Even gifted preachers ought to seek feedback from the folks in the pews, in places both physical and virtual
May 28, 2022
Wanting to impress on the preachers in his Zoom audience the importance of garnering helpful listener feedback following their sermons, the Rev. Dr. Chip Hardwick recently offered up the words of a very popular preacher from back in the day: Jesus himself.
In John 16:17–18, the disciples ask one another what Jesus’ words mean following a talk they found baffling. “We do not know what he is talking about,” they tell one another. Verse 19 is Jesus’ reply: “Jesus knew that they wanted to ask him, so he said to them, ‘Are you discussing among yourselves what I meant when I said, “A little while, and you will no longer see me, and again a little while, and you will see me”?’”
“He was and is the Word of God, and even Jesus needed listener feedback,” Hardwick said. “If it matters to Jesus, it should matter to us.”
Hardwick is the interim executive of the Synod of the Covenant, which is offering the monthly “Equipping Preachers” webinar to preachers both inside and outside the bounds of the synod. Watch Hardwick’s webinar here.
Many preachers are delivering their sermons online, or, at best, to masked hearers seated a safe distance away in the sanctuary. “We can’t tell if they’re smiling or frowning,” Hardwick said. “It’s hard to get feedback, but it’s more important now than ever.”
Hardwick’s doctoral dissertation is on collecting sermon feedback that’s helpful, but he’s also received some feedback that wasn’t. A woman once told him she felt she was “held hostage” by Hardwick’s sermon. Someone else told him, “I’ve needed to hear that sermon for 70 years.”
Owing to something called the Theory of Double Agency, those who hear the sermon have a larger role in finding meaning therein than they might realize. “What is God doing and what are we [preachers] doing?” Hardwick asked those attending the webinar. “There are two agents at work, and we’re not doing the same thing.”
The Second Helvetic Confession reminds us that the preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God. Making it God’s work is the work of the Almighty and not the preacher. “You can’t preach a bad enough or a good enough sermon to make it God’s Word. God is the one who does that,” according to Hardwick.
God and the preacher “are doing distinct tasks during the preaching event. We don’t go into a trance. We figure out what the text says and how it connects to listeners. The Holy Spirit is doing things in you and through you to inspire you,” Hardwick told the gathered preachers. “You can’t say God is doing the exegesis for you.”
In the end, God and the preacher are doing distinct tasks during the preaching event — at the same time.
Also at the same time, similar work is going on within the listener.
“If the listener is to really hear God’s Word, it’s God’s work, not the listener’s,” Hardwick said. Even a listener who uses the sermon time to jot down a shopping list “cannot keep God from speaking.”
Both God and the listener “are doing distinct tasks during the preaching event at the same time,” Hardwick said. “The moral is that God is at work in both the preacher and the listener — and our work matters.”
Hardwick touched on two models for how the process works — the Sovereign Model and the Roundtable Model — before arriving at his preferred model, the Servant Model. God is at the head in this model, with the listener and preacher “in fellow service to the Word as they participate in their respective roles in the preaching moment. God is at work in both,” Hardwick said. “We think of preaching as being up to the preacher, but the listener can do an important job, too.”
God wants preachers to use their rhetoric to connect with listeners, but it’s the listeners who determine if that rhetoric connects with them. The seniors in the congregation “get to decide if I’m preaching too quickly,” Hardwick said.
Preachers are wise to being open to feedback, “since God is at work in listeners, too,” Hardwick reminded.
Mike Ferguson, Editor, Presbyterian News Service
Today’s Focus: Listener feedback
Let us join in prayer for:
PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Katie Snyder, Curriculum Specialist & POINT Coordinator, Curriculum Resources & Geneva Press, Presbyterian Publishing Corporation
Samuel Son, Manager, Diversity & Reconciliation Associate, Advocacy, Presbyterian Mission Agency
Let us pray
Christ, we thank you for being the Word made flesh. As you ministered to those around you through touch, sight and sound, teach us to make use of our whole selves — body, mind and spirit — to do your work. Give us the courage to take action and the grace to welcome all with a loving spirit. Amen.