I was reflecting the other day on Paul’s word, “How can they hear without a preacher?” (Romans 10:14) As I reflected, I began to wonder: Why do people come to church and listen to sermons? Obviously there are numerous meaningful reasons for attending church that have nothing to do with sermons. But specifically, for those who actually pay attention to sermons, why do you do that? What are you hoping to hear?
Do you come to be entertained? Do you come to hear an impressive orator? Those are not bad things, if and when they happen, but I don't think fundamentally that is why someone listens to a sermon. There are powerful presenters in countless arenas on countless topics, not just Religion, and many of those topics can be absolutely enthralling. So, I’m not convinced people listen to sermons primarily to be entertained.
If not to be entertained, could it be that people listen to be informed and/or inspired? Is there not within many of us a desire to know if there is some link between religious Faith and our personal lives? Perhaps when we listen to a sermon, we do so trusting that the person who preaches spends his/her life studying matters of Faith. Additionally, maybe we hope that the person in the pulpit can gather from those studies some nuggets of Truth as revealed in the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament. And then, is it not reasonable also to hope that he/she not only studies the Faith but seeks to practice it? Otherwise all you are likely to gain from them is what might theoretically happen for one who believes. Instead, do you not hope to hear someone say, "I base my daily decisions on the principles of this Faith, and here's how that works out in my life. Per my experience, here are some things you can count on."
That, I think, is why we still listen to sermons. Researchers tell us that growing churches seem to be churches that (a) teach principles of Faith and (b) assist people to use their skills in creating a better personal life and a better corporate society. In short – they inform and inspire. They inform people about the grace and unfailing love of God in order to inspire people when they feel guilty or lonely. They inform people what Christianity’s principles are in order to inspire people to practice those principles in the world. They inform people of Truth beyond themselves in order to inspire people to find the best within themselves.
Over lunch recently, a young minister inquired about my approach to preaching. I told him to preach his passion, as people can always tell if a speaker is not fully committed to the topic being presented. Preach what you believe! And, I told him that once he has done so, that sermon then belongs to the listeners to do with what they choose: explore, reflect, accept, reject, ignore, whatever – but it is theirs. And that’s the point. Preachers do not perform. We provide. We simply share Faith-based Truth as we understand it and as it has impacted our own lives, and then (to quote Fred Craddock) we trust the people “to chase their own rabbits.” So, preaching at its best becomes a conversation between pulpit and pew. One person basically says, “Here’s what I have learned in studying Faith, and here’s how it applies in my life,” and other persons receive that and determine whether or not it applies in their lives. And if that happens, then both the preacher and the listener occupy the same holy ground.