What Does It Really Mean to “Tickle the Ears”?


You’ve heard the phrase “ticking the ears” in reference to some pastors’ sermons. A message that is pleasant to listen to, but is… missing something. How sad it would be for a pastor to live his life as no more than a motivational speaker. Yet sometimes preaching can be just that if we are not careful. As you prepare to teach, you want to be an engaging preacher who captures the attention of your congregation. Consider some ways teaching can be off-track if fail to connect to something important:

Funny, but not relevant. Ear tickling messages most often are disguised with humorous stories. From a simple joke, to an engaging life story that everyone can identify with and leads to uproarious laughter. Yet humor is merely a means and not an end. Does the teaching use humor to drive home a biblical point or introduce a key biblical teaching, or is it just coffee-table talk? Dr. Merritt often says “We do not make the Bible relevant, the Bible is relevant”. Yet teaching can easily veer off into tangents—some of them quite funny or engaging—that simply miss the relevant message God’s Word wants to communicate. As you prepare to teach, ask yourself, “Is my humor opening the door to a deeper Word from God, or just filling time and creating smiles?”

Positive, but not challenging. A second sign of the “ear tickling” sermon is a focus on positive results. A prosperous bank account, a better marriage, stronger relationships, a healthy self-image, well-disciplined kids, a plan for the future. The problem is, these desired outcomes are often taught without the challenging layer of living the Christ-like life. A preacher may talk about gaining personal prosperity without talking of the responsibility to steward resources in a manner glorifying to God. Strong marriages often come at the cost of difficult conversations and adjustments. Good relationships may require forgiveness or being forgiven. Well disciplined children require attentive parents willing to give time and energy. You get the idea—outcomes in Christ most often come with challenges that it will take Christ living through us to overcome. As you prepare to preach, ask yourself, “Have I been Christ-centered in how these positive outcomes are going to become reality?” or “Am I placating the congregation versus challenging them?”

Powerful, but not biblical. Another difference between an engaging speech and an effective sermon is lack of a biblical foundation. Does the teacher center the message on the Word of God, explaining it, saturating the message with it and returning to it over and over throughout the sermon so that it is clearly the origin and focus of the message? It is possible to be effective, even powerful, in your teaching without being biblical. There are many excellent motivation and lifestyle teachers whose words are eloquent and captivating to the audience, yet lack any semblance of true biblical value. As you prepare to teach, ask yourself, “Is what I am teaching absolutely dependent on the Word of God to both explain and accomplish?” If so, you’ll experience power in your teaching.

Practical, but not accountable. I’ve heard many sermons that contain good—even excellent—advice. But that advice, even if it is soundly rooted in God’s Word, will lack follow through if there is no accountability attached to it. Our preaching must ask, “What are you going to do this week with what you have heard, and how will your life look different as a result?” I listen to several sermons each week from prominent pastors around the country, and I talk and email with others about what I am learning. A comment I hear more and more often is, “Man, I heard some tough teaching this week.” Okay, great. What are you doing with that? 

For many, they hear tough teaching, and that’s it. They get hit on the head with the Word on Sunday, lick their wounds during the week, and come back for more the next Sunday with nary a change considered in their lives as a result. For many of us, we are educated so far beyond our obedience. We know from God’s Word where we need to ask God to work in our lives to conform us to Himself, but we substitute knowing the steps for actually doing them. Great preaching must point people not to just hear difficult teaching, but to be accountable to Christ to act on that knowledge. Ask yourself, “Am I giving people biblical teaching that’s accompanied by a strong call to accountability?”

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Author: Eugene Mason, Communications Director for Cross Pointe Church under the leadership of Dr. James Merritt.