Wednesday, October 29, 2014

What Audience Feedback Means – Especially to Preachers

Billy Joel gets it.

This veteran entertainer does something I find fascinating. 

According to The New Yorker (October 27, 2014), Joel “grew tired of having to look out at the fat cats in the two front rows, the guys who’d bought the best seats, and then sat there projecting a look of boredom that says…. ‘Entertain me, Piano Man.’”

It was dampening his own enthusiasm, and that of his band, to have the non-responsive types on the front two rows.  He wanted the fans nearest him to be enthusiastic participants in the evening’s activities.

That’s why “Joel’s people stopped selling the two front rows and instead send the crew into the cheap seats before the show to hand out tickets to people of their choosing.”

“Joel believes it helps buck up the band.”

I believe that.

Every preacher knows.

Preachers pour their heart into the message over which they have labored and prayed.  We really want our listeners to “get it.”  As my eyes roam over the room, my gaze fixes upon the most responsive church members.

The stand out.

In one section, two or three people are delighting in God’s message, their eyes are literally alive with joy and appreciation.  In another, someone’s facial expression says they are enthralled, as caught-up in this message from the Lord as I am.  Over here, a woman is weeping and in this section, a man fist-pumps.  Some anonymous person calls out, “Amen!”

Last Sunday, for instance, was such an example.  The favorable response was off the chart.

They have no idea of knowing the positive effect their response has upon me, the preacher.

Later, I almost feel like seeking them out to thank them.  But I do not do this, because the sermon is not about me.  I’m not trying to win them over to myself, but to the Lord.  I don’t want to make them feel overly self-conscious about the effect they have on me while I'm in the pulpit, lest it influences them in the future.

I want them to worship God, and draw near to the Lord Jesus.  That really is my (and any pastor's) highest motivation.

Yet, in another sense, the frowners and naysayers in the congregation have almost as strong a negative effect upon me as the faithful have in a positive way.  

But not quite.

Why?  This is not a concert and I am not Billy Joel.

I am called by God to preach His Word regardless of the response.  I am to pour my heart into it no matter what kind of visual or oral response I receive.  However people respond – favorably or otherwise – my job is to faithfully discharge my responsibility.

If I stick close to the Scripture and some naysayers object, their controversy is with God, not me.  

It's very liberating to realize that.

Before becoming a pastor I spent a few years preaching in jails to inmates and in nursing homes to the residents.  As I spoke to the hardest men in the place, or those out of their minds, I labored to be heard over the foot-stamping and the chorus of throat-clearing, and the smell of urine hanging in the air.  I was young.  It was where I cut my teeth so to speak.  I wondered if I was “casting my pearls before the swine,” to use the Lord’s unforgettable metaphor.  Or, did I do the right thing by continuing the message for the sake of the few who were straining to hear.  It’s hard to know for certain.

After I entered the pastorate, I experienced the same disrespect in, of all places, church.  I know first-hand what it’s like to encounter church members who seem to be dedicated to undermining the preacher.  They are easy to spot:  arms folded and a scowl across their face throughout the entire message.  

Once, I even watched a man clip his fingernails in the pew while I was speaking.  And yes, the clicking sound could be heard throughout the sanctuary as his nasty nails were being severed and fell to the floor.

It was the height of indecency.  

I used to be an associate pastor on staff in a church in Pensacola.  The head deacon would sit in a chair (high back throne) on the platform behind me when I was preaching.  He also did this with the senior pastor.  It was horrible.  As I taught, people in the congregation would look at him – reading his facial expressions – to decide whether or not to ‘buy in’ to the message.  If he was smiling and nodding up and down, great!  If he was scowling or shaking his head back and forth in a negative manner, it was like throwing cold water on the entire service.

Even the congregation picks up on front-row fat cats.

Billy Joel gets it.

And that, we might say, is why scowling members do not sit on the platform at PCC when God’s Word is being preached.  In fact, no one (except the speaker of the day) (not always me) is on the platform when God’s Word is being declared.  It minimizes distractions and the influence of naysayers.

As much as possible, we try to create an environment where God's Word is unencumbered; so that it might accomplish its intended purposes.

And it works.

It’s also why we have some of our best bright-eyed, Jesus-loving, Word-hungry men and women sitting on the front row!

The same hold true for our greeters and ushers.  

Only the radiant need apply.

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