A selective review of a recent trend in preaching, The

turn to the listener: A selective review of a recent trend in preaching, The

Allen, Ronald J

In an essay entitled, “And How Shall They Hear? The Listener in Contemporary Preaching,” Thomas G. Long notes that preaching and scholars of preaching are giving increasing attention to the listener.1 Long locates the background of this turn in a debate between Barth and Brunner concerning the degree to which the preacher should attempt to shape the sermon to help the listener receive it. Barth insists that the preacher pay little attention to the listeners’ particularities, but simply preach the gospel, for the gospel will effect its own hearing. Long concludes that rhetorical approaches to preaching suffered a “Barth attack.” By contrast, Brunner thinks the gospel has a point of contact in the particularity of the human being, who is made in the image of God and who always lives in a specific situation that affects readiness to receive the gospel. Rhetoric helps the preacher shape the sermon to touch the point of contact. On this point, in North America, Brunner’s approach has had a more widespread recent effect.

In this vein, in the last forty years, many authorities on preaching speak of a turn to the listener; that is, an increased emphasis on the preacher understanding the congregation as it is in real life (and not simply as the preacher imagines it).2 The preacher who has a sense of the patterns of thought, feeling, and behavior in the congregation can develop the sermon to have an optimum opportunity to communicate with the congregation.

This paper surveys representative voices in the turn to the listener in the literature of preaching in the contemporary period. I am particularly interested in tracing the degree to which persons writing in the field of preaching listen directly to listeners for help in understanding what actually happens when congregants hear sermons and how such knowledge can help a preacher shape sermons.3

The survey is organized according to disciplines. I group studies according to the five main approaches that have been a part of the turn to the listener: (1) laity feeding forward into the sermon; (2) communication theory; (3) philosophy of language, literary criticism, and rhetoric; (4) congregational studies; and (5) what I informally call efforts to listen directly to listeners about preaching.4 Within each discipline I take a roughly chronological approach, tracing voices in the order in which they emerge, though when an author has given sustained attention to a theme across several years and works, I sometimes discuss those contributions together. This short paper does not allow space for a full critical reflection on each effort.

The contemporary era in preaching begins with H. Grady Davis, Design for Preaching (1958).5 Davis’s primary innovation was in the arena of form. Earlier authorities had largely suggested that the preacher select a structure for a sermon from a stock set of outlines. By contrast, Davis encouraged the preacher to design a movement for each sermon that is organic to the purpose of that sermon. While Davis was cognizant that changes in sermon form would affect listeners, he did not dwell on how different forms might affect listeners. Davis’s emphasis was more on the sermon as an expression of the preacher, a trend which dominated major works in preaching for the next generation.6


Some of the earliest efforts in the turn to the listener take the form of feed-forward groups. The pastor brings members of the congregation into the process of preparing the sermon to hear how they perceive the text or subject of upcoming sermons. The preacher then incorporates their insights, questions, fears, and hopes into the sermon.7 In recent years, listener participation has amplified from contributing to the preacher to becoming a part of the event of preaching itself.

After setting out an ecclesiology centered in the priesthood of all believers, Dietrich Ritschi claims that “the whole Church participates in the office of proclamation which Jesus Christ holds.”8 Consequently, “it must be definitely said that the preacher cannot be left alone with . . . sermon preparation.”9 While Ritschl stops short of describing a group within the congregation who meet with the congregation to prepare the sermon on a weekly basis, Ritschl does emphasize that the congregation should help the preacher select the biblical text for the sermon and implies that members of the congregation should “study the sermon text with their minister.”10 The preacher is a “good theologian” when sharing and receiving “questions and answers” with the people.”

In the early 1960s, Browne Barr experimented with a “sermon seminar” in congregations in Connecticut and California. Parishioners would meet on Wednesday night to hear a brief, non-technical exegesis from Barr and then break into “four or five groups of eight to ten each for forty minutes” to discuss how the passage relates to their own “problems and questions of faith and life.” The preacher sits quietly in one group listening, and then the whole assembly reconvenes to hear individual reports. Brown reports that such groups often lead the sermon in altogether unanticipated directions.12

Reuel L. Howe’s contribution to the turn towards the listener goes far beyond feed-forward groups, though Howe is central in emphasizing the importance of the sermon (monological in form) having the character of dialogue between preacher and congregation in his work, Partners in Preaching: Clergy and Laity in Dialogue (1967).13 Dialogical character can result when the preacher engages members of the congregation regarding the content of a future sermon as a part of sermon preparation. Howe focuses primarily upon listening to laity in connection with the preparation of specific sermons. However, the basic principle of attending to laity can be extended to listening to their perceptions of their own reactions to sermons. Howe did not develop a systematic way for obtaining feed-back regarding the kinds of sermons that laity find compelling.

Jerry Carter, a pastor in California, reports recruiting a small group (from four to eighteen persons) for a sermon workshop that met every Monday night for a quarter (1983). The group studied the text each week, identified issues raised by the text (for example, “When has that happened to you?”), and addressed the question, “What do we need to hear next week?” After the program had been going for five years, Carter said that the congregation was much more attentive to the sermon now than before the workshops became a part of the congregational life.14

John S. McClure developed The Roundtable Pulpit (1995) as an outgrowth of his wider effort to bring resources from rhetoric and postmodern philosophy into the renewal of preaching.15 In the interest of taking into account the real experience of listeners, honoring a pluralism of perspectives (characteristic of post-modernity), and de-constructing clergy hegemony, McClure envisions preaching as a collaborative effort between preacher and people. In The Roundtable Pulpit, McClure outlines a process of pre-sermon collaborative discussion between the preacher and members of the congregation to help bring the sermon into specific conversation with the congregation.16

Les Hughes follows Bob Russell (Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, Kentucky) in meeting with a small group forum prior to the sermon.17 This weekly group helps Hughes determine the text or topic of the sermon, studies material pertinent to the message, and shares insights, questions, and stories sparked by the text.

Dow Edgerton indicates that feed-forward groups and lay involvement in preaching continue to be sponsored by students on the ACTS D.Min. in Preaching Program offered in Chicago (1997).18 Feed-forward process is employed by a number of students in this program.

A fresh theme is now appearing in this stream of literature: laity actually preaching. Applying the theme of the priesthood of all believers to worship leadership, Nancy Taylor details a collaborative worship team composed of six laity and the pastor working together, not only to plan a service of worship, but also to carry it out. The laity does not simply contribute material to the preacher but speaks aloud in the sermon. The sermon becomes a multi-voice event.

Douglas Gwyn similarly describes helping congregational members develop and preach sermons in a congregation in Berkeley, California (200O).19 Gwyn reports that a laity that takes the step of becoming preachers is empowered not only for preaching but also for increasingly serious Christian witness in other arenas of life.

