No sermon by the pastor loci stands alone. Our preaching at any one service is part of a longer series of engagements with our hearers, an on-going conversation, and each sermon provides part of the setting for the encounters pastors have with their worship-service hearers throughout the week. There are the immediate reactions given preachers after the service. The compliments at the door of the sanctuary are less of an affirmation of the effectiveness of a sermon as is the firm press of a handshake that lasts a little longer than usual, or the glance which cannot find words, or the occasional tear at the corner of an eye. The enthusiasm someone shows for a message we found mediocre to awful ourselves reminds us that the Holy Spirit is making an impact quite different from our own estimate of what the sermon has accomplished. Beyond those immediate reactions, we receive feedback in a variety of settings, from casual remarks, passing comments, or specific questions directed at finding out precisely what we meant or what the implications of something in a sermon might be. In indirect and in explicit reactions, questions, criticisms, compliments, sometimes during the following week, occasionally weeks later, when our hearers specifically bring up a topic, perhaps with reference directly to our sermon, perhaps with only indirect allusion to our words from the pulpit, the conversation begun in the pulpit continues. Then it is important to take seriously what they heard. On occasion their allusions to what they have heard will need explicit correction if they interpreted our words wrong, but the accuracy of their impressions is secondary to the impact our words made on them.
The preacher’s task in such situations is meeting the concerns that both proper and false impressions have left behind. Accurate perceptions of what we intended to convey with our preaching can aid us in knowing how to meet the questions and concerns of our hearers, but the inaccurate reports of what was heard can also give us insight into how we are communicating, as well as a glimpse of what is troubling or exciting the people of our congregation. As is always the case, when our people do discuss the sermons with us, their criticisms are always more helpful than their compliments; although simply their reports of what made an impact on them expand our ability to enter their worlds with the next sermon.
As is always the case, when our people do discuss the sermons with us, their criticisms are always more helpful than their compliments; although simply their reports of what made an impact on them expand our ability to enter their worlds with the next sermon.
But there is also back-and-forth while we are preaching. Some members are skilled at putting on silent faces and taciturn postures, but during the sermon most hearers are visibly reacting without verbalization. Many give signals in response to specific elements of what we say. One eager face soaking up the Gospel, one nod or sigh that confesses how good it is to hear of Jesus’s saving intervention in our lives, such little signals pour out rewards into the heart of the preacher equal to few others. On the other hand, one scowl or sigh of disgust gives pause for endless brooding in search of a plausible interpretation.
When I was teaching at the college level, a colleague who led our program for Directors of Christian Education and I had worked together on a presentation at a stewardship workshop. As a result, we were invited to preach a dialogue sermon on our material in my home congregation. Afterwards, the teacher at my side commented, “I could never be a preacher. I need the reaction of my hearers.” I replied, “Didn’t you catch all the reactions we were getting?” Of course, he did not know the people to whom we were preaching, and so naturally he did not catch the reactions. But I knew what many of our hearers that Sunday morning were hearing and to what they were reacting (positively and negatively) because we had experienced such worship-service dialogues when I was alone in the pulpit and many other one-on-one conversations over the years.
We gain no little advantage by having picked up some hint of what kind of reaction we are arousing in at least some of our hearers by watching them while they are listening to the sermon. Such inferences can lead us into later conversations with a sensitive hearing of what may be on an individual’s mind that either confirms or contradicts our impressions. Psychologists have identified six chief categories of facial expressions, with subtle shadings within each. Our faces betray happiness, sadness, fear, anger, surprise, or disgust, they say. Combinations of those manifestations of emotions lend subtle shadings to the expressions, such as fearful sadness, or disgusted surprise. Preachers also encounter agreement or disagreement, puzzlement or confusion, in the postures and miens of their hearers. More rarely, the rolling of the eyes may convey that a member who knows us well has caught the irony of a statement. Even the village stoic, whose facial expression and bodily posture are seemingly unchangeable, will let some kind of communication slip from time to time. Preachers ignore such hints at their own risk.
We gain no little advantage by having picked up some hint of what kind of reaction we are arousing in at least some of our hearers by watching them while they are listening to the sermon.
However, a word of caution is necessary. I am a person who believes a word is worth a thousand visual images. Words from other people command my thinking, even if I twist what they say into my own framework of thinking and categories of interpretation. Nonetheless, I never take charge of what others tell me in the same way that I try to take charge of the interpretation of a picture or other optical encounter. This means the visual impressions that my secondary attention takes in while my primary attention is being devoted to what I am trying to say may be giving me a false sense of what lies behind the posture or facial expression I remember. The facial reaction we note may arise out of a stray thought as the mind wanders far from our words, or out of a memory triggered by something we have said in the past that is not closely related to what we were saying apart from the mind of this particular hearer. We must also remember that the potential—perhaps even tendency—for us to over-interpret should often further qualify our judgments.
As preachers prepare their sermons, they never know what will be helpful and what will be confusing, which points will be appreciated and which will be offensive, for each single hearer. But conscious of the on-going nature of our relationship with our hearers, preachers recognize their words launch multiple trains of thought in individuals and in the entire congregation. Those who occupy the pulpit will always be sensitive to various kinds of reactions, expected and unexpected, and eager for the feedback that helps evaluate whether the words from the pulpit have achieved their intended goal.
The gift of publicly serving as minister of God’s Word for the people we are called to serve brings us endless blessings, but like many blessings it brings also the sense of responsibility that takes seriously the challenge of accurate communication of what the Lord is saying to us from the pages of Scripture. The proper use of this gift depends not only on our own wisdom but also on our appropriation of the insights our people have been given through our words. These insights come in exchanges of many kinds which may be stimulated by no more than a nod, a smile, a frown, or a sigh before the sermon ends. Although, the sermon never truly ends because the Holy Spirit carries it in the minds of hearers, often for a long time to come.