When some feel alienated (III): Listening to sermons  

Posted by Denis Haack in , , , , , ,

One theme that has continuously resurfaced in my conversations with people who feel alienated from the church is sermons that don’t connect with life. This is not the only group of people who experience this, of course, but those who feel alienated seem to experience it regularly. The lack of connection is a deep disappointment that seems to place the faith outside the circle of the reality in which you live and move and have your being. You came for encouragement, healing, and a way to help make sense of things but hear something that seems never to acknowledge the questions, challenges, and choices that fill your days.

A serious problem—OK, I am under no illusion that I have the solution to this dilemma, but I have three modest suggestions.

Tim Keller, one of today’s most gifted preachers, says sermons reflect how preachers spend their time and energy. Some spend it in the world of theological scholarship (their sermons affirm their listeners that they believe correctly), others spend it in the sub-culture of evangelical Christianity (their sermons seek to deepen devotional life, family solidarity, and morality and warn of dangers), while some spend it in the rough and tumble of our pluralistic culture (their sermons bring the text into tension with the world we all live in). Though a gross simplification, you can imagine the first group alone with thick dusty books, the second in their car visiting folk with the radio tuned to a religious station, and the third reading the New York Times and hanging in a coffee shop. So, suggestion number one: pray earnestly, regularly, for those who bear the office of pastor/teacher in your life.

My second modest suggestion: be grateful to live at a time in history when technology allows us access to preaching that a few years ago would have been out of reach. We can download and listen to sermons and lectures that meet the need we have, and we should do so. This is not, however, a replacement for church for it leaves out the graces found only there: the sacraments, Christ’s spiritual presence, the communion of saints, and the unity of the body. And since attending church brings us back to sermons that fail to connect to life, I have one more suggestion.

My third suggestion is to listen more deeply. As you sit in the pew, before you are a text of Scripture and a sermon. The same Spirit that inspired the text is at work in the church today, but the text is primary—the sermon seeks to explain the text but never exhausts it. I do not mean to dismiss the sermon in saying this, but to properly honor the text.

So, as you listen to the sermon listen more deeply to the text. This listening more deeply is actually a spiritual discipline—it’s called meditation. Such meditation—deeper listening—is evident in the illuminations Makoto Fujimura so loving developed for The Holy Gospels. It’s an ancient skill worth nurturing. Three questions might help you to begin: What will you take away from the text as something God says that you need to remember? What questions or responses would your non-Christian friends have to the text? What single sentence can you compose that captures a key element of the text that, if said to a non-Christian, might intrigue them about your faith?

You can even take this one step farther. Meet with a few like-minded friends for lunch and listen deeply together. Talk about the text and the sermon in light of the three questions I have listed. Process together. Share each other’s creativity. And don’t be discouraged if you find this process difficult at first—meditation is actually a skill to be learned and mastered. That is why it is called a discipline. My third question—composing a single intriguing sentence—might prove to be the most difficult. We tend to be used to speaking in a dialect that has been birthed in the church sub-culture and that actually sounds strange to outsiders. It’s a dialect designed to repeat what we know in the terms we were taught to affirm we are correct. It isn’t designed to find some creative twist or surprise in the text, though that is exactly what the Scriptures are full of. You will probably add questions of your own as you develop skill in meditation. The details aren’t as important as the spiritual discipline itself: learning to listen more deeply to the text as you listen to a sermon.

And let me know what you think of my three suggestions.

This entry was posted at Monday, September 26, 2011 and is filed under , , , , , , . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .


I think the suggestions are great. Even if I'm not currently in a church...there's always hope.

October 13, 2011 at 10:32 AM

Appreciate your feedback.

Speaking of comments, a running joke here at Toad Hall is my utter failure at anticipating which blog posts will receive comments. I probably should just post and not think about it, but the temptation to guess is too great.

October 13, 2011 at 10:49 AM

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