The Manner of Preaching to Today’s “Whatever” Listeners
Note: Part 1 in this series surveyed the mindset of today’s listeners as well as the pitfalls to avoid when communicating to them. Part 2 addresses the specific means by which to engage this mindset and to avoid the aforementioned dangers.
Although the preacher is not at liberty to compromise or change the timeless truth of God’s Word, the manner by which he communicates that truth is not under such rigidity. The what of our message is ultimately more important than the how, but the how is not rendered unimportant. It is so important that we do a great disservice to our students when we do not evaluate a sermon’s delivery just as strenuously as we evaluate a sermon’s content. Delivery and manner is not neutral. The message of a sermon is either helped or hindered by delivery. There are great sermons that today’s listeners will never hear because there was no effort to communicate the truth appropriately. Reference to delivery and/or presentation is not referring only to voice inflection, facial expression, and bodily movement during the preaching event. In addition to one’s speaking manner, I am referring to the logic of the sermon outline and the choice of discussion elements. Effective communication of God’s Word to today’s “whatever” listeners requires that preachers give attention to a sermon’s presentation as well as to the exegesis of the passage under consideration. During sermon preparation, we should be asking, “Is the message of Christ being heard, not just preached?”
The aforementioned mindset of today’s “whatever” listener reveals several characteristics that should mark sermon presentation.
Our sermons should reflect an expository philosophy.
If a preacher is going to preach with any kind of authority in a culture that rejects authority, it must be an authority from Someone higher than himself. Preachers must learn to trust in the authority of God to speak through the Scriptures. Today’s listeners will not tolerate the musings of a man who seems to be enamored with his own powers of reasoning. Our listeners do not want to have an encounter with a preacher but with the God of the Scriptures. An expository philosophy allows this to happen. Regardless of our sermonic style (topical, narrative, textual), we are committed to relate every statement and conclusion to the text of Scripture.
Our sermons should reflect inductive reasoning.
The suggestion of an inductive sermon does not imply the eradication of deductive sermons. Deductive sermons have been the standard fare in homiletical training, and for good reason. Deductive sermons can be evaluated easily as to the logical connection between the main points and the proposition. Most importantly, deductive sermons aid clarity. Although fledgling homiletics students manage to accomplish the task, it is difficult for an audience to miss one’s logical conclusion when he leads into the body of the sermon with it. The deductive sermon’s strength, however, is also its weakness. In essence, the deductive sermon is saying, “Here’s the conclusion, and during my sermon it will be proven true.” The very act of beginning with a conclusion can cause instant alienation in our culture today. In the mind of today’s listeners, you might as well have said, “Here’s my conclusion, and during my sermon I’ll prove that I’m right.” Rather than helping our audience to see how Scripture unfolds biblical truth, we have sidetracked our audience with an absolute statement with which they either agree or not. Often this alienation prohibits the listener from hearing reasons presented later. At the same time, we must be committed to presenting Scripture as accurately as possible. If the logic of Christ’s teaching in a particular gospel is deductive, then one should preach a deductive message. The fact remains, however, that much of biblical revelation is not presented in deductive logic thus allowing for variation.
Inductive messages help establish authority. In inductive messages, the preacher raises questions to be investigated in the text. In essence, the audience is invited to investigate the text along with the preacher. This heightens expository philosophy because the preacher is not only relating biblical conclusions to the text but also leading his listeners to do so as well. Rather than creating a confrontation between the listener and the preacher’s stated conclusions, inductive messages create a confrontation between the listener and the discovered conclusions of the text.
Inductive messages help establish relevancy. The preacher is able to raise pertinent questions or recite relevant scenarios that engage the listener. As the text unfolds, the principles within come to bear on those issues that spurred the listeners to follow the preacher into the text. Many preachers do not maintain the attention of the listener because they fail to tell the people why they should listen. Sometimes questions or issues are raised in a sermon, but preachers fail to understand how the listeners think or what they face. In turn, they raise questions nobody in the congregation is asking. Such lack of relevancy causes our listeners to mentally “channel surf.” Biblical relevancy, however, should not be confused with preaching to felt needs. Felt needs do not control a biblical message, but the message of the text will address real needs of the listeners. If a preacher acknowledges the lives of the listeners at the beginning of a sermon and faithfully connects the truth of Scripture to those lives, he will never be accused of irrelevancy.
Inductive sermons help narratives to be preached as narratives. To preach a narrative deductively results in an artificial, anticlimactic sermon. If a student were to present a story in a story-telling class by beginning with the moral of the story, revealing the ending, removing all suspense, and picking out phrases and words without actually developing the plot line, the student would receive a failing grade. This practice, however, has been excused in the preaching of narrative text. Stories create great interest for the listener because they tend to live out the story vicariously through the characters. For this reason, we should tap into the full potential of narratives by simply telling the story that is there, rather than forcing a passage in 1 Kings to look like some tightly reasoned doctrinal treatise of Paul. Introduce the setting and the characters. Introduce the problem and its escalation. Tell with great anticipation the crisis and resolution of the story. End with the spiritual lessons found in the following actions. As the story unfolds, formulate a biblical principle and then a series of principles. The audience who has immersed themselves in the story will then find great reward in the spiritual teaching that made their journey into the narrative a timeless one.
Our sermons should reflect vivid imagery.
The multimedia nature of this culture cannot be ignored. To ignore the way our culture thinks is to demonstrate little concern as to whether they understand the message we want them to receive. MacPherson rightly assesses our culture today as “the Age of Illustration, an age when people are habituated to picture thinking.”  Many influences have contributed toward this trend in thinking. The amount of time spent in front of the television is the most obvious influence. But add to television the influence of movies, video games, advertisements, product packaging, the Internet, and visual teaching aids such as PowerPoint®, which is a standard in many classrooms. Newspaper editors know that only 4 or 5% of their readership reads beyond the first paragraph of the average story. Readership triples, however, when a story contains a picture. The caption is the most read paragraph of the entire article. 
