Early in my ministry I got talking to an elderly colleague who had only recently retired. I had noticed already as a teenager that whenever this man preached in our church he would not look at the people in his congregation. His eyes invariably focused on some spot high up on the back wall of the auditorium. When I found myself in the same State and sitting next to him at a State-wide Ministers’ gathering I thought it was appropriate to put the question: “I always thought that preachers and speakers considered eye-contact with their listeners important. But I noticed already many years ago that you tend to look over people rather than at them.” He explained that he found it distracting to look at the people. He said that it put him off to see people dozing off during his sermon, or fidgeting with something out of boredom. So he chose to not look at people directly.
I can sympathise with him. You who are pew-sitters may not realise what we preachers can see from the pulpit. I’ve often observed a member of the congregation stealthily pull out that Sunday’s church bulletin in the middle of a sermon and surreptitiously read its contents. And yes of course… the dozers can be a problem. When the eyes glaze over like fish-eyes in the fish market that’s not real encouraging for a preacher. Perhaps an extreme example was the person whose head would tilt backward and his mouth would fall open. When a young person sitting behind held a peppermint over his open mouth, pretending to drop it into the open orifice, I had some trouble continuing with my sermon. At limes like that looking at the back wall seems like a good idea.
Of course preachers can get it terribly wrong. I heard a story many years ago of a preacher who interrupted his sermon to call on brother Jones to wake up from his slumber and pay attention to the sermon. The said Mr. Jones promptly stood to his feet and said to the minister, “Brother, I was not sleeping. I was praying that the Word might be preached with greater conviction.” That’s bound to put a preacher back in his box.
Now that I’m retired, and sit in the pew a little more often, I have a greater sympathy for pew-sitters. Listening for 20-minutes or more can be hard work. And when tiredness or a late Saturday night are added into the mix it becomes doubly difficult to give that unwavering attention that the preaching of God’s Word deserves.
And there’s another matter. If my hearers doze off ten-minutes into my sermon whose fault is that? Granted, sometimes it certainly is not the preachers fault. I recall one man who invariably would settle back and shut his eyes the moment the sermon began. That wasn’t giving me a fair go. Yet I have to admit that too often, when my view from the pulpit has included some people struggling to stay awake, the blame has largely been mine. Often those are the Sunday’s when I know I should have poured more preparation into my message… or the Sundays when I the preacher had a very late night the preceding Saturday and therefore didn’t have quite the energy – or even the fire in my belly – to preach passionately the message I had prepared. Dozing people in church challenge me as a preacher to strive to do better.
I also feel that the preacher who doesn’t aim for eye-contact, but who looks at the back wall instead, also sells himself short. The view from the pulpit not only includes those whose eyes glaze over. That view also includes the obvious visible emotion when the Word of God strikes a chord with someone or when an elderly saint wipes a tear from the corner of their eye because something from the sermon touched them deeply. Those are moments that I treasure for they remind of the power of the preached Word of God to impact lives and change them forever. I wouldn’t want to miss those moments because I was looking at the back wall of the church instead of into the eyes of those to whom God has called me to proclaim the gospel of His Son.