Preaching to the Disengaged

The following is a chapter from my book, The Heart of the Preacher.

heart of preacherMost people think of preaching as a monologue, though it is actually a dialogue. The preacher may be doing all the talking, but he’s not doing all the communicating. As we all know, a great deal of communication is non-verbal. So even as the preacher speaks, the people in the congregation are having their say as well.

It’s a joy to preach to people who communicate they are fully engaged with the message by their posture and facial expressions. They lean forward, nod their heads, smile, and—in some congregations—speak words of affirmation (“That’s right!” “Amen!” “Preach it!”).

On the other hand, it’s discouraging to preach to people whose body language shouts their disengagement. Their heads stay down and eyes remain closed—but probably not in prayer. They repeatedly check their phones—but likely not to take notes. While still physically present, they’ve already checked out and gone home.

Preaching to the disengaged tests the heart of a preacher. How should we respond to those who seem unresponsive? How do we avoid being distracted by those who appear disengaged?

Two types of disengaged hearers especially jostle my soul, upsetting my internal equilibrium as I preach: the dozing and the disgruntled. Both will eventually show up at your church. Both are unsettling, but in different ways. So to pass this heart test as a preacher, we will need to learn how to respond to both the dozing and the disgruntled.

Preaching to the Dozing

A number of years ago, a group of men from our church spent a week in Mexico doing construction on a church building. After working all day, we made our beds in sleeping bags on the sanctuary’s concrete floor. Each morning, guys woke up stiff and sore, complaining they didn’t get much sleep the night before. I recall smiling and saying, “It surprises me you all had such trouble sleeping last night; back home, some of you sleep very well in our sanctuary on Sunday mornings.”

It’s hard not to be distracted by people who drift off to dreamland during our sermons. It’s disconcerting to preach to a woman fast asleep—head back, mouth wide open. Or a man fighting to stay awake, his head repeatedly jerking up after nodding off. You almost want to break from your prepared message and loudly quote Ephesians 5:14: “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” However, that would be both exegetically unsound and pastorally unwise!

How should we deal with the dozing as we preach? By preaching with compassion and passion.

Preach with compassion. I find it helpful to remember I don’t know the backstory or life challenges faced by most of the people who show up on Sundays. However, I can count on the fact that some show up running on fumes. Hectic schedules, crazy work shifts, sick kids, and lingering illnesses lead some to arrive physically and emotionally exhausted. They have made a heroic effort just to come at all. When they finally sit down and slow up, fatigue overwhelms and sleep comes easy.

The Gospels record how Peter, James, and John kept nodding off while Jesus poured out his heart in prayer in the garden of Gethsemane. While they must have been embarrassed when Jesus rebuked them, they still couldn’t keep their eyes open. “And again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy” (Matthew 26:43). I imagine most of us have found ourselves dozing off when we should be fervently praying or attentively listening. As Jesus explains: “The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (26:41).

So compassion is a better response than condemnation when we spot someone sleeping while we are preaching. A compassionate heart that “remembers that we are dust” (Psalm 103:14) can relieve some of the inner turmoil we experience when preaching to the dozing.

Preach with passion. It’s one thing to have a few dozers in the crowd; it’s another problem if this becomes the norm rather than the exception. A sleepy congregation could indicate the real problem is not in the pew but in the pulpit.

Back in my seminary days, Professor Howard Hendricks used to tell us: “It’s a sin to bore people with the Word of God.”[1] Allowing for the Hendricks hyperbole, he still makes a good point. As preachers, we are charged with communicating the most important message of all. If we put people to sleep through our lack of clarity and passion, we are not faithfully conveying God’s message. Disengaged, sleeping hearers should spur us to become more engaging preachers. People have a much more difficult time dozing off when the preacher passionately presents the message.

Preaching to the Disgruntled

Dozing listeners can be distracting—like having a fly buzzing around your head as you speak. Disgruntled listeners, however, are unsettling. They seem more like angry wasps than annoying flies.

At one church I pastored, a woman consistently crossed her arms as I spoke. Her expression was fixed in a permanent grimace. She never looked up, avoiding all eye contact with me. I knew she was unhappy with me and the direction the elders had set for the congregation. Each Sunday morning, her nonverbal communication shouted her displeasure. My experience is not unique. Pastor Andy Davis, in his book Revitalize, tells of a man with an explosive temper who promised to “fight [him] every step of the way” and “used to sit with his arms crossed and glare” as Andy preached.[2]

How do you preach with joy when you know someone is furious with you? How do you stay focused on your message when your mind gets distracted by a disgruntled person sitting unhappily in front of you?

Paul’s words to Timothy prepare preachers for this exact scenario. “And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth” (2 Timothy 2:24–25). In these verses, Paul reminds Timothy—and all preachers—of four important theological truths that steady us when speaking to those who oppose us.

Remember you represent Christ. A preacher is “the Lord’s servant.” We serve Christ—who warned us to expect some opposition: “A servant is not greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you” (John 15:20). When Christ was reviled, “he did not revile in return” (1 Peter 2:23). Since we are his servants, our reactions to those who oppose us should emulate his.

Show kindness even when it’s not reciprocated. I can’t help but notice that 2 Timothy 2:24 calls preachers to be “kind to everyone.” I’ve looked, but there’s no asterisk in the text indicating exceptions to the rule. So “everyone” must include the lady in the third row with crossed arms and an angry countenance. “Everyone” includes the guy who has pledged to fight you every step of the way.

Practically speaking, showing kindness means we smile and look people in the eye as we preach, even if some avoid eye contact. We may not see eye to eye with everyone, but we should be able to look everyone in the eye. Showing kindness also means we actively take steps to restore strained relationships. We do everything we can to follow the admonition in Romans 12:18: “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”

Winsomely present truth. Even in the face of opposition, a preacher must be “able to teach … correcting his opponents with gentleness” (2 Timothy 2:24). Kindness should not be equated with weakness. Gentleness is no excuse for cowardice. We must always teach God’s truth—but in a courageous, gracious, and winsome way. We must make sure our hearts are in sync with the Spirit—having put off all “bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander … along with all malice” (Ephesians 4:31)—and then preach God’s truth without apology or compromise.

Trust God to change hearts. A big reason we can respond to the disgruntled in a gracious way comes from knowing that changing hearts is ultimately God’s job, not ours. As Paul reminds Timothy, “God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth” (2 Timothy 2:25). We can present truth, but only God can bring someone to the knowledge of the truth. This insight takes a great deal of pressure off us as preachers. It frees us up to preach joyfully even when some in the congregation are disgruntled.

The dozing and disgruntled still show up at most churches. Expect them. Even when you are winsome in your preaching, you will win some and lose some when it comes to engaging the disengaged. By preaching God’s Word in a courageous and kind way—by speaking the truth in love—you will fulfill your calling and give the disengaged an opportunity to reengage with God’s truth.

[1] Pedagogy class lecture by Dr. Howard Hendricks, Dallas Theological Seminary, 1984. This is a slight variation on a quote attributed to Hendricks’s friend Jim Rayburn, the founder of Young Life: “It’s a sin to bore a kid with the gospel.”

[2] Andy Davis, Revitalize: Biblical Keys to Helping Your Church Come Alive Again (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2017), 130.

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