Never assume interest. I recently saw a street entertainer at Covent Garden. Initially I wasn’t that interested – I just wanted somewhere to sit and rest for a few minutes. As this guy started his show I was fascinated by how hard he was having to work to gain an audience. Many just pass by, some stop for a while, others keep their distance. Maybe they’re worried they’ll be coerced into parting with money; maybe they fear some sort of forced involvement in his performance. His sweat and hard work paid off (literally). What started with a dozen finished with over a hundred. And as a cautious, somewhat nervous observer it struck me that when we preachers get up to speak we should never simply assume interest. We should always be thinking about how we can engage folk well to gain their ear. While we should never assume interest, there are a number of things preachers can safely assume:
- Some are there against their will. Maybe it’s the 15 year old who has been forced to come to church with her parents. Maybe it’s the friend who accepts an invitation to church out of a partial interest and unwillingness to offend. They are there in body, but not necessarily in spirit.
- Some people aren’t buying it. It’s possible (hopefully probable) that some in the congregation aren’t Christians (yet). As you get up to speak they are erecting their mental defences. To use a cricketing analogy (sorry!), they see your gentle off-spin and are striding down to ‘pad-up’ outside the off-stump. They aren’t persuaded of the truth of anything you have to say, and they may well strongly disagree. They can’t wait to find you afterwards to persuade you of your intellectual buffoonery.
- Some people are in a bad way. They may be grieving a loss, or suffering with some aspect of their health. There may be a secret struggle sapping their soul. Just being there is a struggle, and their hearts aren’t quite ready to listen.
- Some people are having a bad day. Having three kids myself I know there are some days when we walk into church, smiling broadly, having just had a blazing row as we’ve walked across the park. I’m still seething as the preacher gets up, and frankly I’m not interested in why this passage is the most amazing, world-transforming, joy inducing, thing in the world ever. Wrong, I know. But sadly the reality I suspect for more than one or two each week.
- Some people struggle to track. It’s great you’ve been to college and have a PhD and prepped with fat commentaries and a Hebrew Bible. It’s great you know what all those big words means. It’s great that your brain (having spent all week on this) can move swiftly from one idea to the next. But for a good chunk of our congregation they don’t know everything you know. For some their struggle to read or write means they can be swiftly alienated by your speed, depth, abstract ideas, or meaty PowerPoint. It’s not that they don’t want to learn – they just can’t move as fast as you.
- Some people are cross with you. Hard to believe I know, but sometimes we upset others, and for those people its difficult for them to get on board quickly with us. This is one we can’t necessarily do that much about, especially if we don’t know we’ve upset them, but our tone can significantly help or hinder.
All of this makes us stop and think about how we communicate doesn’t it? All of us probably need to work much harder at engaging our listeners. For all sorts of reasons, as we get up to speak, a gap exists between the speaker and the hearer. We need to be those that work much harder at gaining their ear.