The life of evangelical churches and their spiritual leaders has been portrayed in some recent films and series. Can they help us start conversations?
20 suggestions for a better connection between preacher and listeners.
Preaching is a complex art. It requires the weaving together of exegetical skill, theological awareness, congregational insight, clarity of thought, structuring of material for the ear, etc. And yet even though the list of necessary skills can seem endless, preaching takes more than technical skill.
There is also the need for listeners to feel connection, to both feel and sense empathy. What is it that forges that connection between preacher and listener?
I would like to offer small suggestions to generate big gains in this preacher-listener connection.
That there needs to be such a connection is lost on some who seem to assume their role is merely to inform, or to proclaim, or to pressure, or even to fill the time allocated for the preaching of a sermon. But I suspect there are many preachers who innately know that there should be something of a connection, but are not sure how to strengthen it.
So what dynamics work together for preacher-listener connection?
1. Be genuine. Maybe we are starting with an obvious one, but it is impossible to be genuine without actually being genuine. You can try to fake it, but why do that? The Gospel screams out that God’s grace is for you and so why choose to live inauthentically?
And yet every preacher knows there is a temptation to hide yourself when preaching. You can do this by trying to be impressive. You can do this by trying to make your humility or vulnerability impressive. But if this is not genuine then it will show somewhere. People will sense it when they talk to you and find you are only vulnerable on your own terms. Or they will sense it when they find you to be less approachable, humble, personable, etc., in person than you seem to be when preaching. The best solution is not to try harder to pretend, but to instead be genuine. I will offer more suggestions, but this one surely should stir us to pray and lay ourselves out before our good God who sees everything and loves us still!
2. Confess your sin. I could offer a list of possible sins that are choking some life out of you, such as unkindness to your spouse, harshness with your children, self-absorption, bitterness toward an individual, self-indulgence, private addiction to drink, to a food, to alcohol, or to porn (you may have your own “sanctified” version of porn too – a TV show, facebook surfing, or whatever).
I could give a list, but actually, when you read the words “confess your sin” you may have had something immediately come to mind. Start there. Talk to God about it. If it is clinging on, talk to someone else about it too. When God’s grace cleanses another corner of our inner life our listeners will benefit, even if they are not sure what has changed.
3. Develop honest relationships. Christian ministry presses us into isolation. Do not let that happen. You need people that are concerned for you heart. You need close friends who will tell you when you are out of line. You need other ministry people who will understand when you just need to vent. You cannot go it alone!
4. Fan the flames of your love for God and His Word. Listeners sense when something is wrong, but they also will be drawn to someone who loves God. Fan the flames of your love for God and your delight in His Word. You will be infectious if you have a strong case of the disease! The blessed preacher delights in the law of the LORD and on his law he meditates day and night. Soak your heart in God’s Word so that God’s heart oozes out of your life.
5. Be growing. It is so easy to stagnate. We can stagnate right after Bible school, or in our middle years, or as we grow older. Be growing. Read books. Read books in different areas. Take a class. Ask someone to teach you a new skill. Stretch yourself. The day you stop learning is the day you stop effectively teaching.
6. Pray for the listeners. Never forget Acts 6:4. It was when the apostles determined not to be distracted by the business of running the church organization so that they could focus on two things: the word of God and prayer. Many of us today short change both. We can easily think that instant communication means we are the first generation to face the temptation to short change our two primary responsibilities. And how easy it is to focus only on one of them – typically that is not prayer.
Our prayer matters. The enemy knows that. We need to believe it. Our churches need to want it (not just tolerate it as they wait patiently for us to be available and leading meetings, but they need to actually want it). It is not easy to promote the value of your own prayer life since there is a need for some secrecy, but I suspect if you just go for it, people will somehow sense it.
7. Connect with the listeners. I don’t have the stats to prove this, but my sense is that the slight majority of preachers are introverts. Most would expect the opposite to be true, but introverts are able to gain energy in the long hours of solitary preparation, and they are typically more comfortable in a controlled environment (i.e. preaching) than an uncontrolled one (i.e. a party).
Anyway, all that to say that you need to connect with your listeners. Model the increasingly rare skill of generating conversation by asking questions, be the leader in not turning every conversation back to yourself, and pray for ways to connect with people. You will be tempted to pull back, especially once people have bruised you a few times. It is hard, but it is important, connect anyway.
8. Lovingly study the lives of the listeners. As a preacher you have some level of skill in studying the Bible and understanding the culture. Be sure to put in some effort to study your congregation too. If you are a visiting preacher then you have only very limited opportunities to learn about the people who will be listening. But if it is your own church, then by all means make it a goal to understand their lives, their struggles, their fears, their work situations, their family situations, etc. People will feel loved when they feel known – as long as you actually love them.
9. Really get to know the Bible and your text better. Preaching is not like a relaxed conversation between friends. It is a presentation. One person is presenting both truth and application to others. In every situation where one person is expected to speak with authority, they need to convey credibility. It is true in a sales transaction, in a doctor explaining a treatment plan to a patient, in an educational setting, and it is no less true in preaching.