Feed-forward groups are designed to help the preacher develop specific sermons. Thoughtful preachers may reflect more broadly on what they learn about communication in preaching from these groups, but such wider reflection is not necessarily an outcome of the feed-forward process.

Communication Theory

Communication theory is another point of departure in the turn towards the listener. This discipline achieved its own identity after World War II; researchers in preaching picked it up in the 1960s.

Clyde Reid (1967) levied more specific indictments against preaching, ranging from the use of archaic language to the selection of boring topics, lack of courage on the part of the preacher, lack of change in congregations as a result of preaching, and an overemphasis on the sermon. The result, according to Reid, is that sermons failed to communicate with significant numbers of people.20 Reid called preachers to pay attention to the discipline of communication theory. Reid particularly urged preachers to replace the monological sermon with modes of communication that enabled person-to-person dialogue; for example, direct discussion between preacher and people during or after the sermon, the sermon seminar, ongoing small groups, retreats, or forms of replacing the sermon. Reid reports on the success of experiments along these lines by citing clergy who supervised them, but seldom quotes a layperson that participated. Relatively few authors in the field of preaching pursued either Reid’s call to communication theory or Reid’s initiatives in face-to-face dialogue.21

J. Daniel Baumann developed an introductory textbook on preaching using speech communication theory to help the sermon serve the gospel (1972). Consistent with that theory, Baumann stresses, “Audience analysis is imperative before an appropriate application can be made in the sermon.”22 Such analysis, however, relies primarily upon the preacher’s capacity to scrutinize the congregation rather than on how the members of the listening community describe themselves.

In 1974, Clement Welsh turned to communication theory to suggest a new key for preaching.23 Welsh relied upon the Shannon model of communication to explain the preaching event. In this model, a message flows from a source (preacher) through a transmission channel (sermon) to a receiver (congregation). Along the way, noise often interferes with the message. The communicator needs to try to minimize noise during the transmission. For Welsh, the purpose of the sermon is to help the congregation make religious sense of the universe. Welsh identifies various cognitive styles (and their implications for preaching) based on ways different modes of perception and cognition interact to bring the congregation to such a sense. Welsh is particularly interested in the interaction of models of the universe, symbols, theology, and philosophy in helping people interpret the world from a religious perspective. The “new key” that Welsh sounded for preaching was to envision the sermon as “pre-kerygmatic”; that is, as introducing data and perceptions to the listener that the listener can then piece together as kerygma. While Welsh’s attention to the listener is promising, it does not result in specific suggestions for constructing sermons that take account of listener tendencies. Welsh does not provide data from people who actually hear sermons to show that sermons and listener synthesis of faith work in tandem as Welsh postulates in the model of pre-kerygmatic sermon and kerygmatic listener synthesis.

J. Randall Nichols asks, “How on earth can we get our people to play ball by the same rules as we use in preaching?”(1980). “The best answer is that we should tell them”; that is, the preacher should teach the congregation how to listen to sermons.24 Experienced teachers know that a learning event is often effective when it begins by identifying and engaging the students’ current perceptions of the subject matter. Nichols suggests that the preacher “gets to know the clients” through a case study approach. The preacher imagines a listener and then imaginatively interviews that person to get to know their hopes, fears, dreams, anxieties, and so on.25 Nichols does not directly suggest that the preacher conduct interviews of actual people, nor are questions about preaching itself included in the sample questions. Nichols does not posit the possibility that information gained from listeners could prompt preachers to change “the rules” of preaching.

Communication theory is often derived from empirical research. However, to my knowledge, such empirical research has seldom specifically focused on congregations who hear sermons.

Philosophy of Language, Literary Criticism, and Rhetoric

The lines now become even more blurred in the survey. Although philosophy of language, literary criticism, and rhetoric are distinct disciplines in the academic world, they share a common concern to comprehend what happens in understanding and communication. While we can cite specific authors in the field of preaching whose work moves clearly within one or another of these branches of inquiry, many writers draw on them in integrative ways. I discuss them under two headings for heuristic purposes.


David James Randolph (1969) builds on the philosophy of language in the New Hermeneutic to speak of the sermon as an event that should contain significant biblical and theological components. Randolph insisted that, in order to be effective, a sermon should be “corroborated and engrained in the lives of the hearers.” Towards this end, Randolph pressed the preacher to pay attention to “what happens for listeners.”26 While Randolph advocates listening to what we learn about people from pastoral counseling, and imagining what a text or theological theme might mean to certain listeners, he stops short of suggesting that preachers consult directly with members of congregations regarding how they perceive the preaching event (their hopes, etc.), or even how a biblical passage might intersect with their worlds. After prefiguring a theme that ran like a brushfire through the preaching world in the 1980s (that the form or genre of a biblical text could suggest a form or genre of preaching from that text), Randolph delineated several marks of good sermon structure (faithfulness to the text, unity, simplicity, progression), but, again, Randolph gives no indication that laity share the perception that these are marks of good preaching.27

In 1971, Fred Craddock published the most influential book on preaching in the last third of the twentieth century: As One without Authority.28 Whereas most approaches to preaching prior to H. Grady Davis (and some of Davis’s approaches as well) were deductive, Craddock develops an inductive approach to preaching for the explicit purpose of helping the hearer participate more fully in the sermon. Craddock places a premium on imagination, storytelling, and the sermon as the creation of experience. Concern for the listener permeates this volume.29 In this early work, Craddock’s claims about the relationship of the listener and the sermon are based mainly on philosophers of language, personal observation, experience, and anecdote, with little attention to the listeners’ own testimonies as to what leads them into significant encounter with the sermon. In the provocative Overhearing the Gospel, Craddock devotes a whole chapter to the listener who is so familiar with the Christian message as to be anesthetized to it, and another chapter to the listener as being most receptive to the gospel when overhearing it.30 Both of these chapters rely on the work of the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, and even more on Craddock’s own immense powers of personal observation. In his magisterial Preaching (1985), Craddock counsels preachers to select or create a form for the sermon based on “(1) the preacher’s capacity to anticipate that listener response, and (2) the preacher’s capacity to shape the sermon to meet the challenge of that response.”31 The preacher gains awareness of likely listener response by being sensitive to the world of the congregation while carrying out one’s pastoral duties and by imagining how the sermon will fall on the heart and mind of the congregation. Fred Craddock returns to this discussion by asking, “Is There Still Room for Rhetoric?” (1996).32 Craddock points out the limited ways that preaching understood rhetoric in the past as suggestions for preaching technique, and helps the listener recognize the expanded notion of rhetoric today. Craddock then answers this question in the affirmative. However, Craddock does not prescribe specific interactions that rhetoric might facilitate between the preacher and the congregation.

