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The Preacher and His Hearers

By Jess Hall Jr.

religion, articles, christianity

Mary awakened early Sunday morning. The Lord's Day had been a day of happy memories for her. For over 40 years she and John had sat at Sunday breakfast, sometimes talking, sometimes silently, but always together, and then had gone to worship. Now it was different. John was buried last Wednesday. This morning she would open her own car door, but worse than that - it would be on the driver's side. It would be John's place in which she sat. She slowly dressed for worship, as if somehow she could postpone the inevitable. Truth was, she didn't want to go. She didn't want to sit alone. She didn't want to miss John's bass voice, even if it hadn't always hit the right notes. She didn't want to miss the gentle squeeze of his hand during prayer. As she drove into the parking lot she wondered, "Will God have a word for me today?"

It was Monday morning. The preacher slept late. Sunday had been exhausting. He had taught Sunday school, preached two sermons, and, after evening service, had attended a visitation fellowship at the Jones'. It had not gone well. John had had a heart attack. "He must have been dead before he hit the floor," the medics said in their best clinical fashion. The funeral was to be Wednesday. "It will be an 'easy' funeral," the preacher thought, "John was a model husband, father, and Christian, but it will create havoc with my schedule. When will I ever prepare for Sunday?" Wednesday came and went. The funeral was over. Somehow the preacher managed to get through Wednesday night. "Better start thinking about Sunday," he thought as he drifted off to sleep.

It was Thursday morning. The preacher sat alone in his study seeking inspiration by staring blankly at the wall as if waiting for Belshazzar's hand to appear and emblazon a sermon outline on it. When nothing appeared, he reached for his sermon outline book and began thumbing through it. His eye caught a catchy title, "The Bleating of the Sheep." It was a lesson on obedience. His mind turned to attendance, giving, prayer, visitation. "Members always need that," he mumbled. As he reached for a commentary to get a little filler, he heaped fiery indignation on outline books that provide only the barest of points. He really had wanted more than a recipe - he wanted a bakery cake.

It was Sunday morning. The Lord's Supper had been observed; the songs had been sung; the prayers had been prayed; the plate had been passed. The preacher stepped into the pulpit with his borrowed outline on attendance, giving, prayer, and visitation tucked securely between the pages of his Bible. And there sat Mary; faithful Mary, who had not missed worship in 25 years; praying Mary, who had spent more time in prayer the past week than the preacher had spent in sermon preparation; generous Mary, who would have had more to live on in her widowhood had she and John not given so sacrificially; working Mary, whose husband had died while they were hosting a visitation fellowship; brokenhearted Mary, who so badly needed and deserved a word from God. And Mary was not alone. Jane and Jim had marital problems. Bill and Betty's teenager was flirting with drugs. Douglas' job had been downsized; he and Dorothy worried about losing their car, home, and self-respect. The preacher faced hurting people needing help who were crying, "Is there any word from God? Is there Balm in Gilead?"

The preacher stood in the pulpit. All eyes turned in anticipation. The preacher read Samuel's challenge to Saul with the warmth of a bowl of cold Cream of Wheat (really bearing down on "to obey is better than sacrifice"), looked up for the first time, and said, "Point one, attend more." A captive audience, his hearers did not leave; a polite audience, they appeared to listen; an humble audience, they thought maybe they were responsible for not connecting with the preacher; a human audience, their hurting hearts sighed in disappointment and the remote controls in their minds began to click. Though the preacher's lips continued to move, some had switched channels. Others simply put him on mute. Mary sought solace in her own thoughts; Jane and Jim grew farther apart; Bill and Betty worried about the next midnight call from the police; Douglas and Dorothy wondered where God was in their crisis.

What was wrong? The preacher had missed the bleating and bleeding of his own flock. He had no waters still for their thirst, no pastures green for their hunger, no ointment for their heads. He was more interested in his agenda, his concerns, his understanding, his insights and his exegesis. He was more interested in teaching a subject than in teaching people. But isn't it the subject that is important? Shouldn't the exegesis of the Scripture be sufficient? Why should the preacher have to entertain? Good questions for one more interested in his subject than in his people. Poor questions for one who realizes that mending souls is not entertainment.

A wise husband not only tells his wife, "I love you" (addressed to her head), he takes her in his arms and hugs her (addressed to her heart). Without the hugs the message is lifeless. A wise preacher speaks not only to his hearers' heads, but by using language addressed to their hearts, he also gives them hugs. Without it, his message is lifeless. The hearers, not knowing what the problem is, may voice the common complaint, "He doesn't use enough illustrations." But the problem goes much more deeply than that.

Take heart. There is a cure.

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Published March 1996