What do people in the pews want from a sermon?[1] It seems like a no-brainer, yet most of the preachers I know never ask the question. I know I certainly don’t.

A few years ago, a group of preaching professors set out to discover what they could learn about preaching from the people who listen to sermons. This brave group invited people from the pews to explain how they listen to sermons.

The detailed findings were reported in four books published by Chalice Press.[2] Here are the highlights that I found interesting:

  • Listeners place a high value on sermons. Almost every one of the 263 interviewees said that preaching is meaningful to them. They look to sermons to help them make sense of life by helping them identify God’s presence and purposes, and helping them figure out how to respond faithfully. In today’s congregation, when so many responsibilities lay claim to a minister’s time, members encourage ministers to give the best of themselves to sermon preparation.
  • Many listeners stress that they want the sermon to connect with their living experience today. They want to know the implications of what they most deeply believe for their work places, homes, schools, civic affairs, and leisure activities. Along this line, they yearn to know that preachers understand what their worlds feel like. They are willing to be challenged (see the next point) but they want to know that the preacher understands the complexity of their lives.
  • Listeners want preachers to bring controversial issues into the pulpit. Yes. You read that correctly. Many of the listeners want ministers to help them wrestle with God’s purposes in connection with issues such as war with other nations, abortion, and same-gender relationships. As someone said, “Who else is going to help us think about these things from God’s point of view?” The respondents do not want preachers to tell them how to vote or what to think, but they do want help interpreting issues from a theological point of view and considering possibilities for faithful responses.

After more than a decade of preaching full time, I just now feel as if I am a member of the freshman class. Preaching is a divine mystery, a sacred moment, a powerful event in the lives of so many people. May God strengthen those who perform the task and may He bless those who listen.

[1] Adapted from Ron Allen, “Study Confirms and Challenges Preachers,” http://www.workingpreacher.org/ [accessed April 9, 2012].

[2] John McClure, et. al. Listening to Listeners: Homiletical Case Studies (2004); Ronald Allen, Hearing the Sermon (2004); Mary Alice Mulligan, et. al., Believing in Preaching: What Listeners Hear in Sermons (2005); Mary Alice Mulligan and Ronald Allen, Make the Word Come Alive: Lessons from Laity (2006).