In 1997, Lucy Atkinson Rose articulated a fully developed notion of preaching as conversation.33 Consistent with postmodern emphases on respect for the Other, on the desire to minimize authoritarian repression, and on recognition of pluralism in all aspects of interpretation, the notion of preaching as “conversation” implies interchange among the preacher and Others (for example, Bible, figures from church history and theology, members of congregation, and sources from the wider world). Some contributors to the conversation about preaching as conversation imagine actual interchange taking place between preacher and congregation during or after the sermon, while others think of the sermon as monological in format but dialogical in character. However, few voices in this movement aim to converse with actual listeners regarding the aim and effectiveness of preaching.

A Rebirth of Interest in Rhetoric

In the last twenty years, rhetorical concerns increasingly make their way into theology and preaching.34 Rhetoric is a discipline that attempts to help the speaker develop qualities that help promote communication between speaker and listener in (a) the relationship between the two (ethos); (b) the content of the message (logos); and (c) the network of feelings, associations, and cares evoked by the speaker and the message (pathos).35 Approaches to preaching based on rhetoric are loaded with advice as to what preachers should and should not do to enhance communication. Ironically, however, such advice is usually derived from rhetorical theory and is seldom grounded in actual studies of people who listen to sermons.36

O. C. Edwards, Jr., drawing on the Ph. D. dissertation of Fred Baumer, finds that rhetoric has much to offer the preacher at the point of helping to clarify the purpose of the sermon and the relationship of that purpose to sermonic genre (1986)37. Edwards and Baumer do not suggest ways to find out whether sermons accomplish their purposes.

Lester De Koster sketches a concise history of rhetoric on the way to suggesting that the preacher is a rhetorician (1986).38 A bibliographie essay introduces readers new to the field to linguistics and to basic rhetorical sources from the Greeks through Calvin.

David Buttrick’s Homiletic: Moves and Structures (1987) is the first to develop a complete homiletic based on empirical studies of ways in which people actually process communications.39 Indeed, one of Buttrick’s early interpreters describes Buttrick’s method as a “phenomenological approach to preaching” because Buttrick intended to describe the phenomena of human consciousness when listening to a sermon and to design a homiletic accordingly.40 Buttrick says that the time has come to enlist rhetoric and literary criticism in this service. Buttrick’s phenomenology concludes that all groups (regardless of race, ethnicity, age composition, and so on) operate on the basis of a similar communal consciousness that moves at a slower rate than individual consciousness. In order for a listening community optimally to receive a sermon, Buttrick claims that the sermon must be formulated as a series of “moves” designed according to a particular formula. Buttrick sets forth three basic “plots” (immediacy, reflective consciousness, praxis) that a sermon can follow, each imitating a different pattern by which consciousness functions.

Unfortunately, Buttrick does not document the empirical studies on which he relies. At a meeting of the Academy of Homiletics in the late 1980s, Buttrick indicated that he depended upon studies made by D.Min. students at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary in the 1970s. However, to my knowledge, these projects have never been examined by outside sources. Furthermore, my naive observation is that many sermons developed outside of Buttrick’s canons (and even in violation of them) communicate very well. Furthermore studies in mental operation suggest that “consciousness” may function in ways that are more pluralistic than Buttrick allows.41

Raymond Bailey suggests that the preacher can profit from thinking about preaching from the perspective of the five canons of traditional rhetoric: invention, arrangement, style, delivery, and memory (1987).42 Like Edwards and Baumer, Bailey does not consider the help that listeners might afford preachers in thinking about these canons in relationship to the sermon.

John McClure’s The Four Codes of Preaching moves in an interdisciplinary way among postmodern philosophy and semiotics in a manner that expands our understanding of the rhetorical logos of preaching into four ‘codes’ that connect to four ‘intertexts’ within congregational life (1991).43 McClure identifies and analyzes four overlapping codes that operate in every congregation: scriptural code, which negotiates how the congregation relates to the Bible; semantic code, which supports the way that the congregation uses language and symbols in its specific context; theo-symbolic code, which interacts with ways that the congregation understands God (or ultimate reality); and cultural code, which responds to the full range of assumptions, values, expectations, feelings, actions (that is, the culture) in the community.44 Because each congregation is distinct and in a distinct setting, the content of these codes differs from congregation to congregation. The preacher who discerns the specific manifestation of these codes in the congregation is able to encode the sermon in such a way as to create the possibility for a hearing in the congregation.

McClure’s brilliant Other-Wise Preaching (2001) seeks to help the preacher conceive of the sermon as interrupted by the presence of an expansive range of Others. These Others are first human beings in their individual uniqueness, but they also include texts and social forces and other forms of Otherness. Preachers often promote sameness between themselves and others and among others. When this happens, others are violated. In a bold move, McClure applies this notion of interruption to his own codes, for a preacher’s understanding of a code can function to repress the preacher’s awareness of the otherness at work in a congregation and in the world, and can leave the preacher with the impression that the use of a code can or should promote sameness. The interruptions alert the preacher to points at which the preacher’s understanding of the gospel is limited, misshapen, and even damaging. In this sense, each sermon is preached in the presence of a veritable infinity of listeners, and is ethically accountable to those present and to those not present in the sanctuary on Sunday morning. To be faithful to the God of love who goes out to others through covenant and incarnation, the sermon must move toward others in as many ways as possible.45 McClure stresses that each person, community, or entity is distinctly itself with its own integrity and identity. McClure urges the preacher to respect the Others of the Bible, God who is “Other-wise than Being,” the congregation, and other Others in the world and not to perceive them as simply an extension of sameness with the preacher and the preacher’s particular way of coding sermons. This proposal calls for a radically pluralistic understanding of the distinctiveness of listeners in the congregation, and for not only being open to the interruption of our preaching by others, but to recognizing that interruption, and responding to it, is theologically necessary.

Craig Loscalzo draws upon the work of contemporary rhetorician Kenneth Burke to propose identification as a key quality that needs to be present in the sermon if effective communication is to take place (1992).46 While Loscalzo draws judiciously from Burke, he does not introduce us in his early works to studies or listeners who confirm, correct, or enlarge this theoretician’s claims. Later, Loscalzo specifically recommends getting feedback from listeners.47

Robin Meyers offers the provocative idea that preaching is self-persuasion (1993). The preacher who would persuade others must first be persuaded. Self-persuasion takes place through listening to one’s own questions, doubts, and experiences and dealing honestly with them not only in the study but also in the pulpit. “The preacher models the listening behavior that is desired from the congregation, hoping to make it contagious.”48 The listeners then become selfpersuasive. However, this author does not provide confirmation from listeners that they perceive self-persuasion working in this way.

