How can preachers secure the attention of their hearers?
What follows is based on the sage thoughts of that master-preacher, C.H. Spurgeon.
To be able to command attention is no trivial matter. Sin cannot be taken out of people, as Eve was taken out of Adam, while they are fast asleep. And yet some preachers seem not to care very much about it: some of them stare up at the ceiling, as if they sought the attention of the angels, while others have their heads buried in their notes, as if they were talking only to themselves.
It should be possible even to gain and keep the attention of small children, by catching their eye, or by telling a little story.
If we cannot hold the attention of our congregation, it is more likely to be our fault than theirs. I have no right to attention unless I can command it. There are, indeed, some congregations whose attention it is difficult to gain. In this case, it is not use scolding them; ‘that will be like throwing a bush at a bird to catch it.’ If the fish will not come to the hook, you must hold the fisherman responsible, and not the fish. To the preacher who suggested to an old lady that she took snuff in order to prevent her from dozing, her reply was apposite: ‘If you put more snuff into your sermons, I would have no trouble staying awake.’
The truth is, that many come into God’s house loaded with the cares of everyday life. And who can blame them? And the Devil makes sure that these worries will act as mental mosquitoes during the service, distracting the poor sufferer from your discourse. You must learn to drive the mosquitoes away. You must turn your people’s mind out of the channels they have been running in for the previous six days into one more suitable for the Lord’s Day. Your message must have enough leverage to lift people up, a little nearer to heaven.
As a preliminary measure, attend to the physical environment. In this matter of effective preaching, oxygen is next to godliness. In a stuffy building, a gust of fresh air might be the next best thing to the gospel itself. If people cannot breath, they are more likely to get an aching head than a broken heart.
Moreover, you may need to attend to the manners of the people. If they are in the habit of looking round every time a latecomer arrives, find a gentle and tactful way of remedying this.
But now to the main points.
1. Have something worth hearing. You have no right to expect people to pay attention to mere word-spinning, or to meaningless verbosity. Give them something that will make it worth their while coming to hear you preach in the first place. Give them solid doctrine from the divine Word.
2. Arrange your material clearly. If a basketful of groceries was all jumbled up on the way home, the resulting mess would be scarcely edible. People will not drink mustardy tea, and nor will they enjoy muddled sermons, where they cannot tell the head from the tail. Package your subject-matter into good stout parcels, and don’t be afraid of saying, ‘firstly, secondly and thirdly’.
3. Speak clearly. If your congregation cannot hear you, or understand you, you might as well be talking in a foreign language. It is harder work to speak well to the less literate person, so as not to go over their heads, but you must learn how to do so. Learn, especially, from the example of Jesus, whom ordinary people heard gladly.
4. Attend to the manner of your speaking. As a rule, avoid reading your sermons. Such preaching always tastes of paper, and sticks in the throat. If you must read, you must be the very best of readers.
5. Extemporise your words, but not your substance. You have no right to expect your hearers to interested in your unpremeditated waffling. The uppermost thing in most men’s head is froth. No: study the content of your sermon thoroughly, but leaving the choice of the words themselves until the moment of delivery.
6. Make your delivery as pleasing as possible. It would be a pity to have excellent material but ineffective communication. ‘A king should not ride in a dust-cart…Right royal truths should ride in a chariot of gold.’ So, don’t speak in monotones, or in a sing-song voice. Vary the pace and tone.
7. Don’t make the introduction too long. A hearer said of John Howe, that he was so long laying the table that she despaired of the meal. The introduction should be like the town-crier, ringing the bell in order to arrest people’s attention.
8. Avoid undue repetition. Occasionally, a thought may be repeated for emphasis. But, as a rule, let there be something fresh in each sentence.
9. Avoid being too long. When considering what to preach about, a preacher in Spurgeon’s day might be expected to preach ‘about 40 minutes’. In our own, the preacher is usually expected to preach for less than that. Whatever the unspoken compact is between preacher and congregation, we should generally work within this expectation. It is preferable for your audience to wish you had spoken for longer, rather than leaving them wishing they had never come along to hear you in the first place. If, for the last ten minutes of your sermon, they are thinking of fretting children or over-cooked lunches, then that time is wasted both for them and for you. And the key to brevity is better preparation. The is something approaching an inverse relationship between the quantity of good matter in a sermon and the time required to deliver that matter. ‘We are generally longest when we have least to say.’
10. Build a congregation that is devout, prayerful, and teachable. They must be led by the Holy Spirit to love the gospel, and to have an appetite for the word of God. But ‘our whole life must be such as to add weight to our words, so that in after years we shall be able to wield the invincible eloquence of a long-sustained character, and obtain, not merely the attention, but the affectionate veneration of our flock.’
11. Be interested yourself, and you will interest others. If you do not feel that you have anything very important to say, how can you expect your hearers to feel any differently? It should be no surprise if their thoughts run to subjects that are real to them, if they feel that your subject is not real to you.
12. Be generous with your use of illustrations. We have the example of our Lord in this, and also most of the greatest preachers, whose discourses abounded in similes, metaphors, allegories, and anecdotes. Of course, illustrations can be over-done. People need more than pretty stories. Illustrations are windows: and what is the point of letting the light in, if there is nothing to illuminate? Moreover, we should be wary of illustrations drawn from published compilations: flowers gathered from garden and field with our own hand will be better than those withered specimens snatched from other men’s bouquets.
13. Cultivate the power of surprise. Do not always say what people are expecting you to say. Keep your sentences out of ruts. If your water is forever lapping gently and predictably at people’s feet, they will get used to it, and fall asleep. Surprise them with the occasional tidal wave.
14. The occasional pause can be useful in gaining attention. ‘Pull up short every now and then, and the passengers on your coach will wake up…Speech is silver, but silence is golden when hearers are inattentive…Give the cradle a jerk, and sleep will flee.’
15. Make people feel that what you are saying is relevant to them. Nobody sleeps while expecting to hear something to his advantage. A person will not slumber while a will was being read in which he expected a legacy. A prisoner will not go to sleep while the judge is summing up, and his life is in jeopardy. Preach upon practical themes, and you will secure earnest attention.
16. Be clothed with the Spirit of God. If having something worth hearing is the golden rule, then this is the diamond rule. Come from your own communion with God with a message for his people, and you will readily command their attention. When God speaks through you, men must listen. By all means perfect your oratory, cultivate all fields of knowledge, prepare thoroughly, but at the same time remember, that ‘it is not by might nor by power’ that people are converted and sanctified, but ‘by my Spirit, says the Lord.’
Clothe yourself, then, with the power of the Spirit of God, and preach to men as those who must soon give an account, and who desire that their account may not be painful to their people and grievous themselves, but that it may be to the glory of God.
Based on C.H. Spurgeon, Lectures to my students, Vol 1 chapter 9.