Most of us were born hearing well, but all of us must learn to listen well. Listening is a skill, an art that is in need of being cultivated.
Dr. Ralph Nichols, considered by many to be an authority on the subject, believes that we think four, perhaps five, times faster than we talk. This means that if a speaker utters one hundred twenty words a minute, the audience thinks at about five hundred words a minute. That difference offers a strong temptation to listeners to take mental excursions . . . to think about last night's bridge game or tomorrow's sales report or the need to get that engine tune-up before next weekend's trip to the mountains . . . then phase back into the speaker's talk.
Research at the University of Minnesota reveals that in listening to a ten-minute talk, hearers operate at only a twenty-eight percent efficiency. And the longer the talk, the less we understand, the less we track with our ears what somebody's mouth is saying. That could be downright frightening to guys like me who preach from forty to fifty minutes a crack! That also explains why some wag has described preaching as "the fine art of talking in someone else's sleep."
Good communication is tricky business. We are all busy people with heavy mental anchors dragging across our brains at every waking moment. It's hard work for any preacher to seize our attention, then hold it for an extended period of time—especially since we can think so much faster than he can talk.
Which brings up the seldom-mentioned secret of a good sermon. Aside from God's vital part in the whole thing, there are two crucial ingredients that make it happen. First, the one who speaks must speak well. Second, the one who listens must listen well. Neither is automatic. Both are hard work. I should also add that just because a Bible is open and religious words are being tossed around, there is no magical spell of sustained interest guaranteed. And difficult as it may be for us preachers to accept this, sincerity in the heart is no excuse for being dry, dull, and boring in the pulpit.
But let's think about the pew for a change. What can be done by the listener to keep the sermon interesting? Instead of thinking about how the preacher could improve, let's turn to the flip side and consider how we could improve our listening skills.
Any ideas? We'll talk about a few tomorrow.
Excerpt taken from Come before Winter and Share My Hope by Charles R. Swindoll. Copyright © 1985, 1988, 1994 by Charles R. Swindoll, Inc. All rights reserved worldwide.
Used with permission. All rights reserved.