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Listening to Feelings

Seminary-trained preachers cut and polish theological lenses, then use them to sharpen the focus on points they make in sermons. Some sermons teach doctrine about God, while others focus on practices of faith, such as how to forgive others as we have been forgiven. Most sermons seek to give us inspiration to improve our lives or, perhaps more important, to help us through tough times. Some sermons aim at particular sins and offer the transforming grace of God. Some confront the evil in the world around us and show how, since biblical times, the church has been God's instrument to challenge an array of worldly oppressions. Since in many traditions preaching is accepted as the best opportunity to articulate the. gospel, little wonder that we work so hard to refine our theological lenses.

But sermons are also heard on another level. Listeners respond not just to sermon themes, to "what it says," but also to the affect, or "how it makes me feel." Typically these feelings remain unspoken and often undefined, unless invited into consciousness in the quiet corners of the coffee hour by some trusted friend. They may be shared in the intimacy of family and kindred spirits, often when the message works and sometimes when it doesn't. These feelings reflect the emotional impact of the sermon, which may be significantly different from the theological message.

When the sermon topic is forgiveness and the parishioner feels relieved, for example, I expect the impact will last a long time because the message has been felt as well as understood. When the sermon focuses on social injustice and the listeners use the coffee hour to sign up for action, I see the coherence of thought and feeling, of challenge and response. These are the satisfying moments. Intellect and emotions are stirred together, and participants experience the harmony.up

Unfortunately, however, the feeling responses are sometimes out of sync with the sermon theme. I hear parishioners who are confused by the gap between the stated focus of a message and its emotional impact on them. They tell me that the sermon was meaningless because "she always talks about that" or "he stated one topic, but talked about another." Perhaps the listener was not moved because the sermon "was all talk" (without examples) or "all the examples were from another world, not mine." As a preacher, I com plain that pew sitters should work harder to join in the experience, but, as one patient parishioner explained, "It's OK if you don't connect, Reverend, 'cause I can always switch into 'sermon neutral.’ "

What concerns me are the congregations that have developed habits of emotional response to the preacher. Some of these habits are remarkably positive: members feel so affirmed by the pastor that anything said is heard as "wonderfully loving." In my view that's a sweet conspiracy to avoid the gospel's sharp edge of judgment and renewal.

But I am far more concerned with the negative feelings that sometimes become habitual with parishioners. These congregants seem to feel bad regardless of the message. In one congregation the members always think they hear the pastor scolding them, whatever the sermon topic may be. Even when the biblically stated theme is love, the members think they are being criticized. When describing a loving parent-God, some preachers seem annoyed that the congregation doesn't get it. Even when speaking of grace, some pastors seem more interested in finding fault with the behavior of church members. I heard one pastor preach about the profound image of God in each person, while his attitude seemed to belittle the particular gifts inherent in members of the congregation. Unfortunately, the gap between the message and the messenger was regularly noticed by the members.

This distinction cannot be seen in the well-honed theology of a printed sermon. But we can feel it in the pulpit delivery and touch it in the relationships that follow. A few thoughtful people can separate the richness of the message from the attitude of the preacher. But most transforming messages depend upon the coherence of themes and feelings, the harmony of intellect and emotion, the divine-human seal that bonds the theology of the message with the person of the preacher.

September/October 1998




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