What Do They Hear?



Powell provides a startling study of how differently the pastor and the congregation interpret Scripture, how this difference affects what the congregation hears in the sermon, and how to bridge this gap with equally startling practical steps.

This remarkably fascinating book reveals how significant social location—such as age, gender, nationality, race, and education—is when interpreting the Bible. Illustrated with two studies, Mark ...

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What Do They Hear?: Bridging the Gap Between Pulpit and Pew

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Powell provides a startling study of how differently the pastor and the congregation interpret Scripture, how this difference affects what the congregation hears in the sermon, and how to bridge this gap with equally startling practical steps.

This remarkably fascinating book reveals how significant social location—such as age, gender, nationality, race, and education—is when interpreting the Bible. Illustrated with two studies, Mark Allan Powell demonstrates how this plays out most dramatically in the gulf, often quite wide, between the preacher and the congregation.

Every preacher who reads this book will appreciate as never before the significance of social differences in the reception of his or her sermon, will see the unmistakable need to bridge this gap, and will receive clear instruction on how to do just that.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780687642052
  • Publisher: Abingdon Press
  • Publication date: 5/1/2007
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 120
  • Sales rank: 515,199
  • Product dimensions: 0.25 (w) x 5.50 (h) x 8.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Leatherman Professor of New Testament, Trinity Lutheran Seminary. Author of Jesus as a Figure in History (WJK, 1998); A Fortress Introduction to the Gospels (Fortress, 1998); God With Us: Toward a Pastoral Theology of Matthew's Gospel (Fortress, 1995); What Is Narrative Criticism? (Fortress, 1990).
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Read an Excerpt

What Do They Hear?

Bridging the Gap Between Pulpit and Pew

By Mark Allan Powell

Abingdon Press

Copyright © 2007 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-687-64205-2


For Those Who Have Ears to Hear

When I was in high school, way back in 1969, my mother told me that she liked "that song on the radio about the bathroom." She didn't usually like Top 40 music, so I was intrigued—but I had no idea what song she was talking about. She explained: "The one that goes, There's a bathroom on the right!'" The song is "Bad Moon Rising," performed by Creedence Clearwater Revival, and the actual line is, "There's a bad moon on the rise." But lyrics had not been the primary attraction for Mom anyway—she just liked how it sounded.

A few years back some folks put together a series of books on misheard song lyrics— volumes with titles like 'Scuse Me While I Kiss This Guy (Fireside, 1995) and He's Got the Whole World in His Pants (Fireside, 1996). People with apparently healthy eardrums received the same auditory signals as everyone else and yet heard something very different. What could account for such anomalies? Was it Freudian?

Most pastors and teachers—or public speakers in general—have experienced the phenomenon of being misheard in bizarre or eccentric ways. We had a student at the seminary not too long ago who wondered why the Bible professors kept talking about an "extra Jesus" (the word was exegesis). I could not help but recall Gilda Radner's character on 1970s episodes of Saturday Night Live— the feisty Emily Litella who would give rabid editorials objecting to something she had heard on the news only to discover that she'd completely misheard a significant word or phrase. Emily would go on about "the Eagle Rights amendment" or "violins on television" until someone explained the matter to her; then she'd look at the camera and say, "Never mind."

This book is about unanticipated interpretations of a different sort. If you have a problem with people misunderstanding the very words you utter, I have only obvious advice to offer: get a better sound system, learn to enunciate, use visual aids, be redundant. But many of us who preach and teach for a living have encountered a different kind of misunderstanding: people hear our words correctly but take them in ways we do not intend. They find implications we might not endorse and draw conclusions we might not recommend. We want to explain ourselves more fully: "When I said God works all things for the good, I wasn't suggesting God wants us to suffer" or "Daniel in the lion's den is a somewhat different context than corporate review panels." But, ultimately, this is a lost cause. We don't want to clutter our sermons with countless caveats, and it is not practical to follow people around offering further commentary whenever a potential for questionable application arises. We speak, and our audience decides what to do with our words—the listeners have the power not only to accept them or reject them but also to define them contextually, to decide what our words mean to them and for them. They do this, consciously or subconsciously, without our permission and, often, without our knowledge. For them, our words serve simply as the stuff out of which meaning can be made.

Still, this is not always a problem, is it? Sometimes, the flexibility of interpretation works to our advantage. Most preachers discover that their sermons can have beneficial effects beyond anything they actually had in mind. People find relevance in our words for situations we knew nothing about, or they make connections that we might not have made ourselves but now recognize as appropriate. We are embarrassed to take credit for such surprises—we smile or wink and say, "It must have been the Holy Spirit."

Yes. I believe it is the Holy Spirit—but that does not necessarily mean there is anything supernatural going on. Communication theory can account for serendipity. Indeed, coincidences can be encouraged. We can learn to preach in ways that invite fortuitous application of our words: gnomic sayings, images, symbols, and anecdotes are pregnant with potential for polyvalence, and the more we employ them, the more likely our parishioners will be to pursue possibilities for meaning that stretch the parameters of our limited intent.

