Tuesday, November 10, 2015

They are not listening. . .

Once while I was at a gathering of Lutheran pastors a well meaning teacher of preachers told us that we were not speaking to nor speaking the language of many of our hearers.  He extolled the virtue of getting past the text, setting free the fetters of Biblical and theological vocabulary, and speaking fully in the language of the moment.  He told a story of a tattooed, pierced young women with multi-colored hair and an edgy style of dress and how this woman told him that he was not speaking to her.  From that moment on he determined to speak to the marginalized (ah, another of my favorite words) even if it meant that the folks with gray hair, wearing ties or support hose found the sermon a foreign language to them.  I probably mused upon this once before here.

The point he was making is that people are not listening and you must do everything in their power to get their attention -- and key to this was speaking the lingo of the people, the current version of the modern dialect, and transcend the barrier that Biblical vocabulary and doctrinal language erects against the hearer.  Really?  I am not so sure.

The example of Jesus does not necessarily support this thesis.  Jesus often preached to people who were not present, leaving His disciples confused about what He said or to whom His words were directed.  Even the parables (folk stories to some commentators) required unpacking within the privacy of Jesus alone with His disciples.  Often the people found Jesus' words simply too hard to grasp or too difficult to accept and many of them left (prompting the famous question to Peter about whether or not he was going to take a hike as well).

The point is correct that many times when Jesus preached and we preach or witness, the people are not listening.  Try the vantage point of the pulpit on Sunday morning and see how attentive the faces of the average pew sitter are.  I am no better when I am in the pew.  Not listening is not necessarily a choice but often a consequence of sin and its terrible effect upon the heart, mind, and ear.  But is it our job to make people listen?  Or, is it our job to speak faithfully the Law and the Gospel, the whole counsel of Scripture, careful not to presume our opinions are God's Word but taking pains to make sure that we are speaking Scripturally as well as faithfully the Word of the Lord?

The fact that people are not listening is not hard to attest.  But that it is our job to make them listen is hard to prove from Scripture.  In fact, I would posit the radical opinion that it is not our concern whether or not people are listening but it is ours alone to preach faithfully and forcefully the Word of the Lord.  Period.  The Spirit does not work only if people are listening.  The Spirit works wherever and whenever we speak faithfully the Word of the Lord.  Period.  The Spirit works even when it seems that people are not listening.  Why else would St. Paul remind us that we do not always (or even often) get to see the results of the Word addressed to those in home, church, or community?  We speak and God plants the seed and the Spirit works to bring forth the plant and the fruit.

It seems we spend far too much time trying to get people to listen, often resorting to embarrassing gimmicks -- time we ought to spend more faithfully on the words and works of witness.  We need to spend less time on the psychology of the hearer or the dynamic of the preacher and those who sit before him.  It is all interesting, to be sure, but it is also distracting.  Our sermon introductions are often too long and take too much of the valuable real estate of our people's attention.  Our illustrations are often too complex or too peripheral to the text so that our people remember the stories we did or did not tell well but cannot for the life of them remember how they connected to the Word of the Lord.  Our drama often masks and makes a masquerade of the Word (as if we were its power and not the Spirit).

People don't listen.  So what is new?!  Jesus also had that problem.  Some fell asleep during the sermon.  Nothing unusual here.  Some left in boredom, offended, or disappointed.  Still happens.  What is our focus?  The Word of the Lord faithfully and forcefully proclaimed.  God will do the rest.  No, really.  He will.  He is faithful.  He will do it!  Amen.


Unknown said...

One thing we might do to help people listen is to teach them how when they're children. It is not a natural skill. It certainly isn't learned in daycare, or absorbed through the thumbs. Listening is taught by adults (who know how). Reading skills also help with concentration, Cerainly if you don't want to listen you won't, but you have to know how to pay attention if you do..

On the other side, it isn't the use of vernacular and slang that draws people in; it is the evidence the speaker believes what he's saying is Truth. Dorothy Sayers once quipped that Christianity was the greatest drama ever, but Church of England ministers had managed to make it boring. The lingo isn't important; if a hearer doesn't understand a word, but that word is Truth and so perceived, the listener will search out it's meaning. A preacher should never seem indifferent to his own sermon. Someone once said, "Heresy has killed it's thousands, but boredom it's tens of thousands." Apathy delivered in the form of a homily will assure people don't listen.

Erik Maldre said...

“The Spirit does not work only if people are listening. The Spirit works wherever and whenever we speak faithfully the Word of the Lord.” Thanks be to God.