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greg liston – the view from the pew

It’s been about 6 months now since I stepped down from being the Senior Pastor at HBC. Six months of listening to sermons instead of preaching them. The view from the pew is not like the view from the pulpit – you see things differently from down here. And this different perspective has made me wonder what I’d do differently in my preaching ministry if I had it over again.

Here are my Top Five …

5. I’d encourage people more. When I was preaching every Sunday, my “key success factor” was change. My preaching animatedly urged conservative, comfortable, risk-averse Kiwis to abandon themselves completely to God. Not an unworthy goal! But many pew-dwellers are already abandoning themselves to God. And it can be disheartening constantly hearing how we should be different. If I had it over, I’d choose a softer tone, and make “endurance” as much of a key success factor as “change”.

4. I’d repeat myself more. When I was preaching every Sunday, a week seemed like a very short time. Just blink twice and the next sermon would be upon you. From the pew, however, a week is a very long time indeed. And often, with the best of intentions, we pew dwellers struggle to remember not just the content of last week’s sermon but even its topic. If I had it over, I’d spend more time creatively repeating myself each week, and take much more time to say much less.

3. I’d tell the story more. When I was preaching every Sunday, I felt a strong pressure to be relevant – to relate the Biblical text directly to the day-to-day experience of people’s lives. The view from the pew convinces me of something I’ve long suspected – the demand for relevance is bankrupt. Sermons shouldn’t fix my life in the world; they should fixate my life on God. If I had it over, I’d ignore the demands of relevance and remind people of their place in the grand story over and over and over again.

2. I’d “experience” more. When I was preaching every Sunday, I was constantly on the lookout for improvement opportunities. What shocked me when I became a pew-dweller, is that I had completely lost the ability to “enjoy” or “experience” a church service or a sermon, because I had become so used to “evaluating” it. If I had it over, I’d spend more time “experiencing” God through the service and less time honing my technique in it.

1. I’d worry less. When I was preaching every Sunday, I worried a lot about what people thought of my sermons. Certainly there was lots of positive feedback, but I often subconsciously (and sometimes consciously!) pictured people savaging my lame attempts at exposition. But most pew dwellers are fundamentally for the people on the other side of the pulpit. They’re with us, not against us. They’re on our side, not playing for the opposition. They want us to do well, and expect that we will. This is the biggest change I’d make if I had it over. I’d try to spend more time doing the job of preaching and less time worrying about it.

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Greg Liston is currently pursuing doctoral studies in systematic theology, after recently completing 7½ years as the senior pastor of Hillsborough Baptist Church. Previous roles include strategic management consulting and a Ph.D. in quantum physics. He is married to Diane and has two children, Emily (9) and James (6).


  1. Joseph Collins says:

    Hey, thank you for your words of wisdom Greg.

    Security in the big story should produce endurance and a clear vision for where we need change in ourselves. I believe God can direct his church better when we know how God works within the Big Story.. and we live the continuation of the big story. From experience, I have noticed that God speaks a very similar message to a city week by week. Knowing that God is taking his church through the same lows and highs helps us trust and know him more. Together we can survive and thrive when he highlights for instance, those who have depression in a church or the church looses someone close. We learn how to support them… and therefore those outside the church see the love we have for one another. We also then have some experience of how to help those outside the church. I am certain God takes the church through things together, so we should recognise his movement and respond appropriately. It won’t require hype to reach the ideal of what our congregation think as the ultimate type of Christian. Our character will develop and we will see God move in the little and great things. Repetition helps, as does ownership of our weaknesses and strengths as we walk together. We can relax and enjoy God more, and he us.

    May Gob bless you.

  2. Geoff New says:

    Wow! This is so helpful Greg. I especially relate to No 2. Thank you for the fresh look into what we do week-by-week. It is so hard to find the opportunity to step out of it all and reflect to this level. Thank you!

  3. Hamish says:

    Very helpful Greg. Thank you. It seems nigh on impossible to get the view from the pew when you’re regularly in the pulpit.