I come to this topic as one trained in literary criticism, where the just-mentioned polyvalence has been all the rage for more than a decade now. Simply put, polyvalence refers to the capacity—or, perhaps, the inevitable tendency— for texts to mean different things to different people. Literary critics differ drastically in their evaluation of polyvalence (i.e., friend or foe?), but virtually all literary critics now recognize the reality of this phenomenon: texts do mean different things to different people and at least some of the interpretive differences that have been examined (e.g., gender-biased interpretations) appear to follow fairly predictable patterns.

The potential for polyvalence may be a bane to authors of instruction manuals, medical prescriptions, or legal documents, but it is surely a boon to poets. Preachers and politicians fall somewhere in between: they depend upon a degree of ambiguity, but only a degree. Yes, we preachers share that hypocrisy with the politicians—for all our complaining about being "taken out of context," we want our words to achieve a greatness beyond what we instill in them. We want them to exceed our expectations, to accomplish purposes beyond our purview. Indeed, we want our words to accomplish the very purposes of God (Isa. 55:11), which by definition lie beyond anything discernible within the context of our own thoughts and ways (Isa. 55:8). Truth be known, we want to be taken out of context—but only when that is a good thing.

In any case, it seems inevitable. We want our sermons to be meaningful to people and for people, but we do not actually make that happen. Most of the time, our role is simply to provide people with the raw materials out of which they can make meaning for themselves. We provide the materials, but we are impotent to control the final assembly. We are fortunate if we even get to witness that construction, to inspect it when it is done.

Wouldn't it be great if we could maximize the possibility of our words finding widespread application in ways that meet our approval and minimize the possibility of them being taken in ways that don't meet our approval? Polyvalence within parameters—that would be perfect.

In my work as a literary critic, I have tried to distinguish between interpretations that are invited by the text (though not necessarily intended by the author) and interpretations that are not invited by the text (almost certainly not intended by the author). I have often used a simple example of four persons reading the story of Jesus' crucifixion in the Gospel of Matthew. They respond to the story in different ways:

Reader One is inspired by the story because it presents Jesus as a man of integrity who is willing to die nobly for his convictions.

Reader Two is traumatized by the story because it reveals the depth of human depravity on the part of those who denounce, betray, and torture an innocent man.

Reader Three is comforted by the story because it portrays Jesus' death as an atoning sacrifice through which God offers forgiveness to the undeserving.

Reader Four is delighted by the story because it reports the execution of a meddlesome busybody who tried to tell everyone else how to live.

The first three responses seem to be invited by the text—the fourth does not. The first three readings pick up on signals and nuances within the story, engaging it in variant ways. The fourth appears to defy the narrative's rhetoric in a way that avoids engaging the text but, rather, imposes a foreign perspective upon it. All four are examples of polyvalence, but only the first three exemplify polyvalence that lies within the parameters of meaning invited or envisioned by the narrative.

There are a couple of points here for preaching. First, let us note that the first three readings, while diverse, are not really competitive or contradictory. It would be a bit presumptuous for any one of these readers to insist that his or her response was the only "correct interpretation" of the story. It would also be difficult for us to ascertain exactly which of these three responses the author of Matthew's Gospel actually intended to evoke. Perhaps he intended only one of them—and would be (pleasantly?) surprised to discover that his story sometimes worked in other ways. Or perhaps he foresaw all three possibilities and hoped he would have readers who would respond in all these ways. We cannot know—he is unavailable for interview. What we can say is that the author of Matthew's Gospel provided readers with raw material appropriate for the creation of these three types of meaning. That, I think, corresponds to something we might want to do in our sermons.

But what about that fourth reader? This reader appears to have approached the story with values and perspectives radically different from those that the author assumed his readers would hold. That can happen with our sermons also: every communication must assume a certain "target audience," and hearers who do not fit the assumed paradigm may respond in unanticipated ways. Reader Four may seem like a fairly extreme example, but even the most homogenous congregation can include persons with diverse outlooks. Thus, it might be a useful exercise to identify the assumptions we make regarding the target audience for our sermons: what do we take for granted concerning the point of view of the community in which these sermons are heard? We might begin such an exercise by listing the values, beliefs, and commitments that seem to govern the lives of our parishioners. That's a good start, but point of view can encompass other things as well.

One time, I preached a sermon that was intended to arouse thanksgiving for the providence of God. I employed illustrations that called attention to the goodness of God that had been shed abroad in people's lives—the kind of "chicken soup for the soul" stories that are supposed to be effective at touching people's hearts. I touched hearts, but not always in the way I had anticipated. At that point in my ministry, I was regularly soliciting feedback (always a good idea) and some who had heard the sermon reported that they were aroused not to thanksgiving, but to envy and covetousness. This, obviously, had not been my intent. What went wrong? As it turns out, the effectiveness of my illustrations depended on the hearers being able to empathize with the recipients of bounty described in the stories I told. Some were able to do that, and their identification with persons who had been blessed by God fostered a sense of gratitude within them. But everything depended on that connection being made, and for others it just didn't happen. They heard me talking about good things that God does for some people—other people— and their gut-level response was to wonder why God didn't do things like that for them.

