The first few sermons I preached were in Abilene Texas at the Central Church of Christ while I attended college. Gosh, I was really terrible! Those sweet people listened patiently to a twenty-one year old kid tell them how to think and be.
On one occasion my text was John 11, the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. Most of what I said was quite unmemorable, but one thing stands out in my mind:
“Perhaps the most powerful moment of this story.” I marveled, “is not that Lazarus was raised, but that Jesus saw the grieving people and wept for them.”
As I said these words I looked up from my notes and “saw” my audience, too, which included several recently widowed people. I saw the clutched tissues, heard the quiet sniffling, and met their red eyes. Not only did I say something they needed to hear about a caring god, but I connected with them and was moved by their sadness. At that moment I learned that the most powerful thing to happen in the pulpit does not come from eloquence or charisma, but from connecting with the people and feeling what they feel.
I experienced the power of my audiences’ feelings many times over the years. Their angst could be a force that would engulf me and weigh me down. Occasionally, my words helped but connecting with them was what made people feel a little better.
It didn’t happen every time. Sometimes the audience didn’t trust me enough or I was too tired to carry the burden. But it happened more as I got older and worried less about performance and focused instead on the people.