Listeners Dare: Hearing God in the Sermon

Kate Sonsteby and Andy Davis review Will Willimon's new book.

Will Willimon
Abington Press, 144 pages | Published April 19, 2022

Andy: In Listener’s Dare, Will Willimon, who is a preacher and teacher of preachers, shares valuable insights about sermon delivery – and receptivity – with those who primarily listen to sermons. His observations about preparing and preaching a sermon ring true. He notes, “many preachers are overly cautious and circumspect, not out of fear, but out of love” because we value our personal relationships with church members, and we don’t want to upset our beloved congregations. Willimon challenges us to preach boldly as God’s spokespersons. I resonate with this tension. People who routinely listen to sermons, like you, Kate, will surely benefit from hearing that preachers are riddled with these inner conflicts as you develop your sermon listening skills.

Kate: I think I already knew that, but it’s good to be reminded that our pastors are human too. I struggled to “listen” to Willimon at first and didn’t get into the rhythm of the book until around chapter four. His casual tone is a direct appeal to the reader/listener, of course, but something in that tone came across as condescending rather than helpful, especially as he pounds home the point that God is always listening and speaking, if we would only hear. We listeners bring our own wisdom and critical thinking to worship, and it felt as though Willimon often discounted that.

Andy: Fair enough. To be honest, I haven’t thought much about what resources sermon-hearers bring to worship. In some ways, this book is a missed opportunity to examine the listeners’ skills, perspectives and more. Setting that aside, it can be hard to discern an overall argument in some chapters. He jumps from example to example and from point to point with few transitions. His paragraphs read more like lists than a narrative.

Kate: Yes! This reading experience mimicked real life in that I found myself tuning out during those litanies of biblical passages strung together as citations or examples, but I was called sharply back to attention by insightful, original nuggets such as: “Christian preaching is the peculiar public speaking that is evoked by the nature of the God who creates a world just by saying the word and by a Savior who never retires from speaking a new world into being” and “It’s scary to be an agent of the living God; it’s unnerving to have sermons do more than we intend.”

Andy: Right, which gets to the heart of what I really appreciate in this book: Willimon insists that God is speaking and that our lives will be changed if we listen — and then act. Sermons are more than entertainment or education, they are an encounter with our Creator. Willimon raises our expectations about the purpose of listening to sermons.

Kate: Despite this book’s drawbacks, it could obviously serve as a conversational spark between preachers and listeners of sermons, such as in a church adult study class. As Christians, we’re all called to be both students and proponents of the Word, yet we don’t often examine what sermons are, what they are for, and how to listen to them.

Andy: I hear you.

Presbyterian Outlook supports local bookstores. Join us! Click on the link below to purchase Listeners Dare from BookShop, an online bookstore with a mission to financially support local, independent bookstores. As an affiliate, Outlook will also earn a commission from your purchase.