Hollow Amens

5 December 2018

‘Come on, you folks! Do I hear an “Amen”?’

Pseudo-enthusiastic ‘amens’ from the preacher’s listeners placate — for now — his discomfort with their unresponsiveness.

amen brotherNow, it’s good that people be alert to the preaching and broadly responsive to it. But when speakers deliberately elicit a response like this, it is unhelpful, for several reasons.

For a start, a typical congregation includes a wide range of personality types. At one end of the spectrum is the excitable extrovert who starts gushing at the slightest provocation. He will ‘amen’, whether there’s something to ‘amen’ at or not. At the other is the thoughtful introvert whose natural bent is to keep her feelings — and her responses — to herself. So it’s unreasonable to expect a standard ‘Amen, brother!’ from everybody.

But there’s also a congregation’s ‘group personality’. This shows in learned behaviour moulded chiefly by the nation, race or society to which the individuals belong. In my experience, for example, Americans and Africans tend to be more vocally responsive than the British, who are famous for their ‘stiff upper lip’. That’s why some American preachers I have known, who are used to a certain type of response on their home turf, are thrown by the more subdued attitude they find when they first preach in Britain. That’s when you’re likely to hear the frustrated, ‘Do I hear an “Amen”?’

A second reason this is unhelpful is that it puts the preacher’s personal need above the message he is preaching. No matter what truth he is presenting, what comes over is, ‘I’m feeling a bit of rejection at your quietness. Please meet my need for reassurance by voicing your amens!’ But the aim of preaching is surely to inform, encourage and challenge the listeners, not to boost the preacher’s self-confidence.

And thirdly, calling for a vocal response is inevitably unproductive. Yes, the preacher-pleasers will dutifully call out, ‘Amen, brother. Preach it!’ or whatever. But it’s meaningless; they are only doing it because he asked for it, not because their hearts were stirred to do it by the power of the message. Even worse, the request will cause the less pliant personalities to dig their heels in and become even less responsive. Some might even mutter, ‘Not on your life, mate!’

Years ago, in my own preaching, I came to a place of peace about congregational response. I would work hard at preparing my message. I would pray about it earnestly. Then, when I stood to deliver the word, I would trust the Holy Spirit to apply it in his own way, and I was determined not to be either elated or disappointed by the people’s response. It’s a good place to be.

If some people got watery-eyed, or said a soulful ‘Yes!’, I’d press on regardless. If others got glassy-eyed or nodded off, I wouldn’t be fazed. Of course, a bit of clear positive response is gratifying, but the last thing I want is to be dependent on it. When I’m in my seat listening to another preacher, I’m not a greatly responsive person, at least outwardly. I listen carefully. I weigh what is said. And when something hits home with me, I quietly tuck it away, to be brought out, prayed over and put into practice later.

I went to a church to preach once, years ago, and it was a bad experience. I didn’t feel comfortable. My words didn’t flow well. There was a bit of an atmosphere and, afterwards, though I stayed for the cup of tea, I couldn’t get away quickly enough. The whole sermon had felt disastrous.

A couple a years later, to my surprise I was asked back. Remembering the previous bad experience, I went with some trepidation and much prayer. I arrived quite early, so was there as the people came in. One lady spotted me and did a double-take. Then she made a bee-line for me.

‘Hello,’ she said. ‘You came to preach here once before, didn’t you?’

‘Yes, I did,’ I replied, wriggling internally with embarrassment at the memory.

‘I’m so glad to see you,’ she went on. ‘I just want you to know that the message you brought last time was spot on for me. It was a major turning-point for the better in my life. Thank you so much!’

I learned a lesson that day: never to judge a sermon’s impact by the outward signs in the people, whether negative or positive. Do your best, and leave it to God. Yes, genuine amens are better than hollow ones, but none of them matter all that much.

Water on the altar

27 February 2011

I’ve never liked hype, especially in Christian things.

‘Do I hear an Amen to that?’ yells the preacher when he’s said something he thinks deserves one.

‘Amen!’ the congregation dutifully responds. But not me. Yes, I do interject the odd ‘Amen’ from time to time, but only when I feel a strong urge to do so, and so far that has never coincided with a preacher’s prompt.

water on altarIn fact, any attempt to manipulate a congregation’s emotions turns me right off. A preacher may, for instance,  inject into his voice a pseudo-emotional tremble when he comes to a key sentence, especially if he’s arrived at the compulsory (for some) end-of-meeting appeal. People around me gasp and go all ‘spiritual’, but I feel like groaning, and sometimes I actually do. Or the worship-leader insists that we sing that song again for the twentieth time, but this time on our knees. We all know that endless repetition can numb the mind and produce an altered state of consciousness. It’s hype.

For me, that sort of thing tells me it’s time to exit and visit the toilet. ‘Stop messing with people!’ I want to shout. ‘If God wants to do something exceptional here he’s big enough to do it by himself. He doesn’t need your pathetic help!’ I don’t say it out loud, of course, but I’ve been sorely tempted.

I’ve come to see that the supernatural is, for the most part, delightfully ‘natural’. It happens in the midst of the normal and the routine, when no-one is hyped up or glassy-eyed. Some have even entertained angels without realising it.

So when, at the end of a meeting, I sense a reluctance in most people to rise from their seats and join the coffee-queue, I feel a strong urge to be the first to rise, wander casually to the back of the room and say, ‘All right, Fred?’ to Fred. Later, I hear people say things like, ‘What an unusual sense of God’s presence there was at the end of the meeting, wasn’t there? Nobody wanted to leave their seats.’

Nobody, it seems, except me. Because I don’t think it was really anything to do with a ‘sense of God’s presence’ at all. Maybe some were chewing over what had been preached, which is good. But it was, I think, more a social and psychological phenomenon of some kind than the Holy Spirit at work in any special way—and it could have been triggered by the pseudo-tremble in the preacher’s last sentence or two.

In the light of the above confession I was happy to find, in reading 1 Kings 18, that the great prophet Elijah had his feet firmly on the ground when it came to things supernatural. He didn’t like hype any more than I do. That chapter, of course, describes his great confrontation with the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. It was a contest: whoever’s god brought down fire to consume the sacrifice on the altar would be seen to be the true god.

The prophets of Baal went first. And, boy, were they into hype! They danced themselves into a semi-trance, cavorting round the altar. They cut themselves till they bled and indulged in lots of ‘frantic prophesying’. They no doubt felt ‘the presence of Baal’ in a big way. But unfortunately the fire didn’t fall; the real supernatural didn’t show up.

Then it was Elijah’s turn. You could understand it if he had tried to help God along a bit, taking a few steps to ensure a good fire. He could have chosen only the driest of wood. He could have hidden a few firelighters in among it. He could have secreted a box of matches up his sleeve. He could have stationed one of his supporters nearby with a lens to focus the sun’s rays on the tinder that he had tucked in among the sticks.

But no, he wasn’t having any such nonsense. More than that, in fact, he did everything possible to kill any hype and ensure that God would be seen to send the fire himself: he had twelve ‘large jars’ of water emptied over the sacrifice and the wood!

Water on the altar—I love that! In fact, had I been there to see it I’d probably have shouted an unsolicited ‘Amen!’

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