Chapter 3: Laymen’s Responses to Preaching

Partners in Preaching: Clergy and Laity in Dialogue
by Reuel L. Howe

Chapter 3: Laymen’s Responses to Preaching

When we turn to laymen and ask them for their response to the preaching to which they listen, we hear comments that underline the seriousness of the problem but also give us clues to changes that the church might need to make. The comments that we shall quote have been taken from the hundreds of tapes we have at the Institute of laymen’s discussions of sermons following services of worship.

The General Structure and Content of Sermons

First, they complain almost unanimously that sermons often contain too many ideas and that these come at them too fast and are so complex that it is impossible to hold these ideas in mind long enough to relate them to the meaning of their lives. A point that the preacher is making may catch their attention, but while they are responding to it, he moves on so rapidly to other points that they lose the thread of his thought. What happens next is that they usually wander back mentally to their private preoccupations with life and work. Some of these laymen question whether the communication of a set of ideas is the purpose of a sermon at all. Incidentally, it improves laymen’s listening and clergy’s preaching to invite laymen’s discussions with the clergy on the purpose of a sermon: Why do ministers preach? and, Why do laymen listen?

Laymen want simple sermons that teach deep truths. As one man said, "I like sermons to meet me where I live. I want to know how what I am excited about fits into the scheme of things; I want the sermon to build a fire under me that will burn all week." Adults frequently say the sermons they really like are those prepared and delivered to children because they are simple, vivid, employ ordinary language, and are concerned about life. They find themselves thinking about these sermons for weeks afterward, whereas, come Sunday evening they cannot even remember the sermon that was prepared for and delivered to them in the morning.

Second, laymen say sermons have too much analysis and too little answer. "We get analysis everywhere, but no answer from anyone. We think we should get it from the church." "Why do you give eighteen minutes to an analysis of man’s need for the gospel and only two minutes on the gospel in relation to the need?" Some ask, "Don’t you preachers really have a message? If so, why don’t you preach it?" Indeed, the impression that many laymen have is that the only message preachers have is the one of what is wrong with the world, with the result that they are left wondering what the "Good News" is, if any, in relation to the analysis.

"Another thing I don’t like about some preaching," said another layman who speaks for the growing number of his kind, "is that preachers are always on the defensive. Even their analysis of life is tilted in favor of the church and religion." Another said, "Your defensiveness for God, church, and religion makes me wonder what’s wrong with them that they need your protection. Why don’t you act as if you trusted what you say you believe in and state it and use it less qualifyingly and more daringly?"

Third, another common comment from laymen states that sermons are too formal and impersonal. The lack of personal urgency in preaching conveys the impression that the minister is not dealing with life-and-death issues. These doubts cause laymen to raise questions about methods of delivery. They seem to sense that there ought to be a difference between a lecture and a sermon. "I don’t see why anyone who spends as much time as a minister does in public speaking has to confine himself to a written sermon. He can write it if he has to, but he ought not to have to read it!" Another person reported, "I have often wondered if preachers are trying so hard to be correct and orthodox that they are afraid they won’t be forgiven if they speak out of their honest or even heated convictions." Or again, "I wish he would say what he feels." They are of the opinion that some sense of linguistic urgency on the part of the speaker suggests that he himself has wrestled with the truth he is presenting which, they think, adds to a sense of authenticity. Apparently there is a longing on the part of laymen for the preacher to give an honest, intelligent, passionate, personal presentation of Christian conviction rather than the coldly rational, dispassionate presentation of objective truth.

Laymen also make comments which show that they feel the need of more direct address in preaching and less talking about the faith as if it were only a set of optional ideas. I judge that what they are really looking for in preaching is more "I-Thou" quality.

(For an excellent application of that principle to the theme we are discussing, I refer the reader to Herbert Farmer’s Servant of the Word [Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1964; paperback]).


Ideas, Terms, and Illustrations Used in Sermons

Fourth, laymen feel that preachers assume that laymen have a greater knowledge and understanding of biblical and theological lore and language than they actually do. As a result of this assumption preachers fail to explain or elaborate various vital ideas they present and laymen simply fail to grasp the point of these sermons. One man said, "If I used that much jargon with my customers I would lose them." They complain that many of the words and concepts used in preaching are meaningless to them. When asked what some of these words were, they mentioned "salvation," "judgment," "redemption," "gospel," and so on. These are not terms by which laymen today either convey or receive meaning. When preachers use these words and concepts without really explaining them, the words and concepts cease to be effective symbols of communication. Another part of the difficulty comes from the minister’s failure to explain the nature and purpose of symbols and myths. Without such explanation laymen have no choice but to interpret the symbol or myth literally, and of course it then seems senseless to them in the context of contemporary life.

