19 June, 2024

The Listener’s Role in Preaching

by | 1 March, 2023 | 1 comment

By Chris Philbeck 

Recently I’ve been walking through a season of life filled with disappointment. At one point my attitude got so bad I decided I needed to listen to a great sermon on how to overcome disappointment. I’ve always loved to listen to great preaching; I try to carve out time for that each week.  

I found a sermon from Dr. David Jeremiah called, “Joseph: Overcoming Disappointment.” I got out a notepad and a pen, clicked the link on my computer, and the first thing I heard him say was, “God takes our setbacks and turns them into comebacks. He takes our disappointments and turns them into his appointments. He takes our misfortunes and turns them into a ministry.”  

I immediately clicked off the link and didn’t listen to another word. I know that sounds bad, so let me explain.  

My attitude was in such a bad place that I couldn’t bring myself to listen to a sermon about how God “takes our setbacks and turns them into comebacks,” even though I believe it to be true. Not only that, but I love the story of Joseph—he has been my favorite Old Testament character from the time I was a boy and learned about him in Sunday school. But on this day as I began listening to Dr. Jeremiah’s sermon, my attitude wasn’t in the right place to receive that message.  

Instead, I turned my attention to a different Jeremiah—one whom I thought I could relate to more easily. Of course, I’m talking about the biblical Jeremiah, the “weeping prophet.” And I found the message I needed to hear in Jeremiah 20:1-13, as he suffered through the disappointment of being beaten and placed in jail simply for being obedient to his call . . . for being a man of God bearing the message of God. His words in verses 7-13 (written under the heading, “Jeremiah’s Complaint”) gave me the perspective I needed in my time of disappointment.  

Attitudes and Audience Appetites  

Reflecting on that experience reminded me that the impact of a sermon is often more dependent on the attitude of the listener than on the skill of the preacher. We all know there are exceptions to that because we’ve all heard bad sermons. But you would be hard pressed to find a better preacher today than David Jeremiah, and I’m sure if I went back and listened to his message on overcoming disappointment from the life of Joseph, I would be incredibly blessed. But in that moment, when I first clicked on the link, the problem was me.  

A complaint preachers often hear about their sermons is, “I’m not being fed.” Those words are usually spoken by people who don’t think the preachers’ sermons are deep enough, strong enough, interesting enough, or, especially in the modern church world, entertaining enough to hold their attention and meet their spiritual needs. But I can’t help but believe this is just another result of a wrong attitude that causes people to see the mission of the church as satisfying the appetite of the audience.  

Back in 2014, Group Productions released When God Left the Building, a documentary that focused on the decline of the American church. In it, an elder mistakenly describes the church’s mission like this: “I believe [the mission of the church is] to keep the membership up, keep it fortified, keep everyone feeling good about being there, keep people desiring to come there and want to be there.”  

Cruise Ship or Battleship?  

What’s the result, or fallout, from that mindset? Christian writer Josh Daffern gave a great answer in an online article called, “If You’re Not ‘Being Fed’ at Your Church, Maybe You’re Approaching Church Wrong.” He wrote, 

The way many of us approach church is like a cruise ship. When you walk on board a cruise ship, you expect to be entertained, you expect good food and good service, you expect leisure. If you don’t get that, if the service is bad, if the entertainment is not entertaining enough, you go find another cruise ship. 

When that’s the attitude of the people we serve, it’s just a matter of time before consumerism takes over and they begin shopping for a new church. And consumerism of this sort isn’t just present in shallow and immature Christians. It can be present in the lives of people who are deeply faithful, as well, because the bottom line for both is this: “My satisfaction is what matters most.”  

In his article, Daffern said that rather than approaching church like a cruise ship, a better approach is to see the church as a battleship. He wrote, 

When you walk on board, the expectation isn’t to sit but to serve. You realize you’re part of a greater mission, and your mindset is to find a way to contribute however you can. If you complain on a battleship, it’s not because the food is bad or because there’s no entertainment. A valid complaint on a battleship would be that there’s no meaningful way for you to serve. 

Every preacher needs to be a lifelong learner when it comes to the high and holy calling of preaching. We need to work hard to be the most effective communicator we can be. But no matter how well studied, well written, and well delivered a sermon may be, the attitude of the listener will always be crucial in whether or not it speaks to their heart. I’m going to think about that as I try to listen again to David Jeremiah’s sermon, “Joseph: Overcoming Disappointment.” 

Chris Philbeck

Chris Philbeck serves as senior pastor of Mount Pleasant Chris- tian Church in Greenwood, In- diana. He has been in ministry since 1980 and has had the privi- lege of planting a new church, leading a turn-around church, and now leading a megachurch. Chris is passionate about biblical preaching, effective leadership, and developing new and better ways for the local church to make an impact in the community and the world.

1 Comment

  1. Jeff Zacher

    I agree with this wholeheartedly. Hebrews says we are supposed to meet together to spur each other to love and good works. Instead we have often turned church into a movie theater or concert hall. I’m going to hang on to that battleship idea. That is exactly what a church is called to be. Galatians 5 says we are to serve each other in love, so share and spread the love since Christ gave so freely of Himself to do us the ultimate service.

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