Attention! Whose Responsibility?

I remember, as a child, times when the preacher would rebuke distracted youths at the back of the church.  They were in church, so they should be listening.  Times may have changed a bit, but I suspect there is some confusion coming into play here.

The “should” is probably to do with how they should act toward others.  That is, it seems reasonable to expect people (whatever their age), to act in a manner that is not unloving and distracting to others when in a setting like a church meeting.  But is the onus on the listener when it comes to giving attention to the message?  On the one hand we have the argument from the parable of the soils in Mark 4 – the only variable in that parable is the state of the soil, representing the “listening” of the heart.  So there is a biblical concern for the responsibility and responsiveness of the listener.

On the other hand, the best teachers and preachers will always accept that a significant responsibility rests with them.  If you preach and people are thoroughly distracted or bored or miles away or disengaged, don’t pray for God to smite the listeners.  Pray for God to strike you with lightning or whatever it will take to be more engaging as a communicator!

I remember hearing of one now famous student of Howard Hendricks who wanted to test the Prof’s commitment to the importance of attention.  If you don’t have their attention, you can’t teach them.  So the Prof was a master of grabbing and holding attention.  So this student decided to test this.  He sat at the back, looked out of the window and resisted all inner urges to pick up his pen and take notes.  Hendricks seemed to sense he didn’t have one person with him, so he did all he could – another gripping story, bigger movement, stronger passion, etc.  Finally he snapped and stormed to the back of the class demanding to know what was so fascinating outside.

Most lecturers in higher education seem happy to get through their material whether the students engage with the drone or not.  Many preachers are the same.  But the best teachers, and the best preachers, know that you cannot teach anyone anything unless you first grab and hold their attention.

Let’s probe both the good and the bad ways to do that in the coming days . . .

Time To Process?

I have been enjoying listening to Howard Hendricks lately.  I’d like to intersperse some of his comments with my own.  It’s almost like an interview, except that I’ve never met him and it doesn’t quite work as a pseudo-interview.  Nevertheless, his words are in “quotes.”

“My great concern for my students is that they don’t have enough time to process what they’re getting at seminary . . . the firehose.”

This is a good point, for any seminary students reading this site, be sure to carve out some half-days or full-days during the year to reflect, to journal, to process, to pray, to think.  I’m not saying all of this can be done on a few days spread out through the year, but I am saying it cannot be done simply through daily devotions and journaling when the pressure is on, when the hose is blasting!

But what about the preacher?  Do we have preachers preaching when the well is dry?  What would Prof.Hendricks like to do for preachers and pastors?

“After every seven years, I would invest to have you come back to seminary for one year.  We’ll pay all the costs, transportation, food, etc.  You don’t have to pass anything, you just have to process.  I think we could transform the ministry!”

I tend to agree, although I haven’t found the seminary offering this form of sabbatical program yet.

“Because we’re not doing it, and that’s why we’re suffering.  We’re dumbing down the gospel, we’re dumbing down the Word of God.  Every year the basic knowledge drops.  Our churches are not teaching Bible.”

That’s a bit of a generalization, how do you support that?

“Their product is demonstrating that they’re not teaching the Bible.  Because people need time to process what’s going on, and what are you planning to do about it.”

Ok, good point.  This means we have gone from seminary students, to pastors, to people in the pew.   Are they getting time to process what they receive?  Is there space to process during the service?  Is there space to process during the church week?  Do we jump from one message to another, from one passage in preaching to another in home groups?  Where’s the time to process?

Perhaps we should consider the processing space in our own lives, and in the lives of others in the church.

Ask for Double

I was listening to Howard Hendricks again recently.  He referred to a medical doctor who had gotten hold of a series Hendricks gave on the book of James.  The doctor told him, “I’ve listened to that series about twenty times, and now I think I get what you’re saying!”

When we look carefully in the prophets, and in the gospels, and elsewhere, it is evident that hearing is a critical component of spirituality.  This is not to suggest that reading is not important, of course, but there is something about hearing.  Hearing the Bible, and hearing the Bible preached.

I wonder if we should do more to encourage people to use their ears in their personal spiritual lives?  How many of the people in our churches have never considered getting the Bible on CD or MP3, and yet have significant chunks of time when they could be listening to the Word?  How often do churches produce CDs of messages, expecting only the children’s Sunday School teachers or the absent to make use of them?  Perhaps it would be worth suggesting the possibility that people might choose to hear the sermon more than once!  (Now the pressure is really on you – imagine asking for double the time!  Your message better be biblically solid, clear, engaging and relevant!)

