Reading today about preaching in the 18th Century I came across the term “sermon proof’.
It is a description of the condition of a congregation when, as a result of hearing the same message presented in the same way, a non-receptive mindset develops. Is this a thing that is experienced by 21st Century listeners and is there a way to avoid it happening?
It’s rather like what they say about Christmas services being like an inoculation, where you receive a tiny shot of a flu virus so that you can avoid developing the full-blown version of the virus!
It also reminds me of what people said about attendees in the 1970s who did not response positively to the gospel. They were described as being “gospel hardened”.
Somehow hearers had developed a tough exterior layer that has prevented the gospel message from penetrating their defences.
Is this what Jesus is describing when he speaks in the parable of the sower about the seed that falls on the path — like seed bouncing on a tarmac road, largely ignored, except for the birds who welcome the impromptu snack.
The word is spoken on the busy street — but people are deaf to God’s voice.
Our lives can be like a tarmac road. People can have a Teflon heart. Nothing sticks. Nothing, I mean nothing, penetrates.
Bill Hybels asks the question, “Is the ambient noise level of my life low enough for me to hear the whispers of my Lord?’”
Clearly there was nothing wrong with what Jesus had to say. In the parable of the sower the “good soil” readily receives the seed and is fruitful.
It is possible that this can make preachers think that the only thing that needs to change is the attitude and response of the hearers. Is that the case? Or do preachers have to do a bit of work to help people tune in to the message?
I suggest that there are at least two things that preachers need to help people avoiding making their hearers sermon proof.
Firstly, preachers can develop their sermons with a faithful imagination that communicates familiar truths in a fresh way.
This does not mean that a preacher needs to search for gimmicks, dumb things down or open up a box of tricks.
What I mean is that a preacher needs to learn how to subtly subvert people’s expectations.
Preachers do not always have to say the same thing in the same way. Jesus leads the way with his preaching in parables. To people familiar with concepts he confronts them with a story. Stories can help us see and feel the truth; they get under our defences and confront us with the truth.
Secondly, preachers can help people to see the difference between listening and hearing.
Hearing can simply happen without any effort on our part. Listening, by contrast means tuning in specifically for something.
Preachers need to remind hearers of the importance of becoming listeners.
We see one of the strategies in each of Jesus’ seven letters to the churches in Revelation:
“Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”
(Revelation 2: 7, 11, 17, 29; 3:6, 13, 22)