How to Keep Listeners Engaged from Start to Finish

Learn how to develop the skills needed for the demands of preaching.

black and white image of a closeup of woman from shoulders up. she is in profile to the right and holding a microphone up to her smiling mouth

Ya gotta give preachers a break.

Few of us were went to school for communications, speech, journalism, or theater.

Those are high-level skills that take years to master. 

And yet preachers are expected to utilize those skills in service of their sermons week after week. 

Communicating through word, message choice, sermon illustrations, body language, and voice is difficult, and preachers have few opportunities to hone skills in the craft of writing and sermon delivery. 

That said, it is still incumbent upon us to do everything we can to hold our listeners’ attention when we preach. 

Because if they’re not listening, they’re not hearing the gospel.

Even Jazz Musicians Practice

I confess I have little patience for those who say preachers should “just let the Spirit speak,” or that practicing means we don’t trust or listen to the Spirit in the moment of preaching.

Practicing has nothing to do with trust or listening to the Spirit. 

If we are faithful, we are listening to the Spirit when we study Scripture, when we discern the message, when we pray for our listeners, and while we preach. 

Preachers trust the Spirit from start to finish!

Practicing, however, gives the Spirit an even better chance to shine forth. 

Church musicians spend years mastering their art. And it doesn’t matter whether they are singing classical music from a score or playing jazz riffs. 

Every art depends on technique—practicing the basics for years and developing tools to apply at a moment’s notice so musicians are ready when the Spirit moves them.

It is hubris to believe preaching is the exception to every other artistic medium and needs no practice.

Writing well is hard. 

Communicating clearly is hard. 

Making a sermon relevant to the listeners in the pew is hard. 

Hard enough that it should never be taken for granted.

Every preacher needs to learn the practice method that works best for him or her. If you preach without notes, go to the space where you will preach. Know your moves physically and rhetorically. Know where the sermon begins and where you plan for it to land. If the Spirit takes you in a new direction you can listen, but if you end up in a dead-end at least you’ll have a place to return to. Practice it enough that you know how long the sermon is so you don’t run over, or get so caught up in your own words you don’t know when or how to end.

If you preach from a manuscript, then write for speech and format the page so you can make easy eye contact with your listeners and speak naturally. You can always veer in a new direction if so moved in the moment, but a manuscript offers the luxury of care-filled word-smithing, and knowing just how long the sermon will be based on the word count.

No matter your preferred style, practicing your communication skills will help deliver your sermon with modulation, varied pacing, smooth speech, clear articulation, and without distracting verbal tics, stumbles, hand motions, or unconscious rocking. 

A smooth delivery with inflection, pauses, and a clear path from start to finish will keep listeners waiting for your next words.

Emotions are Biblical: Preach Them!

What moves people in any work of art? 

Whether it’s poetry, a pop song, an oil painting, or a story on the Moth Radio Hour, what grabs us is how they make us feel

That’s why we can expect a novel or movie categorized as a drama to be a tearjerker. A comedy is likely to make us laugh. A thriller gets our heart racing. 

Preaching that moves people also relies on emotions.

This isn’t manipulative; emotions make us human. That’s how God made us. What sense does it make to pretend they don’t exist? 

The Psalms contain every human emotion, described in poetry and song. We feel Job’s grief, we exalt with Mary’s Magnificat, we feel Jesus’s agony on the cross, and rejoice at his empty tomb.

For preaching, consider the emotional tone of the sermon text. 

Does it display sorrow, joy, shame, fear, anger, or confusion? Where does the story move? Does it begin in sorrow and end in joy? Does it begin with petulance like Jonah, but end with at least grudging acceptance?

In your sermon prep, note the emotions of the text. Then engage in theological reflection to notice where those emotions are displayed in modern-day life. Notice when God is present or seems to be absent. How do the biblical characters react? How do we react in similar circumstances? Bring biblical situations into current life by showing we all feel the same way sometimes.

What Good News is woven through the story via emotions? If the text moves us from the sorrow of our sins to the joy of redemption, take the sermon in the same direction. 

If this story moves from wonderment to joy, as it does on Easter Sunday, take us there.

People won’t be moved by the ideas in their heads. It’s when those ideas move down to our hearts, that we feel the presence of God. 

And when people feel the presence of God, they pay attention. 


This is the fourth in a series of five blog posts that explores the definition of an effective sermon, created and applied by Backstory Preaching.

“An effective sermon offers a clear message of Good News, authentic to the preacher, relevant to the listeners, holding their attention, and inviting transformation.”

Next time: How can a sermon invite transformation?

Backstory Preaching is the all-online sermon prep and continuing education center for preachers, lay and ordained, in the Anglican and Mainline Protestant traditions. The Rev’d Dr. Lisa Cressman, an Episcopal priest, is its Founding Steward.

 [[author title=”About the Author”]]

Photo by Oleg Magni from Pexels

  • Lisa Cressman

    The vision for Backstory Preaching woke the Rev'd Dr. Lisa Cressman in the middle of the night, and she's been trying to keep up with the Holy Spirit ever since. She's Backstory Preaching's Founder and Steward, sharing insights from 25 years as an Episcopal priest, preacher, spiritual director, and retreat leader. Lisa is the author of Backstory Preaching: Integrating Life, Spirituality, and Craft and a Certified Daring Way facilitator. She holds a BS in Nursing from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, an M.Div. from the Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley, CA, and a D.Min. in Practical Theology from Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, IN.

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