How to survive while listening to a sermon
by Clement W. Welsh, Warden, College of Preachers
These notes are set down in sympathetic recognition of the fact that most congregations suffer through the Sunday sermons with heroic fortitude. There must be a great number of Christians with extraordinary faith or else preachers would long ago have emptied the churches permanently! I say this as one who both preaches in pulpits and listens in pews. I can testify that it is much more fun to preach than to listen. My predecessor as Warden, Fred Arterton , used to quote the old jest that "a sermon is something a person will cross the continent to deliver but won't cross the street to hear."
As a preacher, then, out of sheer compassion for all listeners in pews, let me suggest some survival tactics to rescue anyone who is pinned down in church during the sermon with no opportunity for dignified escape.
But first, one preliminary point: (Notice how, as a preacher, I elaborate in the obvious before saying anything constructive. Standing there in the pulpit, staring at those rapidly glazing eyes, it is easy to luxuriate in inconsequentials.) The congregation is under an obligation to appreciate anything a preacher says. An unwritten contract requires the listener to be grateful for hearing the Word of God, even when dear rector has throughly obscured that Word by human words badly assembled Saturday night. Ecclesiatical courtesy demands the listener, at the end of the service, to say, "I enjoyed the sermon" (or "your message"). If not, a long tradition says that something was wrong in the listener-sin, perhaps, or sheer cussedness.
Wait for at least one idea in the sermon before giving up. You may think, "But the preacher has nothing to say-nothing at all." Sometimes a preacher can stand in the way of God's speaking for a remarkably long time and then inadvertently say something true and memorable. Old sermon listeners can even get a certain pleasure in watching and waiting. In extreme cases, when the preacher repeats the text at the end of the sermon, that may be the moment when light breaks through.
Fight back. Disagreement with the preacher is quite permissible; in some cases, it is highly desirable. It is probably best to do this silently or you may be called on to elaborate constructively on your ideas before the congregation; and that is much harder to do than merely disagree. For every sermon thesis there is an antithesis. Preachers are skilled at presenting half-truths. Discover the truth that has been ignored, articulate it (to yourself), and you and the preacher may have put together a respectable fragment of Christian truth.
Let your mind wander. The art of mind-wandering is sadly neglected in these busy times. If the preacher announces a subject and clearly has nothing to say about it except plantitudes, let your imagination create the sermon that is eluding the preacher. You have fifteen minutes to ask yourself questions that are so important that they tend, paradoxically, to be neglected. "Why am I here? What do I believe? What do I really want? Of what am I deeply afraid?" If a real question grasps you by its excitement, go see the preacher later in the week and talk about it. Such conversations can be powerful sermons in dialogue and as good for the preacher as for you. (Did it ever occur to you that the preacher is as bored with the sermon as you are? Preachers need stimulation to be enabled to produce stimulating ideas.)
Analyze your disappointment with the sermon. It is not enough to relax in the pew and to say, in effect, to the preacher, "Amuse me." When the sermon dribbles off into fuzzy inanities try to decide what need in you was left untouched by it. A sermon presents, however poorly, some portion of the great tradition of Christian experience. Poor sermons fail to link that tradition to your experience. Very well, make the connection for yourself. A sermon that is boring is not neccessarily untrue. Even a dull sermon can sometimes stab a listener with unexpected relevance. "Wasn't that a great sermon?" says your neighbor, to your astonishment. The preacher need not know, "I enjoyed the sermon," that the sermon you enjoyed was your own.
Don't just sit there. Do something! The best somethings to do are done between sermons, by engaging the preacher in activities that can help produce better preaching. Copy out striking quotations from something you have read, and send it on with a note. Take the preacher to lunch and ask a Great Question, such as, "If pride is a sin, why should I try to do my best?" or a Medium Great Question, such as. "What was wrong with St. Paul as a person, if anything?"
Write (and sign) a letter to the preacher every week responding to the sermon. But do your part, as one engaged in the sermon enterprise, to let the preacher know that out there in the pew there is at least one listener expectantly waiting for a sermon that will interest, move, and inspire, and who is anxious to help-one listener, determined to survive. Many a preacher, as anxious for survival as any listener, would be grateful to know that you are there and willing to work out survival tactics with you.
(Reprinted from the College of Preacher Newsletter, Fall 1979)