Bishop's Message

The Sermon and the Listener

Aug 2008    

‘The seed takes time to bear fruit. True evaluation of the planting of the seed has to wait till the fruit is seen. Instant evaluation of sermons is based on a childish notion of how the Word works.’

AT A recent conference where several speakers preached, there was a time for evaluation at the end. The person who collected feedback and comments gave a summary of his findings. The sermons were also evaluated – the comments were generally good, except for one about the inadequate fit of the sermons with the conference theme.

The whole exercise led me to thinking. I personally would have great hesitation if asked to almost instantly evaluate sermons that I hear. There is something wrong in such quick and instant evaluation of sermons. We can think of at least two reasons why this is often unhelpful and even dangerous for our spiritual health.

FIRSTLY such instant feedback on sermons cheapens something that is meant to be a holy mystery, turning it into a product on sale or a performance to entertain us. The preaching of God’s Word is an awesome task and a divine exercise. We ought to believe that when someone is preaching the Word, God is speaking through him. God is a communicating God and He has, in the whole of salvation history, used men and women to bring His precious Word to people.

The writer of Hebrews declares pointedly: “In the past God spoke …through the prophets at many times and in various ways” (Heb. 1:1). Eventually God “has spoken to us by His Son” (Heb 1:2). When Jesus spoke, people listened to Him with rapt attention and marvelled at His wisdom and authority. Not all did so, of course. There were many who heard Jesus but who, nevertheless, were more concerned with evaluating His sermons, being on a mission to find faults and mistakes.

It may be that we tend to listen more carefully when we are in pain than when we are at ease. The 4th-century “golden-mouthed” preacher Chrysostom noted wisely: “For when hearers are in an easy time, they become listless and lazy and seem to be annoyed by the speaker. But when they are in affliction and distress, they long deeply to listen.”

God has not changed His methods of communication. He continues to speak through pastors and preachers who are tasked to preach the Word. Jesus commands us to make disciples of all nations by baptising and teaching (Mt. 28:18-20). How then can we take preaching lightly?

The problem with instant evaluations of sermons is that we may forget the deep spiritual reality that lies behind the preaching of the Word. Instead of consuming the preaching of the Word, we should be consumed by it. We should not be sitting on our pews as religious customers, but as redeemed sinners in need of God’s Word. Methodist preacher D. T. Niles defined sharing the Good News as “one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread”. In a sense we are more in the position of beggars in need of spiritual nourishment and admonishment rather than comfortable consumers ready to give our consumer feedback.

Some might say that preachers are to blame for all this. There are some preachers who have no substance to offer – they are not really preaching God’s Word.

They may have lots of glitzy style but no real substance and the discerning listener will readily recognise the poverty of the so-called sermon. Perhaps part of the problem may be the consumer pew. When people start giving instant evaluations, preachers are tempted to adjust their preaching to the taste and whims of the listeners. The preacher becomes an entertainer and the congregation an audience.

You have seen in television talent shows how performers are instantly evaluated and rated by the audience, and kicked out of the competition or promoted to the next stage. Preachers who regularly fall into this trap or who consistently fail to really preach the Word of God must be taken to task. But this is not the same as evaluating every sermon instantly – which is basically a consumer habit.

Most preachers try to do a good job at preaching. Yes, the instrument may be faulty, but God’s tunes are being played whether by good instruments or faulty ones with varying degrees of damage and imperfection. But the serious listener of sermons must realise that the majestic tunes from God’s Word can still be heard in most situations. And we must respect the fact that God is communicating and speaking to each of us – and be filled with awe and respect.

SECONDLY, the problem with instant evaluation of sermons is that it misunderstands how the preaching of God’s Word works. Jesus once told the parable of the sower to shed light on this process (Mt. 13:1-23). God’s Word is like seed that is sown by preaching and teaching. Different kinds of people receive the Word differently. Some lose it straight away (usually those who don’t care about the sermon or who are there to find fault; that is, they trivialise it). Others receive the Word positively but lose it along the way due to pressures and temptations. The ones in whom the Word really works well are those who, over time, produce spiritual fruit. That is the point, is it not?

The seed takes time to bear fruit. True evaluation of the planting of the seed has to wait till the fruit is seen. Instant evaluation of sermons is based on a childish notion of how the Word works. At best, if you do such evaluations, you may only be evaluating the technique of the sower – how well he threw his seed, how accurate his aim was, whether it was entertaining to watch, and so on. There is no way you can instantly evaluate the seed that carries the truth, power and life of God. You have to wait for the fruit to appear before you judge the actual sowing event.

Are we surprised then that preachers are tempted to make a big show out of sowing the seed, never mind about what seed they actually sow? Instant sermon evaluation only promotes such trivialisation of the preaching of God’s Word. Both the preacher who trivialises preaching by adjusting the sermon according to instant audience feedback, and listeners who trivialise the ministry of God’s Word by reducing it to a consumer product, neglecting the mysterious spiritual dimensions and the fact that the Word often takes its time to produce lasting fruit in us, are at great fault.

The next time you are asked to evaluate sermons instantly, think and pray first. More often than not, it is we the listeners who need to be evaluated and not the preaching of the Word.


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