When we consider the amount of visual language in the pages of Scripture, we might have to admit that our culture’s “picture thinking” may not be the result of today’s audiovisual addiction alone. In the pages of the Old Testament, God revealed Himself through much narrative and visual language. Jesus Christ also sets this example in the New Testament. The Master Teacher, Jesus Christ, knew how to teach His own creation, and He often used visuals and picturesque language to do so. Paul, the apostle and great theologian, used the image of an olive tree, athletics, farmers, builders, and pieces of armor to teach biblical truth. Great preachers of the past have tapped into man’s visual thinking as well. Spurgeon was well-known for painting elaborate word pictures. Jonathan Edwards could have said, “Sinners are in immediate danger of God’s judgment.” Instead, Edwards used the picture of sinful spiders dangling over a pit of flame. One must admit that our culture has exploited man’s tendency toward visual thinking to the point that his ability to think abstractly has been handicapped, and this result is indeed sad. We are presented with a choice again. We could whine about congregations full of visual learners for whom we must provide concrete ideas, or we can make efforts to communicate effectively to them so they will grasp biblical truth more readily.
Different biblical genres will require more work than others. Epistolary literature contains much abstract material, so the preacher must work harder to provide concrete hooks on which to hang the abstract ideas. In narrative literature, the concrete has been provided; we must simply supply the abstract truths derived from the story. Nonetheless, the preacher cannot ignore the fact that he is preaching in the “age of visual literacy.” 
Practically, the preacher can communicate to visual thinkers through fitting illustrations, word pictures, vivid imagery, and even multimedia elements within the story. Should a preacher use multimedia within a sermon, he must do so with caution. If one seeks to impress his audience with multimedia within a sermon, he must understand that he is no match for the world who wields this ability with greater skill than he. Rather, he must use it with restraint, being convinced that a particular multimedia element will aid the listener’s understanding of the truth. Our churches today must not be slaves to technology as a means to entertain or keep attention. Technology should be a tool that churches use to teach truth.
Our sermons should reflect authenticity.
Preachers often quote Philip Brooks’ definition of preaching as “truth through personality.” Haddon Robinson expands on this idea in his definition of expository preaching.
Expository preaching is the communication of a biblical concept, derived from and transmitted through a historical, grammatical, and literary study of a passage in its context, which the Holy Spirit first applies to the personality and experience of the preacher, then through the preacher, applies to the listeners. 
Preaching includes more than just pronouncing the words on a sermon manuscript. The preacher is to present biblical truth not only as one who knows this truth but also as one who has experienced the truth and delights to tell of it. Today’s listeners can hardly make sense of today’s cacophony of chatter, most of which is empty talk either imparting information or selling a product. Preachers should not be yet another plastic voice to be dismissed with the expected “whatever.” Listeners today need to hear the voice of a man of God whose manner is free of pretense and full of passion. Today’s preachers must break away from the influence of the rationalism of the modern era that made sermons appear emotionless and detached from life. We must never dispense truth as if engaging in the mundane task of dishing out food in a cafeteria line. Our manner of preaching should be marked with an authenticity that says, “I praise God for His truth and grace that is transforming my life. Please let me share His grace and truth with you so that you may praise Him with me.” Our “whatever” listeners do not want preachers who say “whatever” right back to them by means of a delivery that is unconcerned as to whether his audience receives the message or not.
The mechanics of sermon delivery (eye contact, voice inflection, facial expression, hand gestures, and bodily movement) become secondary concerns to the preacher. Sometimes the greatest help to those who appear to struggle with sermon delivery is to remind them to simply mean what they say. The opposite can be even more dangerous. A man who demonstrates great rhetorical skill and delivery with no heart for his message or people engages in empty theatrics. Today’s audiences are looking for authenticity, and preachers who have experienced biblical truth should be able to provide it.
Preaching truth to “whatever” listeners requires that we know how our listeners think, a commitment to the truth of God’s Word, the concern and creativity to communicate God’s truth appropriately. The above discussion is not a mandate to engage in preaching models that make truth palatable, twist emotions, or come across as hip in hopes of getting “results.” This discussion, however, is suggesting that we strive to communicate so as to bring today’s “whatever” listeners to a clear understanding and appreciation of the biblical message. When God’s Word has been made plain to the listener, we have every confidence in the sufficiency of Scripture to change hearts. By God’s transforming grace, He can take a listener’s “whatever” of confusion, doubt, and ambivalence and change it to a “whatever” of submission that says, “Whatever you want, Lord.”
1. Ian MacPherson, The Art of Illustrating Sermons (Nashville, Abingdon, 1964), p. 39.
2. Bryan Chapell, Christ-Centered Preaching (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1994), p. 169.
3. Ralph L. Lewis with Gregg Lewis, Inductive Preaching: Helping People Listen (Westchester, IL: Crossway, 1983), p. 10.
4. Haddon W. Robinson, Biblical Preaching, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2001), p. 21.
Dr. Chris Barney, serves as Dean of Heart of America Theological Seminary and is part of the pastoral staff at Tri-City Baptist Church (Independence, MO). He has also taught on the Bible and seminary faculty at Bob Jones University in the areas of homiletics and the New Testament. He and his wife, Emily, have been married for11 years and have two children–Christopher, Jr., and Coleman. His hobbies include music, college sports, and golf.