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 the shape of leadership

Preaching to Small and Large Audiences

Should you preach differently depending on the size of your audience?

Chris Colvin on June 7, 2018

What makes the American Church great? It’s diversity. From small country chapels to booming metropolitan cathedrals, our churches represent so many different ways to reach the lost. Whether your church is few or great in number, if God has called you to preach, you have a part to play in His plan through His local assembly.

That brings up some important questions. Should you preach differently depending on the number of people who show up? Do you shift your approach if you’re told that only half a dozen will show up? Or do you change it up if you know you’ll be speaking to a mega-size group?

I wonder how many of you have already said, “No, it’s the same exact thing.” It is true that the Word of God does not change, but its constancy means we can apply it differently to so many different situations.

You should have a checklist, either written or mental, before you prepare each sermon. One of the things you need to be clear on is the size of the audience. Here’s why:

Do Your Homework

Depending on how long you’ve been preaching, your sermon prep is probably set in stone. You allot some specific time in your calendar to prepare each message. And the size of your audience won’t change all of that. You’ll still research the text, working through commentaries or contemporary messages to fine tune your explanation of the Scripture.

But what will change about sermon prep as the size of your audience changes? For one thing, you’ll be thinking differently about application. With a smaller crowd, the application should be more focused. While a general challenge can still work, take the opportunity to get to know the group. Who will be there? What are they going through?

If it’s your own church, you’re probably already familiar with the individuals and their circumstances. If it’s a new audience, do your homework and find the best application.

In larger audiences, the application can be broad. For instance, if you want to challenge believers to love their neighbor, you can set a general application about seeing the needs around them or finding ways to sacrificially give. A less specific call can net a wider response.

On the other hand, with a larger crowd you may want to think through all the different ways your passage can be applied. Then, find three or four of the most applicable points, and focus on them. That way, you have a better shot at hitting the target.

Taking the Stage

How are you going to deliver your message to your audience? If you’ve never spoken in front of a large group, make sure you aren’t nervous. But the same goes for a smaller congregation. To be honest, I get more nervous when there are fewer than 10 people in the room than when there are more than 1,000!

No matter the size, God’s calling is worth our full effort.

There is one advantage to speaking to smaller audiences, though. As you preach, you have the freedom to change up your message on the fly as you watch how they receive it. Are they reacting well to a certain point? Give them more of it!

While preparing your message, it may make sense to have a couple of notes on the side ready to go if you feel the audience is moving that direction.

When I first read To Kill a Mockingbird, one part in particular jumped out at me. Scout and her brother visited the black church in town, a small congregation that was home to the man Atticus Finch was defending. While there, the kids saw a different style of worship, revealing the rich diversity of our country.

At one point, the minister began calling out people by name as he preached. I always thought that was amazing, in a smaller group the sermon can be so intimate. Are we taking advantage of that?

In larger churches, there’s a certain expectation to be more polished, more prepared. To stick to your notes, to stick to a schedule, or to stick to a particular viewpoint, even. Those aren’t necessarily bad. If you understand those things going in, you can preach well to large groups. But don’t overlook the importance of allowing the Spirit to move, no matter the occasion.

Wrapping It Up

How do you end your sermon? Chances are, you don’t think about it enough. I know this from experience.

Preaching to larger congregations requires you to be very specific beforehand about how you want your audience to respond. The bigger the church, the more moving parts there are on a Sunday morning. You may need to coordinate with the worship leader, tech crew, stagehands and volunteers, all while trying to be sensitive to the Holy Spirit.

Thinking ahead, though, can give you the freedom to change the plans. Your team is already prepared.

In smaller churches, it’s often easier to go with the flow at the end of a sermon. You may have thought the service would go in one direction, but now you see a new opening for response. The smaller the audience, the less likely they are to object to changes you make on the fly.

I’ve had the privilege to serve churches of all different shapes and sizes. I’ve preached to audiences as small as a handful and to groups of thousands. I’ve preached in dusty desert camps and on stages beamed live to multiple campuses. But it was God’s plan that put me in those places.

God may have placed you in a large church or a small one. Either way, you have a job to do. No matter the size, God’s calling is worth our full effort. Jesus attracted large crowds, but it was an audience of one in John 4 who sparked revival in Samaria.

Knowing how to preach to any size audience gives you the flexibility to let God use you in every situation.

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