It would be easy to criticize these people: Why are they so selfish? Can't they just be grateful that God is good to anyone? Why does everything have to be about them? But this seems pointless. Lots of things would be easier if the people to whom we preach were better people ... if they weren't such sinners! Meanwhile, I decided that I needed to learn a few things about empathy, and I discovered that literary critics know quite a bit about this subject. They have been studying empathy for a long time and they know about strategies storytellers sometimes use to encourage it. Such strategies might have made my sermon more effective. But, more to the point, literary critics know that empathy can never be forced. It should not be taken for granted. It is, in fact, one aspect of point of view, so assumptions about an audience's empathy choices are as significant as those about other matters of perspective (values, beliefs, or commitments). Bottom line: a sermon that assumes a particular point of empathy for its intended effect will only achieve that effect for those who make the connection; others may construct a meaning outside the parameters of the preacher's intent. And, since empathy cannot be controlled, a sermon that depends upon a particular empathy choice to achieve its intended effect will probably not succeed with everyone in the audience.

Literary criticism is attentive to different elements within texts that allow for "polyvalence within parameters," and literary criticism is also attentive to different factors within readers that account for responses that resist or defy what the text seems to invite. Indeed, the primary focus of literary criticism for the past two decades has been on bridging the gap between authorial intent and reader response. To the extent that sermons are "texts" (albeit oral ones), preachers may be able to learn a few things from literary critics that will help them to bridge the gap between pulpit and pew.

We want our sermons to be texts that lend themselves to multiple interpretation, but we don't want them to be texts that can just mean anything to anybody. We want to create texts that provide people with the raw materials for constructing a particular sort of meaning—and we know that some will do this better than others; some will do it more elaborately, some more intensely, some more permanently—but we hope that very few will use what we provide for the construction of meaning that is completely contrary to what we had in mind.

Ultimately we have no control over how people respond to our words. Recognizing that lack of control can be liberating as well as frightening, but it does not relieve us of responsibility for doing what we can. One thing we can do—and will do in this little book— is learn a few things about how and why texts mean different things to different people. And specifically we will learn a bit about how texts mean different things to clergy than they do to laity. We will be stereotyping, of course, and any number of exceptions to the generalities might intervene for particular cases and circumstances. But we will learn a few basic things about how clergy and laity make meaning out of texts.

Why? Sermons are usually texts about texts. Though a sermon may be an oral text in its own right, it is also often a reflection upon a written text, namely some passage from the Bible. Accordingly, different perceptions of meaning in a sermon may have a background in different perceptions of meaning in scripture. Few pastors will be surprised to hear that clergy and laity read scripture differently. Clergy have been trained to read scripture exeget-ically, to discover meaning in light of knowledge that laity lack and through the application of critical methods laity do not employ. Obviously, then, preachers will often find in scripture a meaning or sense that would not have been readily apparent to their parishioners. The point, then, is to draw upon that advanced understanding without letting it become a barrier that separates us from our listeners. A colleague of mine says that exegesis is like underwear: your congregation wants to be able to assume it is there, but they don't want you to show it to them.

I was privileged to spend a few days with gospel music legends Bill and Gloria Gaither in 2003. At the time I wasn't much of a fan of Southern gospel music (though I've since developed a bit more appreciation for the genre), but I was intrigued by their popularity. The American Society of Composers and Performers named the Gaithers "the most successful songwriters of the twentieth century" and declared that their songs have been performed and sung by more people than any other composers in history: more than George and Ira Gershwin, more than Rodgers and Hammerstein, more than Lennon and McCartney. What's the secret? Bill says they make a great team: Gloria is the intellectual, ethereal type, while he is the down-home country boy. Specifically, he says, "She keeps things theologically sound, while I keep asking, 'Can we put some of those cookies on the bottom shelf where everyone can reach?'" I recall seeing a cartoon in Leadership magazine many years ago that showed a preacher looming over his congregation and bellowing defensively, "Now some of you may think this smacks of Sabellianism ..." This preacher was probably out of touch with the concerns of the average congregant.

Intellectual knowledge and specialized training present one sort of gap between pastors and their parishioners, but my guess is that most preachers are aware of this. You probably don't need a book to help you cross that divide, though you might need a nudge now and then to help you remember it exists. As suggested above, it may help to have some system for obtaining reliable feedback from representative members of the congregation. Still, in my experience, this is only one of many potential causes for a disconnect between pulpit and pew, and since it is relatively easy to detect and correct, it need not be our primary concern.


Excerpted from What Do They Hear? by Mark Allan Powell. Copyright © 2007 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


1. For Those Who Have Ears to Hear,
2. Social Location: A Matter of Perspective,
3. Empathy Choices: Casting the Scriptures,
4. Message or Effect: The Meaning of Meaning,

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