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Before You Preach, You Need to Know 4 Things About Who's Listening

Some time ago, I was attending a pastor’s conference and heard something I did not expect. 

One of the plenary speakers preached a very angry evangelistic sermon. Did I mention I was at a pastor’s conference? I suppose we were all wondering why we pastors were being encouraged (browbeaten?) to come to Jesus, but then the preacher told us. “Why am I preaching an evangelistic sermon at a pastor’s conference?” he said. “Because I think pastors ought to get saved!”

Now, I agree that pastors should be saved. However, I have to wonder if that was the right sermon for that crowd. Was an evangelistic sermon really in order in that venue? We’ll leave it to the Lord to determine that answer, but the larger question goes to whether we as preachers do a good job of connecting with our audiences (forgive that “worldly” expression, but not all crowds we preach to will be “congregations” in the traditional sense).

Do we really understand the person sitting before us? Do we really know who’s listening?

In this first installment, I’d like to consider what I call “congregational exegesis.” In other words, while I will deal with the task of exegeting the culture later, today, let me stay on the subject of getting to know the primary makeup of the crowds we will most consistently address as pastors and preachers.

Though not exhaustive, I’ll give four brief suggestions.

First, don’t assume.

Don’t make assumptions based on geographical or denominational setting. 

Rural does not necessarily mean uneducated, and urban does not necessarily mean postmodern. 

I was talking to a pastor recently who pastors a church in the country, but his church is over the river and through the woods a short distance from a state university. He preaches every week to some of the brightest among us.

We also cannot assume that people believe or are even aware of everything in our doctrinal confessions.

I am a Baptist pastor, but I am aware that—as hard as we try—not everyone in our church is thoroughly Baptist. For one thing, many of them watch and podcast their favorite preachers (Wait! That’s not me?) and have been shaped by them, whether positively or negatively. They are also watching shows on cable that present impressive arguments to bolster claims that undermine the validity of the Bible. This is the kind of thing with which I compete every Sunday.

Second, ask questions.

If you are a guest preacher somewhere, ask your host pastor or event director for insight into your audience. If you are a pastor, ask questions of the search committee and then of various church members.

What kinds of questions should you ask? All kinds. Begin with empirical information, such as age, education, and socio-economic levels. Ask what kinds of things they have been studying together (denominational materials, popular books, etc.). What has shaped them? Ask if they have any particular doctrinal biases that you can think of.

For example, before accepting a pastorate at one church, I learned that one of my predecessors was forced out after he began speaking in tongues. This was a very traditional Baptist church, and I learned that I had to be careful of every mention of the Holy Spirit (you know, a member of the Trinity).

In my current church, a particular eschatological position was so cherished by some of the older members that one of them accused me of not being a Christian because I hold to a different position. This let me know that I needed to go slowly and be particularly clear when talking about anything concerning the return of Jesus. I haven’t hidden or changed my convictions, but my communication is nuanced by this awareness.