Are They Listening To Me?

Title: Are They Listening To Me?
Category: Preaching Issues
Subject: Preaching; Sermons; Listeners

Are They Listening To Me?

Preaching is exhilarating for the man of God. But, is anyone getting what we are saying? Could our knowledge of God’s Word be our curse? Could it keep us from actually communicating what people need to hear? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that we should be ignorant of Scripture and theology, but is our audience thinking in patterns that connect them to our message? The following might clear up what I am trying to say.

“Research suggests at least one key barrier to crafting effective messages: the curse of knowledge. Once people know some piece of information, they find it hard to imagine what it was like before they knew it. Their own knowledge makes it harder for them to communicate, and thus it is a “curse.” “A classic psychology experiment demonstrates the power of this curse. Elizabeth Newton, for her psychology dissertation at Stanford University, asked college students to participate in an experiment in one of two roles: “tappers” and “listeners.” Tappers received a list of 25 well-known songs and were asked to tap out the rhythm of one song. Listeners tried to guess the song from the taps. The tappers reported that they could clearly “hear” the lyrics and complete musical accompaniment as they banged away. When they were asked to predict how many songs listeners would guess, they predicted 50 percent. However, listeners heard only a series of seemingly disconnected taps. Indeed, of all the songs tapped out, listeners correctly guessed only 3 percent.” “Overconfidence in the Communication of Intent: Heard and Unheard Melodies.” (Unpublished doctoral dissertation (Stanford, CA: Stanford University, 1990).

As preachers of God’s Word, we have studied, prayed, mused and inculcated into our very being the message we are delivering to the listeners. We are brimming with information and inspiration. We stand to preach and watch many people in the audience reveal in their faces that they are a million miles away in their thoughts. Our reaction is, “What is wrong with these people? Don’t they care at all about these wonderful, important, Biblical, divine truths that I’m preaching?” The answer is that they would care if they were “tappers” instead of simply “listeners.”

As we preach God’s Word, we are so excited about getting to the listener that which we have studied and discovered from God’s Word. In essence, we are “tapping” out a tune that all too often the “listener” cannot discern. No, it is not the fault of the preacher that the “listener” cannot “hear.” However, if we can find ways to make the tune or message more clearly defined for the hearer, we will accomplish our goal of communication and inspiration more fully and joyfully.

One Sunday, near the Fourth of July, I decided to do something to impress upon the congregation the value of the liberty we possess when it is applied to freedom of religion. I delivered a sermon on the fact that I can preach God’s Word, and the congregation can gather, worship and study God’s Word, without fear of reprisal from our government. It was a message that I am sure many old timers in the church had heard from former pastors in different ways numerous times before. Then, near the end of the sermon, I warned that we must not take this freedom for granted. The day could come, and likely will come, when this precious freedom will be snatched from us. The look on the faces of the people proved exactly what I thought – no one seemed to have an ounce of concern about losing religious liberty. Just then, I had four soldiers in full military regalia burst through the doors of the worship center. “Everyone stay in your seats and do not move,” one of the military leaders yelled. I protested from the pulpit that this was a church and we are exercising our freedom to worship our Lord. The soldiers proceeded to the pulpit, order me to cease speaking and took me by the arms to usher me out of the building. One officer among them told me to be silent, that I was under arrest for not getting government approval for my worship service. The people knew this was an act, of course, but one could see that they were startled and awake. At this moment, something happened that I could not have planned if I wanted to plan it. As the soldiers marched me up the aisle, a young girl standing on the pew beside her grandmother cried out loudly, “You can’t take my preacher. Please don’t take my preacher.” Tears were running down the little child’s face. I broke into tears and so did the congregation. Needless to say, the invitation that day was very successful. The “listeners” had gotten the message I was “tapping.”

The danger in this approach is that we become showmen, trying to do something beyond trusting God’s Word and God’s Spirit to invade the human heart. However, we simply must find new ways to occasionally be sure that someone is listening to what we are saying. Even Jesus said, “Let him that has ears hear.” And Jesus used many visual examples to make sure “listeners” were getting the message he was “tapping.”

Dr. J. Mike Minnix Editor