Not only do you need to know what you are talking about, but your listeners need to be able to sense that you know what you are talking about. As Bert Decker’s book title put it, you need to be believed to be heard. Do not try to shortcut to this by showing off knowledge. You need to carry knowledge with humility. The only way to achieve this is to genuinely know the Bible and your text as well as possible.
10. Internalize your message. If you met someone for the first time and were making conversation, you would feel nervous if they had to check their notes for what their job was, or where they met their spouse. It is hard to trust truth that is not fully owned. So in preaching you need to get the content of your message into you before it can convincingly come out.
11. Reflect on personal response and application before preaching. It is not enough to know the content of your message. That content needs to have been filtered through your own life in some way so that you speak not only the truth, but you also speak from the impact of that truth. This means we would do well to …
12. Extend lead time before preaching a message. It is difficult if you are preaching at least once per week to have anything more than five days of lead time before preaching a message. Some of us end up with just a couple of days to prepare messages, which is far from ideal. The ideal plan would be to extend the lead time by bringing preliminary study forward before your previous message.
If you cannot do a good chunk of initial study well ahead of time, then at least try to give some thought and prayer to forthcoming messages in advance so they can percolate in the background. Unless the speaker has fallen ill and you are stepping in at the last minute, it is not good to start from scratch the day before you preach.
13. Connection between humans is a heart to heart phenomena. It is easy to present information to inform. It can also be easy to pressure your listeners to perform. But good preaching will always present Christ in such a way that listeners might be drawn to him, stirred by him, motivated to love and trust him. Preaching to the heart is primarily about content, not manner.
Evaluate whether your content is offering a God that listeners may find delightful, and whether it is proclaiming a present tense invitation to that God rather than merely giving a historical lecture.
14. Manuscript in preparation but use less notes when preaching. To put it simply every moment you are looking at your notes you are not connecting with your listeners. In an ideal world I would like to fully manuscript each message and always preach without notes.
The manuscripting allows for careful and prayerful consideration of exact wording. Preaching without notes increases connection exponentially. I do not always follow this ideal, but I know that as much as I move away from that, I move away from connection.
15. Watch yourself on video to check your visual presentation. Watching yourself on video will help you see what others see. Do you convey warmth? Is your energy contagious? Do you smile? Are your gestures appropriate? That is, are they big enough for the audience and venue? Are references to time or progression moving from left to right from the perspective of the listener? Do the gestures appear natural or forced? Do you seem comfortable?
16. Listen to yourself on audio to check your voice. Does your voice convey enthusiasm and warmth, or nervousness and tension? Do you sound natural or, to be blunt, do you sound weird? People are experts in reading both visual and vocal signals, and they do so to determine whether there is a connection or not. They do it all day every day. So they are still doing it when you preach.
17. Interpersonal connection’s golden ticket? Make eye contact! Whatever you can do to increase eye contact is worth doing. Less notes, change of position, adjustment of lighting, more run throughs, better sleep . . . pray about what you can do to improve meaningful eye contact with your listeners.
18. Some sheep are dead. I don’t mean to be unhelpfully blunt, but there are people in our churches who are not spiritually alive. They do not have the Spirit. It is not our place to judge whether someone is genuinely saved or not, but when we have concerns about the lack of the fruit of the Spirit, then we should be both evangelistic in our content and prayerful in our approach. We should not expect those who are still spiritually dead to respond and function like believers. And yet we so easily do.
19. Some sheep may determine not to connect with you. Every human is complex, believers included. A thousand factors are at play in any life at any time. Just as you find yourself drawn to or negative toward others, so others will differ in their response to you. You might do everything you can to connect with your listeners, but there may well be some that simply refuse to connect.
Perhaps they have personal issues they are working through and you are an easy target. Perhaps you have unintentionally touched a nerve with something you have said or done that has grown into a big thing in their minds. Perhaps an unhelpful “mutual friend” has a deliberate or unintended ministry of spreading negativity and poisoning relationships. It takes far less effort to do damage to relationships than to build them up and perhaps others have been at work to undermine your connection with this particular individual.
Even if others in the church have not been at work, the enemy has. He loves nothing more than to turn believers against each other. And there are some people that are personally wounded or carrying enough baggage to be an easy target for his machinations.
How can this reality not cripple your ministry? That could be a series in its own right, but Romans 12:18 has to be in the mix – inasmuch as it depends on you, live at peace with everybody. Sometimes peace is not possible and the issue lies beyond your reach. Pray for God to show you what is going on in you, and pray for God to change hearts as necessary – both yours and theirs. And press on in your ministry.
20. Only one person can change hearts. Whether we are talking about unsaved individuals who are not yet transformed, or whether we are talking about believers functioning in a fleshly and immature way – the only person who can change hearts is God. Therefore our ministry can never be just Word. We must be people of the Word and prayer. If you are like me this might be a helpful reminder. It is so easy to forget to pray for specific people while focusing all my attention on preaching what they need to hear. For effective preacher-listener connection there are many factors as we have seen. None is more important than prayer.
We have really just scratched the surface. What would you add? What has helped you connect?