The concept of myth, for example, is a source of confusion. Because clergy will not take the trouble to instruct laymen precisely in the meanings of concepts, many people think that a myth represents something that is not true. They have not been helped to understand that a myth is a story which represents a truth. When the preacher says to some people, therefore, that the creation story is a myth, they become angry or bewildered because they think he is saying that God did not create the world. When he explains to them, however, that the story (myth) does affirm belief that God created the "heavens and earth and all that in them is," but does not require belief that he did it in six twenty-four-hour days, they are set free to correlate their religious beliefs with their scientific knowledge.

Laymen need help also in distinguishing between a word or myth and the meaning or truth they represent. The word "God" and the being of God are not synonymous, of course, but in their discussions many people seem to equate them. To use an analogy, we need to distinguish between the contents of a package and the package. The creation story in Genesis is, for example, the package containing the belief about the origin of the universe. Lay people are responsive to and appreciative of such distinctions, and of the assistance they receive from them for their thinking.

Preaching also suffers from the failure to provide opportunities for the laity to wrestle with biblical and theological concepts in the context of their own lives and in their own terms. A notable result of this is the prevalence among church people of moralism and the absence of a sense of dependence on forgiveness. True, most preachers preach "grace," but the people seem to hear "law." The good news of their being accepted in spite of their guilt never reaches the laity and, as a result, they become mired in the processes of self-justification with its attendant moralism and self-righteousness. One corrective of this condition would be to preach grace but provide people with opportunity and guidance to understand its meaning in secular and nontheological terms, that is, in their own terms.

Our study agrees with that of William D. Thompson, (Listeners Guide to Preaching [Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon Press, 1966]) who has demonstrated that the minister tends to idealize his congregation and to assume more knowledge on their part than they actually possess. In his words, "communication between pulpit and pew may sometimes fail because ministers assume greater sophistication for their audiences than the facts warrant."

Fifth, many laymen complain that sermons are too propositional; they contain too few illustrations; and the illustrations are often too literary and not helpful. They would like ministers to use more illustrations from life, the kind of illustration that would really "light up" for them aspects of their everyday lives. One vivacious and intelligent woman said, "I get bored with the unimaginative presentation of so many strange thoughts." Someone else said, "The sermons which get my attention are the ones in which they relate a story of everyday living and use it to tell us about Christian living." Still another person reports that his attention is often caught by something that is familiar to him, and he wishes that ministers would use situations and issues that are common to their own lives as a resource in presenting new truth. They suggest that preachers are too preoccupied with the past, with theories of life, and with the traditional. This comment, interestingly enough, is the other side of the one commonly made by preachers that their main source of supply for preaching comes from their books and seminary notes. One layman, when referring to biblical allusions and illustrations, said, "I’m sick and tired of being talked to as if I were a Corinthian."

Secularized, urbanized, technological people are not helped by biblical, pastoral, and rural references and illustrations. Efforts must be made to find contemporary symbols for timeless meanings so that there may be a meeting of meaning between contemporary man and the eternal God.

Finally, these laymen report that too many sermons simply reach a dead end and give no guidance to commitment and action. This kind of preaching, laymen feel, goes nowhere and relates to nothing in life. Here are some comments: "You talk about love as if there were no people hating each other." "You talk about justice as if the world wasn’t tearing itself apart." "It’s all very well to tell us that God is love, but what does that mean to me, living as I do in the tangle of hostility which is a part of my work?" "Sometimes," commented another layman, "after I have heard a sermon I feel like asking, ‘So what?’ "

But the most telling criticism of the dead-end nature of preaching was that expressed by the man who said, "You preachers seem concerned only about the sick, poor, and weak, as if God were a substitute for adequacy. What do you have to say to the strong men, the powerful, the influencers of our culture? I don’t think we really need the kind of God you talk about."

In sum, our examination of conventional preaching and its results has revealed that the intended content of sermons is poorly communicated. By actual count, less than one third of the people who attended the postservice discussion were able to make a clear statement of the sermon’s central question and the "answer" that it offered. This fact in itself places upon the church a heavy responsibility to review the preaching-communication problem and to take the necessary steps to solve it.