Paul Scott Wilson places rhetoric and literary criticism at the center of his textbook, The Practice of Preaching (1995).49 Wilson points out that rhetorical concerns inherently infuse all theological discourse (including the sermon) whether or not we are conscious of them. For every act of speaking (and even of thinking) is a rhetorical act. Therefore, the preacher needs to become critically cognizant of the rhetorical dimensions of preaching and to seek patterns of communication that are consistent with the gospel. Wilson particularly points that preachers can be helped by thinking of the sermon in the rhetorical categories of ethos, logos, and pathos. Like many other authors, Wilson speaks generally of the importance of the preachers factoring the experience of listeners into the sermon, but provides few suggestions for identifying that experience.

Lucy Lind Hogan and Robert Reid offer the most fully developed connection between preaching and rhetoric in the contemporary period (1999).50 Noting that rhetoric is “the study of all the processes by which people influence each other through symbols, regardless of the intent of the source,” these authors conclude that preaching is inherently rhetorical. Drawing on the rhetorical tradition from Aristotle to Burke, Lind Hogan and Reid focus on ethos, pathos, and logos as key elements from rhetoric that help a preacher understand the dynamics of the event of preaching. Lind Hogan and Reid suggest a number of qualities in preaching that contribute to a hospitable ethos for the sermon, ethical engagement of the passions, and a credible rationality in the sermon. They even have a short section on the importance of “listening to our listeners,”51 by which they mean paying attention to the context of the congregation.


Congregational studies derive, in part, from cultural anthropology. Congregational studies is a discipline that seeks to help the pastor develop a “thick” description of the congregation; that is, one that describes not only the surface elements of a culture, but also the underlying (and often less obvious) ones. A thick description includes the full fabric of community dynamics – formal and informal thought, feeling, and behavior.52 Congregational studies emphasize that each congregation is a distinct culture and must be understood in its particularity.

Don M. Wardlaw, noting the contextuality of all texts and sermons, urges preachers to develop detailed understanding of the congregation so the preacher can shape sermons to take into account particular aspects of the congregation, its context, and its tendencies in listening (1988). Wardlaw conceives the sermon as the interface of two social worlds: the world of the biblical text and the world of the congregation. While the preacher must describe each of those social worlds (and their interaction), this programmatic chapter does not develop a detailed methodology for doing so.53

Nora Tubbs Tisdale’s Preaching as Local Theology and Folk Art takes a significant step beyond Wardlaw’s earlier work by recognizing each congregation as a subculture, and by providing practical methods for getting inside the multiple dynamics of that subculture (1997).54 Following contextual theologian Robert Schreiter, as well as the rapidly maturing discipline of congregational studies, Tisdale conceives of preaching as “local theology.”55 For preachers to be local theologians, they must understand the local context so that they can form sermons along the contours of local language, social assumptions, customs, and practices. Tisdale develops a program for “exegeting the congregation” with the same thoroughness that preachers engage in the exegesis of biblical texts. Exegesis of the congregation involves attending to the stories that people tell, the history of the congregation, events that are important in its life, physical objects and spaces, and even interviewing congregants on how they interpret their community.

Congregational studies can certainly include efforts at understanding how a sermon functions in a culture. I distinguish this section and the one immediately following because the contributions in the latter highlight paying attention to how listeners perceive the sermon per se.


This final section chronicles less a discipline than a patch work of efforts to listen directly to what congregants themselves say about preaching – sometimes about specific sermons but often about preaching more generally. I note two sub-themes in this material: efforts at listening to the congregation (a) with respect to specific sermons, and (b) with respect to preaching more broadly. While we have found similar motifs in some other categories, it is more central to the works that are highlighted here.56

Listening to Listeners with Respect to Specific Sermons

Some preachers are seeking feedback on specific sermons. These efforts include both the use of statistical instruments and openended responses.

William Roen presents a method for preachers and hearers to evaluate sermons in The Inward Ear (1989). Drawing on the rhetorical notions of ethos, pathos, and logos, Roen designed a short form with six questions to be administered to a small group after a sermon: What does the preacher reveal about his or her personality in the sermon? What elements of her or his experience have enriched this sermon? With what feelings did the sermon affect you? What was it the preacher said that stirred those emotions? What was the unifying idea or image in the sermon? How did the rest of the sermon relate to it? The group talks with the preacher about the sermon based on these questions.57 In contrast to spectrum survey instruments that ask for only numerical responses on a scale (for example, 1=agree strongly), this approach provides for detailed feedback. Roen does not, however, help the preacher move from responses to these questions about specific sermons to broader patterns of perception.

William Willimon refined a Sermon Reaction Questionnaire that preachers can administer after members of a congregation have heard a sermon to give the listeners an opportunity to evaluate the sermon and share their responses with the preacher (1995).58 The questionnaire contains twenty-seven items (each rated from strongly agree to strongly disagree) on subjects ranging from maintaining interest and inspiration to looking at notes too much to whether the sermon makes one eager to serve God. While the questionnaire provides easily quantifiable data, the listeners have little chance to provide feedback on why the sermon affected the congregant as reported.

I. Ross Bartlett likewise proposes an instrument to yield “honest sermon feedback” (1995).59 Bartlett asks hearers to rate the preacher on a scale on organization, content, style, and general effectiveness. The strengths and weaknesses of this instrument are similar to the one advocated by Willimon (above).

Craig Loscalzo advocates learning how one’s preaching is being received by informal and formal means of receiving feedback from the listeners. In the informal mode, the preacher pays attention to what people say at the door and outside the sanctuary. In the formal mode, the preacher offers structured sermon discussion groups, invites a small group of congregants to be reflectors, tapes and listens/watches sermons, or trades sermons with colleagues.60

Margaret Moers Wenig, a teacher of preaching, calls on students to seek feedback from members of the congregation.61 Rabbi Wenig based this assignment on her congregation’s custom of sitting down during the coffee hour each week and responding to the sermon. While teaching preaching, she began to invite members of the students’ congregations, in written and oral forms, to pray for the students, to indicate what they needed from their rabbi’s sermons, and to respond directly to student sermons. From these detailed responses, students could compare their goals for sermons with what their listeners actually perceived, what parts of their sermons struck chords and what parts “got stuck” in such a way that listeners could go no further, and learned points of resistance. These student preachers reflected not only on listener responses to specific sermons, but more generally on preaching.

Listening to Listeners with Respect to Preaching More Broadly than Specific Sermons

The literature of preaching contains a growing interest in hearing from listeners how they react to sermons. As in the case of listening to sermons, we find investigations that are oriented to statistical categorizing and open-ended responses.

