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 on the front 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 can believe that.

Every preacher knows.

You’re pouring your heart into the message over which you have labored and prayed.  You really want your people to “get it.”  As your face “roams to and fro across the” audience (I’m remembering 2 Chronicles 16:9 here), your eyes light on the responsive church members.

They stand out.

In one section, two or three people are delighting in God’s message, their eyes 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 you are.  Over here, a woman is weeping and in this section, a man fist pumps.  Some anonymous voice calls out, “Yes sir” and “amen.”

They have no idea.

They have no way of knowing the positive effect their response has on you the preacher.

Later, you almost feel like seeking them out to thank them.  You do not do this, because it’s not about you. You’re not trying to win them to you, but to the Lord. You do not want to make them overly self-conscious about the effect they have on the one in the pulpit, lest that influence them in the future.

You want them to come to worship God, to draw near to the Lord Jesus.

In another sense, the frowners and naysayers (nay-lookers?) in the congregation have almost as strong a negative effect on you as the faithful have in a positive way. But not quite.

This is not a concert and you are not Billy Joel.

You are called by God to preach the Word of God regardless of the response. You are to pour your heart into it no matter the visual response and oral feedback you receive. However the people respond–whether thousands profess faith in Jesus or a mob gathers rocks to stone you–your job is to faithfully discharge your responsibility.

I once preached at a state penitentiary to the hardest men in the place, and labored to be heard over the stamping of their feet and the chorus of throat-clearing.  I was young and this was a first for me.  Later, I wondered if this was a case of “casting pearls before swine,” to use the Lord’s unforgettable metaphor.  Or, did I do right in continuing for the sake of the few who were straining to hear?  It’s hard to know for certain.

In my seminary pastorate, as the new minister of a small congregation on Alligator Bayou 25 miles west of New Orleans, I noticed a church member who seemed to be dedicating himself to undermining the preacher.  Earl sat in the middle pew with arms folded and a scowl across his face throughout the entire sermon. Whatever he was thinking about his young pastor, he was communicating it quite well.

So, I called him up.

The second Sunday afternoon, I drove 20 miles to his house.  I learned Earl was divorced and trying to raise two teenage sons and a younger daughter all by himself.  In his living room, he was pleasant enough throughout our visit.

I said, “What’s wrong?”

He acted innocent.  I explained that he clearly was unhappy with me and I wanted to find out what was going on. Was there something I could do to correct this problem?

He said, “You probably know I didn’t vote for you to be my pastor.  I don’t want another seminary student.”

I had been told that his family had provided four of the six ‘no’ votes when the church extended the call to us.

“Our little church is sitting here doing nothing,” Earl said, “and we need a pastor who will grow this church. Seminary students do not do that. They’re just looking for a meal ticket. We need a full-time pastor.”

Yeah, you want a full-time pastor for a church running 40 in attendance and with a budget of $127 a week.  (This was the Spring of 1965.)

That’s all it took.  Earl just needed to know he had been seen and that the pastor cared.  He had “just known” that the new pastor would not be visiting in the homes of people. But my presence in his living room said otherwise.

Earl became a big supporter in that church, and a lifelong friend.  I did his funeral a few years ago, and his daughter, who married a preacher, remains a friend on Facebook.  (That church grew well, incidentally, and when I left 30 months later, we had tripled in attendance.)

Only in a small church, I suppose, can the preacher call out church members giving negative visual feedback to ask “what’s wrong?”  Mostly, what we do is try to block out the scowls and attempt to draw encouragement from the enthusiasm of those who “get it.”

Many years ago, I bought a professional quality 35-mm camera and began working at taking high-quality photographs.  That’s how I learned something about sunsets.

My images of sunrises and sunsets were never very good.  A brilliant sky never showed up that way on film.  To be sure, I could have taken a class on photography–and I wish I had–and learned from the experts.

Eventually, what I did was to turn around and shoot, not at the evening sun, but at the reflections of the rays on the landscape behind.  And that produced some outstanding pictures.

I told that to the choir, which in those days, remained in place on the platform throughout the worship service.  “The congregation is looking at you,” I told them.  “You are reflecting joy and enthusiasm or boredom and distraction to the people in the pews.  They are making decisions about the sermon–whether it’s worth listening to or not–from looking at you.”

Maybe they shouldn’t be doing that, but they are.

Maybe it’s unfair to the minister, but there it is.

Even the congregation picks up on the feedback of the front-row sitters.

Billy Joel gets it.

And that, we might want to say to a few scowling church members, is why certain ones are not allowed to sit on the platform or in the choir.  And it’s why these hand-picked, bright-eyed, Jesus-loving men and women are!

The same principle holds true for greeters and ushers. Only the radiant need apply.



2 thoughts on “What audience feedback means—especially to preachers

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