Preaching to the Audience



By Scott Graham

At first glance, the title of this article could seem redundant. Who else would one be preaching
to other than the audience? Of course each of us as preachers addresses the audience, don’t we? Where else might our attention be focused other than those people populating the house of worship where we employ our craft?

The key lies, however, in the word the. Not an audience, but the audience, the very one before the speaker, the select one the speaker is looking at with its distinctive composition and background. That group of people has come with a unique blend of personalities, spiritual backgrounds, and family structures. Is this the audience to which we are preaching?

It has been said that if an amateur is asked to speak, his or her first question will be “What is my topic?” If an experienced speaker is given the same invitation, his or her first question will be “Who is my audience?” This experienced speaker understands that preaching is, at its core, effective communication. It may be emotional. It should be passionate. It must be scriptural. But if it would change the hearer, it must be effective. To reach this lofty goal, consideration must be given to the audience.

Admittedly, it is not always possible to know the makeup of a group of people, and we certainly trust the Holy Ghost to guide us, even when we are unaware of the specifics of our audience. In fact, it should be noted that analysis of the audience is never meant to quench the Spirit or to “humanize” the process of preaching to the exclusion of divine direction. But if we can
sharpen our focus on the audience we can better utilize the empowering of the Holy Ghost to reach the audience that is before us. This sharpened focus offers several aspects.

Knowing our audience benefits us greatly. Is the congregation younger or older? Primarily single or primarily married? Are most of them parents? Are children present? Some topics, though worthy of scriptural admonition, can be either ineffective or even inappropriate if delivered to a mixed audience or without consideration to age or gender.

I remember the first time a young person told me after I had preached that he considered me a “beast!” I was uncertain what the appropriate response was! Did I owe him gratitude or a rebuke? That simple, humorous moment demonstrates that our language should be crafted to appeal to the makeup of the audience. Saying that something was “bad” to a group of teens will have a completely different meaning than if you were to express the same thing to the senior choir!

I am not suggesting that we should be plastic. Indeed, Shakespeare was correct when he stated, “Above all, to thine own self be true!” Few things will turn a young crowd off faster than a guy my age trying to be artificially
youthy. And few things will turn off a crowd of parents faster than a single evangelist telling them how to raise kids. So I should educate myself about the demographics of my audience and let that education guide me in my choice of topics and verbiage.

We should consider the cultural makeup of our audience as well. Our socio-economic backgrounds work like filters on our ears. They affect what we hear and how we hear it! Therefore it is wise for me to consider a few important questions as I prepare and as I preach.

Is the congregation rural or urban? Is the congregation primarily one race or multi-racial? What is the average education level of my hearers? Are they primarily white-collar executives or blue-collar workers? In what part of the country am I? (We can like it or not, but there is a significant cultural difference between the deep South of the United States and the far North of Canada!)

These considerations should guide our words and particularly the use of illustrations. If I were to relate an account of shooting a deer and field dressing it, the reactions would be greatly affected by where I’m preaching! In some parts of the county, the response would largely be, “How admonition to “stand up, speak up, and shut up” more applicable than in times of tears. This is true for a variety of reasons: first, you are probably one of several speakers and should respect the time limits; second, the attention span of a grieving person is incredibly brief; third, hurting people need more than words.

Fifth, make it personal. I was
privileged to sit behind the families of the Challenger Seven at the NASA memorial service when then President Ronald Reagan gave his “surly bonds of earth” speech. Afterwards, he walked down to the families, looked each in the eye and thanked them for their sacrifices and assured them of his prayers. The press remembered his words; the families remembered his actions.

When We Rejoice Together

The weepers are many; the rejoicers are few. Consider the attendance at funerals over anniversary celebration. We wax in lamentation, but wane in celebration.

It was the desire of the father in the parable of the prodigal son that everyone joins in the festivities, but the older brother stayed away. Some people find reasons not to celebrate.

If you are asked to speak at a celebratory event— a wedding, anniversary, baby dedication, graduation, or such—make sure you add to the joy of the matter. Here are a few things you can do to add significance to and to heighten the joy of the moment:

First, make certain people know the what and who. This may seem obvious, but I have sat mystified through various services and meetings without knowing the purpose of the meeting. Confusion is a joy-killer. Also, it is good to emphasize who is being honored. Call the person’s name again and again. State, restate, underscore, embolden, highlight, and emphasize the identity of the person being honored and why the person is being honored.

Second, take the time to do some discovery. Know the timelines, personages, and significant events, that gave rise to the celebration. This helps you speak with confidence. Do some informal interviews in phone and email conversations. Understand the significance of the moment to make it more significant.

Third, find a memorable way to express your joy. One of the most beautiful services I remember was a pastoral transition service and the outgoing pastor presented the incoming pastor a shepherd’s staff. He talked about the role of a shepherd and how the sheep needed and looked to the pastor. That shepherd staff became a symbol of the pastoral office to everyone present and when the outgoing pastor placed it in the hands of the incoming pastor, it was over. More than anything else this cemented in peoples’ minds the identity of their shepherd.

Fourth, locate spiritual and historical parallels. Frame the time in the context of something significant. For example, if the special event takes place on a significant day that has meaning to the person, mention it and draw parallels. Perhaps the event itself is in a memorable place to the person or others. Again, mention it and draw the parallels.

Fifth, speak a blessing over the occasion. We often fail to recognize the power of such words. Remember the five elements of the patriarchal blessing in the Old Testament: appropriate and meaningful touch, words of love and acceptance, value placed on the child, acknowledgement of a special future, and genuine commitment. Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and when a person chooses to deliberately speak life into a joyful occasion, the significance is amplified.

A Few Final Thoughts

It is rare that a person can rehash the language and theme from a past special occasion for a present one. In fact, it is perhaps the greatest curse of such occasions—the recycled language of the past. Fresh bread is needed to keep the significance in each special occasion.

For example, I perform on average twelve to fifteen weddings each year. There are some things that are standard in each wedding: declaration of intent, question, vows, pronouncement, and presentation. Yet, the preacher should not fall into the habit of making each wedding a cookie-cutter of the previous one. In fact, the preacher should abide by the traditional dictum for the bride’s attire on her wedding day: “something old, something new.” Wedding vows remain the same, but the wedding message should change.

Finally, remember whose voice you really are. In any special occasion you speak for God, for the witnesses both visible and invisible, and for the past and future generations. You give voice to all who are truly important in the moment and out of it. You bring the eternal into the momentary, and this brings a high degree of relevance and a higher dose of significance.

The above article, “Preaching to the Audience,” is written by Rev. Scott Graham. The article was excerpted from The FORWARD Magazine.

The material is most likely copyrighted and should not be reprinted under any other name or author. However, this material may be freely used for personal study or research purposes.