How Listening Habits Have Changed

By Fred Smith

Preaching will forever remain at the core of the church's program. Along with teaching,

preaching is one of the chief sources of spiritual power. Any attempt to reduce its importance is, in my opinion, a dead-end street.

The message of preaching forever remains the same, but the form changes to successfully reach the hearers, just as the Bible itself has been translated in our time to great advantage. I was once given a framed page from the Geneva Bible of 1560—and I can't read it. It is the Word of God, all right, but its form is such indiscernible to modern man.

One of the most significant developments in the church today, as I see it, is that old-style "preaching" is going out, and "communication" is coming in. Those preachers who have adjusted to the change in people's listening habits and interests are having no trouble drawing a crowd; they're able to match the gospel with current needs.

This need for change has been brought on by several concurrent happenings, one of which is our transformation into a society of television watchers.TV has conditioned us to getting information quickly in short blasts — sound bites. In the dramas, a whole life situation is developed and solved in thirty minutes or an hour. In the newscasts, world issues are given a couple minutes, and authorities are asked to sum up "in the thirty seconds we have left."

So audiences expect quick analysis, direct answers. About the only place people listen to a lecture is at church, and they are less equipped, less willing, and less able to receive extensive information in this form. Preachers who want to communicate cannot completely ignore this.

Television is also an intimate medium. The camera zooms in close and makes things very personal. Viewers have learned to watch for subtle expressions rather than grand gestures.

That's what sank Frank Clements, the governor of Tennessee two generations ago, when he delivered the opening speech at a Democratic convention. People called him "cornpone." The dean of news reporting did not see Clements on television but heard him in the convention hall and said it was one of the greatest political speeches he had ever heard. On a platform or in an open field, all of his exaggerated gestures and raised voice were natural. But when the camera came bearing down on his face, it made him look corny.

In addition, television has tended to portray preachers as arm-waving Elmer Gantry's. Theatrical preaching is lampooned. When people see it used in church, no matter how sincere the preacher may be, they sense it is not completely believable. It doesn't seem real to a generation accustomed to the poise of a network anchorman. As I visit churches, I'm amazed how many preachers still shout, even with microphones available. I went to a church not long ago with no more than a hundred people, and the pastor was screaming. I said to myself. What is he saying that warrants yelling? I took some of his points and repeated them to myself quietly—and they weren't bad! He could have been so much more effective with that audience by saying things in very normal volume. But by habit, he didn't think he was preaching until he had raised his voice, stomped the floor, and smacked the pulpit.

What we need today are preachers who can go onto a platform and be believable and persuasive—an example of God's power. We are coming into a time when people will be most influenced by communicators, not by "preachers," who persist in the old form of three points and a poem delivered with a seminary brogue or an unnatural tone of voice.

The Word is timeless, the delivery can be relevant and the messenger prepared to meet the congregation at their point of need, not at his need to point.