Magazine article The Christian Century

Blank Stares: Who's Listening to Sermons?

Magazine article The Christian Century

Blank Stares: Who's Listening to Sermons?

Article excerpt

A GROUP OF PASTORS had been brought together by the Episcopal Preaching Foundation to talk and share and practice preaching. It was my turn to address the group, and I had a particular focus in mind. I presented a composite mental sketch of some people whom most preachers know all too well--people who haunt our sermon preparations, trip up our tongues so that we're left stammering nervously, and bedevil us in the after-worship handshake line. Sometimes we try to pursue them as they deftly slip out a side door. I spoke of the obvious occasions, the Sundays we know that "they" will be there--Easter, Mother's Day, a baptism in the family and Christmas Eve. But here's the kicker: they do not want to be there. Their body language and facial expressions shout, "Can we go now?" They are uninterested, unconvinced and certainly unimpressed. How do we preach to them?

I was barely under way when my colleagues stopped me and challenged my assumption that these uninterested people attended worship only on special occasions. Not true, they said; those people are in the congregation every Sunday. I had quoted a friend who says, "Never forget that half the congregation almost didn't show up." These pastors said that in their experience, those in the half that "almost didn't show" at least want to be there. The other half, the uninterested, unconvinced and unimpressed, would rather be anywhere else--not necessarily playing golf or watching a game, but maybe doing their taxes or painting a closet. How do we preach to this half of the congregation?

Do you have a hobby, maybe an unusual one? Some odd thing you collect or passion you pursue? That is Christianity in America to the uninterested-some weird thing we do with our time that, as long as we keep it to ourselves, doesn't really concern them. Worship doesn't matter to them. They did not read Paul Tillich's The Dynamics of Faith in college and don't know they are supposed to have a latent religious impulse. Many would say they don't have a religious bone in their bodies.

The unconvinced come in a variety of shapes and sizes. They may consider themselves graduates from Christianity and smile at us as they would at an adorable child or cute puppy, maybe even pat us on the head. These folks don't want to argue because they don't care. They've moved on, and hope that one day we will too. Others are argumentatively unconvinced, perhaps having been there and done that, with scars to show for it. They will challenge us, sometimes with disdain and almost always with sarcasm. It's not just that they are unconvinced by our faith, they are dismissive of it.

Some of us have a hard time imagining how someone could be so maddeningly unimpressed by all that Christian faith has to offer. We point hopefully to polls that show that the percentage of people who believe in God and say they go to church remains high. But we ignore the fact that while the population of the United States has doubled in the last 60 years, overall worship attendance has declined. If we do the math, we realize that the Ashtabula liars study, famous for documenting the discrepancy between survey reports of church attendance and actual weekend counts, is as true as it ever was.

So where do we start? How do we preach effectively to those who do not care, actively disagree and think we are deluded? We don't understand why they attend church, but if my colleagues are correct, they'll be sitting there next Sunday with legs crossed, arms folded or chin in palm, staring blankly in any direction but toward the pulpit.

We might begin by not being so quick to dismiss them or the situation as hopeless. Tom Long tells of being a guest preacher in a church. He had just finished his sermon when an elderly woman "with a face like a hatchet dipped in vinegar" approached him and asked, "You teach preaching at the seminary, don't you?" "Yes, I do," Long said. "Well, I have something that I want you to tell your students," she said. …

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