Hungry People Pay Attention to Food

I read an article Jeffrey Arthurs wrote about getting and keeping listeners’ attention. He built his article around the point that hungry people pay attention to food. It is so true. Recently I sat in a home where I was being hosted for a meal, waiting for the final guest to arrive so that we could sit down and eat. I was hungry. Consequently every waft from the kitchen, every comment about final touches to the meal, every hint about what was to come had my full attention.

The same is true of preaching. Listeners can ignore Bible passages for years, but when a preacher helps them to see that this passage is relevant to their deepest needs, they will give it their full attention. But this is not easy to do. Too easily we settle for an introduction that is interesting, but doesn’t surface a need. It is not enough to introduce the context for the text back then, we need to show the context for its relevance today.

How can we do that? One key skill is to incorporate awareness of what Haddon Robinson calls the Depravity Factor into our passage study. What is the impact of Genesis 3 on this passage? How does fallenness in this passage mirror brokenness in our contemporary world? It is not always sin that presents itself, sometimes it is hurt, it is need, it is fear, it is inadequacy … but always the fallenness of this world shows in the passage you are studying.

A study of the passage and of our listeners should yield complementary facets of fallenness. Help people to taste their need for security, for hope, for forgiveness, for life, for whatever this passage will address, and then watch them care about the passage like never before.

“Welcome to today’s sermon, turn with me to Bible Book chapter 4, verse 1…” Stop. Start that sermon again. Not just with a joke or an anecdote, but with a real taste for the goodness to come. Help the listeners sense their inner craving for that goodness and your sermon will be off to a much better start!

Surfacing Needs vs Felt Needs vs No Needs

Which approach do you take in your introduction?  If you are typical, you probably fall into the third category – no needs.  Most preaching tends to begin with some form of engaging content followed by the text, or even just straight into the text.  Whether or not people want to listen to that text preached is apparently a mute point (unless you could see into the heads of the listeners, then you’d probably never ignore the issue of “need” again!)

Some cling to a “no needs” approach to sermon introduction because they are concerned about a “felt needs” approach to preaching.  After all, we do not really start with the listener and then preach only to that which they feel they need.  We want to do better than that.  So perhaps its better to just get into the text and the message, rather than trying to address the needs of the listener in the introduction?

Thus Haddon Robinson carefully speaks of “surfacing a need” as a preacher.  It is not that the listener’s felt need determines the choice of text or even the meaning assigned to a text.  Nor does the speaker have to create a need for the text.  No, the text speaks to a need inherent in the creature, a need that the self-giving love of the Creator will meet.  So the preacher surfaces the need to which the text speaks.  This approach starts from the text, but the sermon starts with the listener.

So I suggest we don’t start disconnected (“ok, enough irrelevant humor, let’s have a reading” or even “last week we were in Lamentations 3, please turn to Lamentations 4.”)  Nor should we start with “felt needs” (“alright, you’re all asking me on facebook how to make life more comfortable and still be able to afford entertainment during the economic downturn, let’s turn to Judges chapter . . .”)  I strongly suggest trying to start by “surfacing the need” addressed by the text.  In your study it begins with the text.  Then in your message you start by highlighting the need in the listeners life so they are thirsty for the passage and the message.