Because I have taught Homiletics for close to two decades, virtually every year I have received a complimentary desk copy of one of the latest text books on communication from a number of publishers. I also have on my shelves scores of textbooks that address the skills, the need for and/or the history of preaching in specific. When it comes to the ministry of preaching, however, there is a certain skill in my mind has come up missing in action.
Much has been written on voice quality and control, posture, eye-contact, outlines, introductions, conclusions, and applications/implications. The element that I would suggest is too often minimized or missing altogether and as a result compromises the overall effectiveness of pulpit communication is listening.
In order to communicate effectively, a preacher must develop the willingness and discipline of listening on two levels. First, and obviously, is at the level of listening to God. There is great benefit to be gained from ‘listening’ to commentaries and even to other preachers. The internet is replete with websites from which one can lift sermon abstracts and even entire manuscripts. Not uncommonly, many pastors find themselves so immersed in the day-to-day routine and demands of local church ministry that it is Thursday or even Friday before they finally are able to carve out time to prepare the sermon for the coming weekend. It is then that the shortcut of listening to the commentaries and other extra-biblical sources are latched on to in panic. I know what that panic feels like!
But what about creating and protecting space to listen to the voice of the Spirit of God? Well, we do that all the time, right? I am thinking of an unhurried, dedicated time not in the company of well written texts or podcasts, but simply and completely in the company of God, with heart and mind wide open – listening to Him. For many of us, this represents a skill for which we have received little or no training, unfortunately. How dare I ask God for His grace and enabling in the pulpit, if I have refused to listen to him in the prayer closet!
The second level of listening I would suggest relates to those who listen to us preach, that is, our listening audience. As preachers do we truly understand where those we are privileged to serve are, spiritually, emotionally, relationally, every way? Have we invested the time to simply listen to those we have been called to feed (a major function of any shepherd) with the Word of God? I have found it disconcerting to be made aware of the glaring disconnect between what I think people need to hear and the challenges that are actually part of their own private worlds. The challenge or problem, of course, is that such listening takes time – often more than we think we can afford – and can end up being messy. Eloquence that misses the mark is typically a waste of time, both for preacher and listener! People are much more likely to benefit from and be open to what a preaching is communicating if they are convinced “he gets it! He knows what my world is about.” The only way we as communicators of the gospel will “get it” is by committing ourselves to being quick to listen and slow to speak. Effective speaking, preaching or whatever the mode of communication may be will inevitably be informed by an intentional, effective ear that is consistently learning to listen to and recognize the voice of the Spirit of God, and to listen to those whose lives need the enrichment of the good news, the Gospel.
Bill McAlpine is Professor of Pastoral Theology at Ambrose University in Calgary, Alberta.