“Learning to Preach by Ear” by H. Dana Fearon III

H. Dana Fearon III
H. Dana Fearon III

H. Dana Fearon III is pastor emeritus of the Presbyterian Church of Lawrenceville, New Jersey, and author of the new book Straining at the Oars: Case Studies in Pastoral Leadership.

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When I became a pastor I didn’t know how to preach — that is, I didn’t know how I should preach. I had listened to many good preachers and read books of sermons — I could stand up in front of people and talk about the Bible — but I still couldn’t seem to find my way.

I got an important clue about how to preach when, while still in seminary, I served as a summer minister in Yellowstone Park. There I met some “wranglers,” itinerant cowboys who had a string of horses they brought to the Park for the tourists, or “dudes,” to ride. We did some socializing together, became friends, and I urged them to come to worship. Finally they did, putting their boots on the pew in front to show they were cool. After the service, one of my wrangler friends said, “Preacher, I didn’t understand a word you said.” At first I was puzzled, but when I re-read the sermon I saw what he meant.  I was preaching from Paul’s Letter to the Romans, and my sermon was mostly obtuse exegesis, explaining such big words and ideas as “justification by faith” and “salvation by grace not works.” My friends had no idea what I was talking about, and to be fair, I didn’t either — not really. From that moment, I began to listen.

Straining at the Oars
Straining at the Oars

Seminary taught me to exegete a passage and how to organize my thoughts.  But I learned to preach by listening. What did I hear when the budget committee was struggling to make income fit mission? What did I hear in the hospital room, or the jail? What did I hear when the young people began to talk? What did I hear about my parishioners’ work, families, joys, and times of sadness? I read the newspaper and asked what the Gospel has to say to real life. I asked why horror films are so popular and what the Book of Revelation is talking about. Ask, listen, hear; those simple actions helped me learn to preach.

In my early years a mentor suggested that I gather six people after worship to talk about my sermon. We set up a recording device, and I listened back to their conversation later in the week. I was shocked. What I intended to convey was not what they heard. What they heard was not what I intended. The Gospel was not proclaimed in its profound simplicity. My preaching was unclear, and it needed work.

But listening to their words — and to the words of many others — helped me over time to learn how better to uncover the Gospel and direct it to the ears that so desperately long to hear it.

There is, of course, more to preaching than simply learning to listen, but those other things are topics for another day. Today, the thought I want to share is this: whatever the text or the topic, before the people can hear the Word of the Lord, preachers need to hear their words.

Click to order H. Dana Fearon III’s Straining at the Oars: Case Studies in Pastoral Leadership or to visit his blog, All Things Pastoral.