to serve each of the different kinds of listeners in your congregations.


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