I am trying to learn how to be a better preacher. So is Bob. We’re both competitive that way— trying to better than we were before.
We know the grim statistics, that just 12% of people say they usually remember the message (Schultz J and Schultz T 1994: 189). When we preach God’s grace and His Word, we want people to remember and to be transformed. We want to take the gifts that God has given us, and develop them to their full potential. As Paul encouraged Timothy,
For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands (2 Tim 1:6, ESV).
I don’t have any formal training in preaching, but I’ve done it since shortly after coming to faith at the age of 17. However, I’m not satisfied with the current development of my gift. I want the flame to burn brighter. I have a long way to go, but I’m getting better.
Bob does have formal training in preaching and has been at it much longer than I have. But he’s not satisfied either. He wants to do better. I admire him for that. Many preachers get comfortable with the level of their ability. They’re comfortable having the flame burn just so. Not Bob. He’s still eager to learn. He wants that flame to burn!
But how do you fan the flame?
I was recently preaching at a church with two very different services. The first service was somewhat sparsely attended (maybe twenty people), with an average age of about seventy years old. The pastor noted that some actually sleep through the service! I preached as well as I could, trying to get some interaction (I’ve been reading a lot about alternatives to monologue sermons, see here and here), but it felt like I was speaking to a wall. There was no response. And, humanly speaking, it took the wind out of my sails.
I went into the second service somewhat discouraged, but there were many more people there (maybe a hundred and thirty or so), with a greater age range, and the “energy” was completely different. I gave the same message, but tweaked it based on the reaction in the first service, and the outcome was completely different. The biggest difference was the audience response. They reacted. They answered my questions, laughed at my jokes, and quoted the Scriptures I asked them too. Their enthusiasm, in turn, made me more enthusiastic, and I was able to deliver a better message. We built each other up. Because I was getting a response from them, I was better able to judge when they were following my point, and when they weren’t. I had a better idea if I needed a new illustration, or if I should move on. I was up there encouraging them, and they were down there encouraging me.
Here’s the lesson—
Audience participation is just as crucial to the success of a sermon as the person giving the message.
Now, I’m sure that an amazing speaker could take any audience, no matter how low-key, and bring them from the point of being disengaged to engaged. But I’m not there yet. I haven’t developed that ability yet. Frankly, most of the preachers and teachers I’ve heard are not there yet, either. Most of us need the congregation to be with us, paying attention, being responsive, and being engaged, in order for the sermon to be a success.
No doubt, school teachers already know this. They know your teaching is better when you have a class of enthusiastic and engaged learners. When the kids aren’t listening, even the best planned lesson can become a train wreck. The teacher has an important role to play in the success of a classroom, but so do the kids.
It’s the same with preaching. The preacher’s ability matters. But you have a role to play in the success of a sermon, too.
I know I haven’t always been the ideal audience. Have you? My mind wanders if a speaker is not holding my attention. Now I realize that being a disengaged listener only makes the sermon worse, because the speaker, instead of being energized by a congregation, will be drained by their lack of enthusiasm, and the sermon will fall flat. If you want to hear a better sermon, part of the solution is to become a better listener.
Paul told Timothy to fan the flame of his gift. That was Timothy’s responsibility. But I believe other people can help, too. You can help your pastor fan the flame of his teaching gift by being an engaged listener. If you’re not, you might risk blowing it out.