Hans Van Der Geest conducted one of the most extensive investigations into listener preferences in preaching by interviewing more than 200 people in Switzerland about factors in preaching that help them feel engaged in the sermon (1981). The researcher organizes the findings under four headings, in each case providing a discussion of characteristics that indicate that significant communion can take place between preacher and congregation. (1) Under “the dimension of security,” Van Der Geest finds that the basic ingredient for successful communication is a sense of trust between preacher and people.62 (2) Under “the dimension of deliverance,” Van Der Geest finds that people respond positively to sermons that promise them a sense of divine care and working on their behalf in the midst of difficult circumstances.63 (3) Under “the dimension of understanding,” Van Der Geest finds that people yearn to make sense of their worlds from the perspective of the transcendent.64 (4) Under “the personality of the preacher,” the researcher finds that people pay attention to the preacher when they feel that the preacher is called, takes seriously the responsibility of the pastorate, is in touch with the preacher’s own being, is honest, operates from worthy motives, and is ethical.65 The preaching community in North America has not often turned to Van Der Geest’s work. The interviews on which the book is based are now more than twenty years old and come from people from another continent where cultural conditions differ from those in North America. The people interviewed were all participants in a Clinical Pastoral Education program in which Van Der Geest was a supervisor, and thus do not represent a cross-section of a congregation but rather persons with a particular interest in ministry and preaching.

Homer K. Beurlein, a layperson and a specialist in communication and employee relations with a telephone company, wrote a book recounting his disappointments with preaching and calling clergy to preach in ways that connect effectively with laypeople (1986).66 Beurlein gives little attention to his own experience as a listener, but does give advice to preachers in arenas such as eye contact, preaching no more than twenty minutes, using a sermon structure that allows the preacher to “tell them what I’m going to tell them, tell them, [and] tell them what I told them.” While the book provides valuable insight into what one person thinks about qualities that pro-mote congregational participation in the sermon, it documents only one person’s preferences in these regards. The team that wrote Biblical Preaching on the Death of Jesus (1989) call attention to the diversity of listeners found in both the typical congregations and in the different situations in which preaching takes place.67 These authors urge preachers to recognize that such diversity inevitably calls for different responses from different listeners to the same sermon. Furthermore, different situations may call for differing responses. This group of writers, however, stops short of recommending analytical tools to help preachers identify such differences.

As part of developing a suitable analogy between the world of the text and the world of the congregation, Stephen Farris recommends that the preacher conduct an exegesis of the situation (1998). This exegesis includes “what expectations people have with respect to the sermon.” Farris assumes that preachers can gather such information indirectly: “Over a period of several years in the same setting, the information [about this matter and several others] will begin to come to us if our eyes and ears are open.”68 The step is small from inferring congregational perspectives from general pastoral ministry to talking directly with people about their impressions of preaching.

The research department of Christianity Today, Inc. commissioned a survey of pastors and people on how each perceives preaching that resulted in 206 pastor responses and 2,233 lay responses (1999). By way of summarizing the data, “Listeners are satisfied with what they hear. Their pastors are good communicators, listeners say, but our survey indicates the people don’t always get the message the pastors intend, and on some issues, the view from the pew is very different from the pastor’s perspective.”69 On the latter point, according to this survey, pastors generally think that they are addressing people’s real-life circumstances, whereas many listeners see the preacher as a “like a hovercraft,” floating over particular issues but not interacting with them directly.70 Many pastors think that they could improve their preaching by making greater use of media technology and communication styles similar to those on television, but only 20 percent of this survey group agrees. The survey primarily used a statistical instrument and gave respondents little opportunity to develop their perspectives, The researchers do not indicate the kinds of churches surveyed, but my impression is that they were in the evangelical theological stream.

In 2000, Lori Carrell published the most detailed analysis of a large-school survey of laypersons who listen to sermons with the purpose of helping preachers and listeners understand one another’s perspectives on the sermon. Using 1,000 names of pastors selected at random from a list furnished by a para-church agency, Carrell sent a ten-question survey instrument to the pastors and invited the pastors to use the survey instrument with their congregations; 102 pastors and 497 laypersons responded. The survey questions were open-ended, thus giving the listeners the opportunity to nuance their responses.71 While some of the questions do not penetrate to the heart of preaching (for example, the amount of time a preacher spends in preparation or the preacher’s degree of nervousness during the sermon), the survey does point to matters for further reflection. Carrell finds that “preachers and listeners have different goals for what happens during the sermon time,” and that “preachers have misconceptions about what listeners want from a sermon.” Preachers want (in order of frequency of response): to change listeners, translate the meaning of the biblical text from the past to today, inspire, and transmit information whereas listeners want inspiration, life application, information, and insight.72 Although this survey and the interpretations raised point to some important questions, many significant aspects of the preaching event are not considered. Further, little consideration was given to the social or theological locations of the respondents so that the particularity of preaching in particular congregants and preachers does not come into focus.

James R. Nieman and Thomas G. Rodgers demonstrate the fruitfulness of talking directly with people in the congregation in their Preaching from Pew to Pew (2001).73 After conducting extensive interviews with people in congregations, these researchers conclude that most congregations are multi-cultural, for most congregations contain persons of different ethnicities, classes, displacements, and beliefs. The preacher can communicate more effectively by factoring these different cultural perspectives into the sermon. However, Nieman and Rodgers do not probe how the sermon is perceived in these different subcultures within a congregation.74


This survey of representative literature casts into relief a growing concern for the listener in the literature of preaching since almost the beginning of the contemporary period. Several authors turned to feed-forward groups and communication theory to help the preacher shape the sermon so it would have an optimum chance to engage the listener. Interest in communication theory has faded even as we find an increase of interest in philosophy of language, literary criticism, rhetoric, and congregational studies.

Relatively few preachers or scholars of preaching have called for disciplined and detailed investigation of how listeners perceive engaging and disengaging qualities in sermons. This lacuna invites approaches for identifying how listeners themselves perceive qualities in preaching that encourage hearers to follow sermons. Such studies would help the preacher construct an image of the congregation that includes how the congregation thinks, feels, and behaves in relationship to the sermon itself. With this knowledge in hand, the preacher would be able to engage in critical theological reflection on how to develops sermons that the congregation is likely to process in a serious way.

1 Thomas G. Long, “And How Shall They Hear? The Listener in Contemporary Preaching,” in Listening to the Word: Studies in Honor of Fred B. Craddock, ed. Gail R. O’Day and Thomas G. Long (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993), 167-188.