Put Your Feet Up?

Do you have a few teachers you would have been delighted to have studied under personally, but didn’t?  I do, and near the top of that list would be Howard Hendricks.  I’ve been blessed by some of his disciples, but at the moment am enjoying listening to some of his teaching.  Here’s an old quote he used from the president of Yale addressing the board of the great institution:

Ladies and Gentlemen, if I don’t spend time every day with my feet propped up on the desk, dreaming about what Yale ought to be, you need to fire me because I am no longer the leader of Yale – I am simply a pathetic manager of the institution.

Please don’t get upset if you happen to like being a manager of something, but please get the point.  Leaders need to spend time thinking and dreaming of what the ministry, institution, church, and even family, ought to be.  I suspect that in the busy-ness of ministry and life many of us are falling considerably behind in our think-time, as Hendricks would put it.

Let’s be very wary of a preaching routine, and a ministry routine, that lacks time to think and dream.  Sanctified prayerful dreaming is an element of true eternity-shaping ministry that I sense is lacking in many today.  Let’s make space and dare to dream, then ask God.  He is able to do abundantly beyond all that we ask or even imagine . . . with many of us that is not even half a challenge.  Let’s consider putting our feet up so that we can be leaders, and because it’s exciting to see God being God!

The Bigger Picture

For most people in our churches today, the big picture is a mystery.  Their experience in the Bible is like being dropped in a huge forest.  They recognize some trees, they even like those trees, but what they know and recognize seems as random as trees in a vast forest.  We should not take for granted that people understand the bigger picture, the broad storyline of the Bible.

This is why Walk Thru the Bible was such a huge success a generation ago.  It gave people, in five hours, an overview of the storyline of the Old Testament, then later of the New Testament.

As preachers it is our privilege to help people understand how particular passages fit in the flow of the Bible story.  We don’t help by giving obscure links to random and questionable types and shadows elsewhere (unless they are clear and legitimate ones), but we do help by placing texts and stories in their context in the broad flow of the Bible story.

Always the First Step

I remember well my first class in hermeneutics at seminary.  Years later I still have the voice of my prof ringing in my ears – “Observation!  The first step in inductive Bible study method!” Influenced as he was by Howard Hendricks, he left his mark in my life as I open the Bible and start by looking.  What is there?  What does it say?  You can’t interpret it until you know what it is.  Observation is the critical first step to success in Bible study, and in preaching too.

You have to observe well to handle the Bible well.  You have to observe well to communicate effectively.  In a discipline like preaching, so built on effective Bible study, we would do well to continually develop our observational faculties.  Let me share this quote from William Wirt (1828), quoted in McDill’s 12 Essential Skills:

Perhaps there is no property in which men are more distinguished from each other, than in the various degrees in which they possess the faculty of observation.  The great herd of mankind pass their lives in listless inattention and indifference to what is going on around them . . . while those who are destined to distinction have a lynx-eyed vigilance that nothing can escape.

Practice observation every day.  Describe the person you just spoke with.  Define the distinctive characteristics of their body language.  Observe the headlines on the newspaper you pass.  Live with a lynx-eyed vigilance so that you never waste your life in listless inattention and indifference!

Mythbusting – Experience Is Key?

Howard Hendricks has a habit of getting at the heart of an issue. I was just reading a book he co-authored on teaching and he nails a key issue for us as preachers. How are we to know that we are being as effective as possible in our ministry?

Experience is not the key! People automatically assume that the longer they are doing something, the better they get at it. So the longer a person teaches, the better the teacher they become. The longer the person preaches, the better the preacher they become. Wrong. Hendricks calls this idea nonsense. He points out that ripping through wood dulls the teeth of a carpenter’s saw, and so also experience tends to wear away any edge in a person’s skill.

Evaluated experience is key! Over time poor methods and poor practice become ingrained poor habits. Complacency easily sets in. It is possible to lose touch with the listeners. And time will generally exaggerate personal idiosyncrasies. In short, over time we easily get sloppy.

So what does Hendricks advise? He advises pastors as well as teachers to follow his example. To evaluate every session you teach. To invite others to critique in various ways. Be like a carpenter who painstakingly files each tooth on his crosscut saw.

Experience alone does not make you better, only evaluated experience does that. In the same way as experience alone does not make you mature, but only experience evaluated and handled with the right attitude. Let us all have the attitude of the master carpenter, painstakingly sharpening each tooth on the saw of our ministry. Perhaps it would be good to carefully evaluate your last sermon, and make specific plans to get feedback on your next.