If you’ve ever preached or taught, you know what I’m talking about in this post. No matter how hard you prepared your sermon or lesson—and regardless of how good you think it is—your listeners just seem to be in another world. They’re clearly not paying attention, and you wish you could just shut down the sermon and go home. Here are some options when that happens:
- Assume that somebody’s listening—because somebody probably is. Even that person who never looks at you and who seems to be playing with his iPad might still be listening. He might be a decent multi-tasker who can listen well and do something else at the same time. Or, Holy Spirit-conviction might be keeping him from looking you in the eye.
- Make sure your sermon has good, relevant, well-placed illustrations—including an extra one if you need it. Illustrations are, in the words of Bryan Chappell, a “slice of life”* that motivates hearers to do something with the Word. Illustrations naturally say, “Listen up. This is where the Word intersects your life.” Watch your audience, in fact; in many cases, the hearers will suddenly sit up, lean forward, and pay more attention when they know a story’s coming.
- Build questions into your sermons. People think about their responses to questions, and asking those questions draws hearers back to you. For example, I might ask these kinds of questions when preaching the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15):
- How many of you were wasting your life when God brought you to the end of yourself and back to Him?
- How many of you know somebody who seems to be wasting his or her life today?
- How many of you are like the father in the parable—waiting and praying for a prodigal child or grandchild to come home?
- This question might be tougher to answer honestly, but how many of you have a tendency to get jealous and angry when somebody else gets something you think you deserve?
- Don’t be afraid to call your hearers to attention. If they know you love them, they won’t be offended by an honest, “Folks, it looks like many of you are tired today. Let’s take a deep breath, sit up, and move to the rest of the message.” Keep it light, but grab their attention. At least for a few moments, they’ll be more attentive.
- Cut the sermon short. If your audience really isn’t with you that day, it’s not terrible to shorten your planned sermon. You can still draw the sermon to an effective close—and save some material for the next time you preach the text. I’d rather you keep their attention for 20 minutes than speak for 40 minutes to no one listening. By the way, this is also one of the reasons I don’t often tell my audience the number of points I intend to cover. Unless I give them the outline ahead of time, they won’t know that I planned four points instead of three.
- Be sure to ask others to help you evaluate your sermon the following week. Let’s be honest, preachers: sometimes people don’t listen to us because our sermon is boring, disconnected, or both. For preachers who want to be effective, an uninterested crowd is a call to honest reflection and humble change if needed.
Pastors and teachers, what are your thoughts?
* Bryan Chapell, Christ-Centered Preaching: Redeeming the Expository Sermon(p. 192). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.