2 Beverly Zink-Sawyer traces how preachers have perceived listeners from the early church through Augustine, the Reformation, the Puritans, the Great Awakening, Finney, Beecher, the African American tradition, Fosdick, and in the contemporary period in her article, “The Word Purely Preached and Heard: The Listeners and the Homiletical Endeavor,” Interpretation 51 (1997): 342-357. John S. McClure analyzes how scholars of preaching interpret listeners in his Other-wise Preaching: A Postmodern Ethic for Homiletics (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2001), 47-66, 84-95, 98-117, 146-148. Sarah Jane Smith overviews the stance of the listener to the sermon in approaches to preaching in evangelical, liberal, and liberationist theological movements in her Hearing Sermons: Reader Response Theory as a Basis for a Listener-Response Homiletic (Ph.D. diss., University of Toronto, 2002), 111-168, and similarly surveys the listener in narrative and community approaches to preaching in the twentieth century (171-215).

3 The survey is representative and not exhaustive. I have not extensively reviewed Ph.D. dissertations and D.Min. projects.

4 The boundaries between these categories are imprecise. A single author’s contribution can be hard to classify. Authors sometimes make contributions to more than one category.

5 H. Grady Davis, Design for Preaching (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1958).

6 John McClure points to a movement in the 1940s and 1950s that encouraged the preacher to prepare the sermon to speak to the needs of the congregation. These voices recommended that the preacher identify the needs in the community by listening for them while carrying out everyday pastoral responsibilities, especially pastoral counseling, rather than by talking directly with people in the congregation about their needs or about the sermon. For bibliography, see John S. McClure, The Roundtable Pulpit: Where Leadership and Preaching Meet (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 114 nn. 18-24; and idem, Other-wise Preaching, 49-51 (see especially nn. 6-12). Compare Edmund Holt Linn’s interpretation of the preaching of Harry Emerson Fosdick, Preaching as Counseling: The Unique Method of Harry Emerson Fosdick (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1966).

7 A number of authors suggest that preachers reflect on what they hear informally from the congregation and incorporate such insights into the sermon (securing permission and honoring confidence as necessary). see, for example, James L. Killen, Jr., “Preaching in Dialogue,” Preaching 5, no. 1 (1989): 29-30.

8 Dietrich Ritschl, A Theology of Proclamation (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1960), 123-124.

9 Ibid.

10 In the last twenty years, many clergy colleague groups have developed for exegesis of biblical texts and other matters of sermon preparation. While such groups are helpful, they do not always surface insights that are pertinent to the particular congregation in which a preacher will body forth a sermon. Further, while such groups do often contribute to preaching, one of their primary purposes (though often unstated) is to provide support and community for pastors who often feel isolated.

11 Ritschi, 153-157.

12 Browne Barr, Parish Back Talk (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1964), 76-82. See also Browne Barr and Mary Eakin, The Ministering Congregation (Philadelphia: United Church Press, 1972), 75-82.

13 Reuel L. Howe, Partners in Preaching: Clergy and Laity in Dialogue (New York: Seabury Press, 1967). On dialogue more generally, see idem, The Miracle of Dialogue (New York: Seabury Press, 1963), 32-35, 42-44, 143-46. For earlier attempts to think of the sermon as dialogue, see H. H. Farmer, The Servant of the Word (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1964); and Gerald H. Kennedy, His Word through Preaching (New York: Harper Brothers, 1947).

14 Jerry Carter, “Always on Monday: Pastor and Parishioners Prepare for Preaching and Worship,” Alban Institute Action Information 9, no. 4 (1983): 1-5.

15 McClure’s work is further discussed in connection with rhetoric (see note below).

16 John S. McClure, The Roundtable Pulpit: Where Leadership and Preaching Meet (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 59-72.

17 Les Hughes, “The Benefits of a Study Group for Sermon Preparation,” Preaching 13, no. 6 (1998): 12-15.

18 Dow Edgerton, “Preaching Together,” The Chicago Theological Seminary Register 87 (1997): 1-9; and Nancy Taylor, “The Work of the People: From Silence to Faithful Proclamation,” The Chicago Theological Seminary Register 87 (1997): 10-42.

19 Douglas Gwyn, “A School of the Prophets: Teaching Congregational Members to Preach,” in Preaching in the Context of Worship, ed. David M. Greenhaw and Ronald J. Alien (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2000), 99-108.

20 Clyde Reid, The Empty Pulpit (New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1967). See also idem, “Preaching and the Nature of Communication,” Pastoral Psychology 14 (1963): 40-49; and idem, “Toward a Theology of Communication,” Religious Education 69 (1974): 355-364. Pierre Berton charged preaching with being “spiritless, irrelevant, dull, and badly delivered,” but relies mainly on his own polemical observations and directly cites very few lay people to that effect in The Comfortable Pew (New York: J. P. Lippincott Co., 1965), 96-97. Although many critics in the 1960s and 1970s made charges similar to Berton’s, to my knowledge no major figures in the theory or practice of preaching asked the listeners themselves, “What would you consider to be a sermon with spirit, relevance, interest, and energy?”

21 For reviews of theories of speech communication, see Em Griffin, A First Look at Communication Theory, 4th ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2000); and Stephen W. Littlejohn, Theories of Human Communication, 7th ed. (Florence, KY: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 2001).

22 J. Daniel Baumann, An Introduction to Contemporary Preaching (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1988), 54-57, 246. A popular book in some circles that utilized communication theory, though not focused particularly upon preaching, is Charles Kraft, Communication Theory for Christian Witness (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1991).

23 Clement Welsh, Preaching in a New Key (Philadelphia: United Church Press, 1974). Welsh was influenced by models of communication that arose from the sociology of knowledge movement, as were others (such as J. Randall Nichols; see note below).

24 J. Randall Nichols, Building the Word: The Dynamics of Communication in Preaching (New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1980), 98. In a later work, Nichols explores the relationship between psychotherapy and preaching, though, again, without suggesting that pastors speak directly with congregants about these matters; see The Restoring Word: Preaching as Pastoral Communication (New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1987).

25 Ibid., 140-143.

26 David James Randolph, The Renewal of Preaching (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1969), 51, 52. See also the reissue of this volume with a new introduction by Robert Stephen Reid and excerpts on this book from David Buttrick, Paul Scott Wilson, and Lucy Rose: The Renewal of Preaching in the Twenty-First Century (New York: Hanging Gardens Press, 1998).

27 Ibid., 105-128.

28 Fred B. Craddock, As One without Authority, rev. ed. (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2001).

29 At this early stage of his contributions to the discipline and practice of preaching, Craddock clearly thinks that inductive patterns of preaching are superior to deductive ones. However, in later work, Craddock acknowledges that deductive approaches to the sermon can serve the gospel too, as in his Preaching (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1985), 176-182.

30 Fred B. Craddock, Overhearing the Gospel: Preaching and Teaching the Faith to Persons Who Have Already Heard (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2002), 23-40, 101-118.

31 Craddock, Preaching, 183.

32 Fred B. Craddock, “Is There Still Room for Rhetoric?,” in Preaching on the Brink: The Future ofHomiletics, ed. Martha J. Simmons (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), 66-74.