  4. Mark Maffey says:

    I think your first point is well made, preachers often their own worst critics. It is easy to over self-evaluate and is much as they would like to think they can deliver the perfect sermon week in, week out it isn’t going to happen. David got it right in Psalm 19v14, may the meditations of my heart,and the words of my mouth be acceptable to you, my rock and my redeemer. What counts more than anything else is that what we say, and where we say it from is in line with what the Lord requires of us, and in light of the reality that he is our strength and our redeemer.
    The other aspect of this is that we are first called to be seed sowers, we won’t know until we get to heaven what impact words spoken have truly had on people’s lives, God is the the Lord of the Harvest, he alone can give the increase, as Isaiah 55 puts it God’s word does not return void, even though at times that is how we may feel, but will accomplish the purpose for which it is sent

  5. Greg Liston says:

    Thanks for your responses.

    Mark and Joseph, I agree with you completely. In our technique obsessed culture (Ellul etc.) the uniqueness and beauty of sermons (and church life in general I suppose) is that they are intentionally from and pointing to God. In our obsession to preach well (technique) we can miss the point of preaching. Simple stuff I suppose, but I forget it so easily.

    Hamish, yes it is hard. When I was preaching every week I am sure I would have said that I regularly thought about the view from the pew and took it into account, but now I’m not so sure. I wonder what mechanisms pastors could put in place to make sure they get a regular reality check from this perspective?

    Geoff, yes, not everyone can (or indeed wants to) take 3 years out to do a Ph.D. (or even several months out to study lectio divinia)! How is that coming on, by the way? Are you back to full time pastoring yet? It would be helpful to put some of the lectio divinia stuff you’ve been working on up on this site if that is an option.

    1. Joseph Collins says:

      As great as many sermons are, would it be wrong to suggest, in order make the preachers efforts become a little more cognitively absorbed, not to discard the 20-30min set “preaching time” but to include purposeful and intentional 20-30min “talk time” after the service. Church attendees could move their chairs into circles and could have a set of say five questions up on the overhead and each person can (optionally) share their thoughts. I honestly don’t think people will have a problem with more time spent at church if they are personally engaged in the service… in fact they may never want to leave!

      1. Greg Liston says:

        Hi Joseph, I think its a good idea. I only did it once in my tenure – I think mostly because of being scared about what people might say. (The one I did it for was after a sermon on science and religion, where I thought I knew my stuff well enough!) I went to a small church in Sydney a while back where they do it every week, and it works well for them. I think Tim Keller does it every week at Redeemer in New York as well (a larger church!) in a side hall of sorts. I think its an idea that could get utilised more. There are positives and negatives, including some logistical and other challenges with larger churches though.

    2. Geoff New says:

      In response to your questions Greg. The study went very well and exceeded my hopes. Some unexpected discoveries and profound challenges emerged. And yes – I’m now back fulltime pastoring. Will aim to include my findings about lectio divina and Ignatian Gospel Contemplation in a future blog on Kiwimade. Just because you asked so nicely.

  6. Nigel says:

    Well said. A great corrective.

  7. Geoff Pound says:

    Every preacher and pastor should have 6 months out of the pulpit.

    Like Greg, their view of preaching and pastoral leadership would change dramatically and for good.

    This was one of the greatest gifts for me when I was granted 8 mths study leave. I sure benefited from the study but the view from the pew was perhaps an even greater gift for me and the church.

    Thanks Greg.

  8. Grant Harris says:

    Yeah, good stuff Greg. I like your comment on repetition. I mainly preach in series now, and whilst every message must be self-contained in itself, I always review the series thus far. The longer I go through a series the more I hear myself repeating a short summary each week – and i’ve actually find that this is a good way to get the repetition going. I sometimes think I sound a litlte boring in that repetition, but you’ve encouraged me to keep at it! Besides with people only at Church 50% of the time, many haven’t heard the previous one’s anyway!

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