33 Lucy Atkinson Rose, Sharing the Word: Preaching in the Roundtable Church (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997). While Rose was not the first to conceive of preaching as conversation, she is the first to devote a monograph to it. For bibliography, see Bernard Lee, “Shared Homily: Conversation that Puts Communities at Risk,” in Alternative Futures for Worship: The Eucharist, ed. Bernard Lee (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1987), 157-171; Lucy Lind Hogan, “Homiletos: The Never-Ending Conversation,” Homiletic 21, no. 1 (1996): 1-10; John S. McClure, “Conversation and Proclamation: Resources and Issues,” Homiletic 22, no. 1 (1997): 1-13; David J. Schlafer and Roger Ailing, eds., Preaching as the Art of Sacred Conversation (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 1997); and Ronald J. Alien, Interpreting the Gospel: An Introduction to Preaching (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 1998), 299 n. 2.

34 This movement in preaching is paralleled and preceded by a similar turn towards rhetoric in the broader theological discourse. The latter movement is represented (in chronological order) by: David S. Tracy, Plurality and Ambiguity: Hermeneutics, Religion, and Hope (New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1987); Rebecca Chopp, “Theological Persuasion: Rhetoric, Warrants, and Suffering,” in Worldview and Warrants: Plurality and Authority in Theology, ed. William Schweiker and Per M. Anderson (Lanham: University Press of America, 1989), 17-31; David S. Cunningham, Faithful Persuasion: In Aid of a Rhetoric of Christian Theology (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1990); Wayne Booth, “Rhetoric and Religion: Are They Essentially Wedded?,” in Radical Pluralism and Truth: David Tracy and the Hermeneutics of Religion, ed. Werner G. Jeanrond and Jennifer L. Rike (New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 1991); Stephen Webb, Re-figuring Theology: The Rhetoric of Karl Earth (New York: State University of New York Press, 1991); Rebecca Chopp, The Power to Speak: Feminism, Language, God (New York: Crossroad Publishing Co., 1992); Serene Jones, Calvin and the Rhetoric of Piety (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995); Dirk J. Smith, “Theology as Rhetoric, or Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” in Rhetoric, Scripture and Theology: Essays from the 1994 Pretoria Conference, ed. Stanley E. Porter and Thomas H. Olbricht (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1996), 393-422. For broader historical perspectives, see George A. Kennedy, Classical Rhetoric and Its Christian and secular Tradition from Ancient to Modern Times (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1980); Bradford E. Hinze, “Reclaiming Rhetoric in the Christian Tradition,” Theological Studies 57 (1996): 481-499; and Rebecca Chopp, “A Rhetorical Paradigm for Pedagogy,” in Teaching the Bible: The Discourses and Politics of Biblical Pedagogy, ed. Fernando F. Segovia and Mary Ann Tolbert (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1998), 299-309. This review is not the place to cany out an adequate exploration of the relationship between preaching and theology in the rediscovery of rhetoric. I have the sense that, as Hans Conzelmann is reported to have said of the emergence of redaction criticism after World War II, the reunion of theology, preaching, and rhetoric was simply “in the air” in the late 1970s and 1980s. For a radical rejection of the possible contributions of rhetoric to theological reflection, see David Jasper, Rhetoric, Power, and Community (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993).

35 The classical statement of the concerns of rhetoric, and the starting point of virtually all discussion of rhetoric, is Aristotle, The “Art” of Rhetoric, trans. John Henry Freese, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1932). 1:2.4-6 (pp. 17-18).

36 For an account of the relationship between rhetoric and preaching, see Craig A. Loscalzo, “Rhetoric,” in Concise Encyclopedia of Preaching, ed. William H. Willimon and Richard Lischer (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995), 409-416.

37 O. C. Edwards, Jr., “What Modern Rhetoric Has to Offer Preaching,” Homiletic 11, no. 2 (1986): 1-4. The dissertation is Fred A. Baumer, “Toward the Development of Homiletic as Rhetorical Genre: A Critical Study of Roman Catholic Preaching in the United States since Vatican Council II” (Ph.D. diss., Northwestern University, 1985). See also Mary E. Lyons, “Homiletics and Rhetoric: Recognizing an Ancient Alliance,” Homiletic 12, no. 1 (1987): 1-4.

38 Lester De Koster, “The Preacher as Rhetorician,” in The Preacher and Preaching: Reviving the Art in the Twentieth Century, ed. Samuel T. Logan, Jr. (Phillipsburg, NY: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1986), 303-330.

39 David Buttrick, Homiletic: Moves and Structures (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1987).

40 Perry Biddle, “A Phenomenological Approach to Preaching,” Sharing the Practice 7, no. 4 (1984): 40-46.

41 Different approaches to mental operation are reviewed in Joseph R. Jeter, Jr. and Ronald J. Alien, One Gospel, Many Ears: Preaching and Different Listeners in the Congregation (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2002), 49-77.

42 Raymond Bailey, “Proclamation as a Rhetorical Act,” Review and Expositor 84 (1987): 7-22.

43 John S. McClure, The Four Codes of Preaching: Rhetorical Strategies (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991).

44 In the broad sense, the scriptural, semantic, and theo-symbolic codes are a part of culture. They are separated in this system for heuristic purposes to help the pastor highlight aspects of culture that are especially important to preaching.

45 McClure, Other-Wise Preaching, 122.

46 Craig A. Loscalzo, Preaching Sermons that Connect: Effective Communication through Identification (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1992); and idem, Preaching Evangelistic Sermons that Connect: Guidance in Fresh and Appealing Sermons (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1995).

47 See below.

48 Robin R. Meyers, With Ears to Hear: Preaching as Self-Persuasion (Pilgrim Press, 1996), 32. Meyers suggests that preachers can help energize listeners through “Pygmalion rhetoric” of speaking to the congregation as if they are engaged (128-132). Preachers debate whether “persuasion” is an acceptable way to think of preaching. See Lucy Lind Hogan, “Rethinking Persuasion: Developing an Incarnational Theology of Preaching,” Homiletic 24, no. 2 (1999): 1-2; and Richard Lischer’s response, “Why I Am Not Persuasive,” in the same issue (13-16).

49 Paul Scott Wilson, The Practice of Preaching (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), esp. 63-81. In all of his works, Wilson presses the preacher to become sensitive to the local context of the sermon.

50 Lucy Lind Hogan and Robert Reid, Connecting with the Congregation: Rhetoric and the Art of Preaching (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1999). Increasing numbers of voices join the concern to bring rhetoric into dialogue with preaching; see, for example, Judith M. McDaniel, “Rhetoric Reconsidered: Preaching as Persuasion,” Sewanee Theological Review 41 (1998): 241-252.

51 Ibid., 87.

52 See, for example, Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1973), 3-31.

53 Don M. Wardlaw, “Preaching as the Interface of Two Social Worlds,” in Preaching as a Social Act: Theology and Practice, ed. Arthur Van Seters (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1988), 55-94. This ground-breaking book deals with multiple dynamics in the social worlds of preaching.

54 Leonora Tubbs Tisdale, Preaching as Local Theology and Folk Art, Fortress Resources for Preaching (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997). 55On congregational studies, see Allison Stokes and David Roozen, “The Unfolding Story of Congregational Studies,” in Carriers of Faith: Lessons from Congregational Studies, ed. Carl S. Dudley, Jackson W. Carroll, and James Wind (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1991), 183-192. The foundational work is James P. Hopewell, Congregation: Stories and Structures (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1987). For a fine guide in methodology, see Nancy T. Ammerman, Jackson W. Carroll, Carl S. Dudley, William P. McKinney, and Nancy Tatum Ammerman, Studying Congregations: A New Handbook (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998). See also the lyrical Thomas Edward Frank, The Soul of the Congregation: An Invitation to Congregational Reflection (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000).

56 Some works are closely related to this category and yet do not quite fit within it as they offer listeners instructions on how to listen to sermons. See David J. Schlafer, Surviving the Sermon: A Guide to Preaching for Those Who Have to Listen (Cambridge: Cowley Publications, 1992); Roger E. Van Harn, Pew Rights: For People Who Listen to Sermons (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1992); John Koessler offers advice to preachers from the perspective of having been a pastor who preached weekly to becoming a professor who now listeners regularly as a member of a congregation in his “A View from the Pew: Lessons about Preaching from the Other Side of the Pulpit,” Preaching 12, no.1 (1996): 20-22; LyIe Vander Broek, after reflecting on the experience of listening to a sermon, offers a theology of listening and practical guidance for congregants in his “The Art of Listening,” Perspectives 14, no. 3 (March 1999): 6-9.

57 William H. Roen, The Inward Ear: A Sermon Evaluation Method for Preachers and Hearers of the Word (Bethesda: Alban Institute, 1989), 70. Roen suggests using this evaluative exercise of a preceding sermon in conjunction with a Bible study in preparation for a coming sermon.

58 William H. Willimon, “Lay Response to Preaching,” in Concise Encyclopedia of Preaching, ed. William H. Willimon and Richard Lischer (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995), 302-304. Boyd Stokes developed the original questions by asking many laypeople their criteria for a good sermon and framing questions accordingly.

59 I. Ross Bartlett, “Getting Honest Sermon Feedback,” The Christian Ministry 26, no. 4 (1995): 25-27.

60 Craig A. Loscalzo, “Feedback,” in Best Advice for Preaching, ed. John S. McClure (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998), 135-150.

61 Margaret Moers Wenig, “Bringing Congregants into the Classroom: Learning from the Listeners,” Papers of the Annual Meeting of the Academy ofHomiletics (Academy of Homiletics, 2001), 138-152.

62 Hans Van Der Geest, Presence in the Pulpit: The Impact of Personality in Preaching, trans. Douglass W. Stott (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1981), 31-68.

63 Ibid., 69-112.

64 Ibid., 113-142.

65 Van Der Geest, 123-163.

66 Homer K. Beurlein, How to Preach More Powerful Sermons (Louisville: Westminster Press, 1986).

67 William A. Beardslee, John B. Cobb, Jr., David J. Lull, Russell Pregeant, Theodore J. Weeden, Sr., and Barry A. Woodbridge, Biblical Preaching on the Death of Jesus (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1989), 64-72.

68 Stephen Farris, Preaching that Matters: The Bible and Our Lives (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998), 32; cf. 31-32, 36-38.

69 Eric Reed, “The Preaching Report Card: Today’s Listeners Grade Pastors on What They Hear from the Pulpit,” Leadership 20 (Summer 1999): 82.

70 Ibid., 84.

71 Lori Carrell, The Great American Sermon Survey (Wheaton, IL: Mainstay Church Resources, 2000). The questions are: (1) How much time do you think it takes a preacher to prepare a sermon? (2) How long should the sermon last? Why? (3) Do you think most preachers feel nervous before preaching? (4) What is your inner reaction to most sermons you hear? (5) Why do you listen to sermons? (6) Do you regularly talk to your preacher about his/her sermons? Yes or No? Why or Why not? (7) Describe something you gained (or learned) from a specific sermon. (8) How are you and your preacher alike? How are you different? (9) Please rank in order the following components of the church service based on “impacts my spiritual life the most” [1] to “impacts my spiritual life the least” [8]: group singing, special music performed by others, prayer, dramatic presentation skits, communion, sermon, testimony/personal sharing, liturgy. (10) If you could get one message across to all preachers in the United States, what would it be?

72 Ibid., 150-154

73 James R. Nieman and Thomas G. Rodgers, Preaching from Pew to Pew: Cross-Cultural Strategies (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001).

74 Joseph R. Jeter, Jr., and Ronald J. Alien’s One Gospel, Many Ears illustrates other disciplines that seek to help the preacher understand the listening ethos and shape sermons accordingly. They discuss six kinds of diversity present in many congregations (age, patterns of mental operation, gender and sexual orientation, culture, relationships to the congregation, and theological viewpoints) and propose strategies whereby preachers can frame sermons with such pluralism in view. Jeter and Alien, however, did not speak to or interview listeners in particular congregations in regard to specific sermons preached, but relied on bodies of scholarly literature or their own observations in reaching their conclusions. Sarah Jane Smith draws on principles of reader-response theory to form a listener-response based homiletic. In Hearing Sermons: Reader-Response Theory as a Basis for a Listener-Response Homiletic, Sarah Jane Smith converts five principles of reader-response theory into a listener-response approach to preaching that generates five tools for sermon construction. (1) The idea of the church as interpretive community yields a homiletic of employing different points of view from different interpretive communities. (2) The principle that interpretation in preaching is a function of one’s personal identity prompts a homiletic of selecting polyvalent sermon material. (3) The observation that listeners make meaning by interacting with the sermon urges the preacher to anticipate listeners’ potential reactions. (4) The possibility of homiletical listening making possible new understandings calls for preachers to pair familiar feelings and thoughts with theological insights that offer fresh twists of meaning. (5) The fact that listening to sermons effect transformation invites preachers to provide listeners with examples of a transformed life (216-265). Like Jeter and Alien, however, Smith’s work draws more on theory than on interaction with actual listeners.

Ronald J. Allen

Nettie Sweeney and Hugh Th. Miller

Professor of Preaching and New Testament

Christian Theological Seminary

Copyright Christian Theological Seminary Spring 2003

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