the shape of leadership

Who Is Listening to Your Sermon?

The importance of knowing your listeners

Chris Colvin on October 18, 2019

Sermon prep begins in a lot of different ways. It could be a spark of inspiration, a feeling of affirmation that sends you off in the right direction. But once you get started, it’s easy to focus so much on what you plan to do in the pulpit that you forget about who is sitting in the seats.

You may be overlooking one of the most important factors of any sermon: your listeners. With your head down in your study, you’re not likely to look up and take a peak around you. As a result, you might be off target.

Knowing who you are talking to is one of the most impactful components of your sermon prep. Preparing a sermon in a vacuum means you could miss the mark. But keeping your listeners in mind will narrow your focus and increase your effectiveness.

No One-Size-Fits-All Sermons

What goes into a good sermon? Of course, there’s the explanation, where most of us spend the majority of our time. Then there is the application, how to put the message into practice. And finally, there are illustrations to make it interesting. But have you ever made your listeners part of the planning process?

There are no one-size-fits-all sermons. Each message you preach is for a specific group of people. That’s true whether you preach to the same congregation each week, or preach the same sermon several times in different locations. Each time you deliver a message, you have to take into account the people listening.

Think about a sermon on marriage. What if you are preaching to a congregation of mostly retired people? What if half the group is single? What if you are preaching in another culture where family norms are different from yours? Knowing these things ahead of time allows you a chance to shape or modify your message to draw in more people.

Know Your Listeners

While prepping your sermon, take a moment to stop and ask the following four questions. Doing this in advance will help focus your study in the right direction.

1. Who will be listening? This question is the starting point. Who will be at church? If you are prepping for a regular weekend service, consider the demographics of your expected attendees. Is this a Sunday when you normally have a lot of visitors? Will it be a down week with mostly committed followers? Keeping track of your numbers on a weekly, monthly and yearly basis will give you an edge here.

When you know the people to whom you’re talking, what you say will be that much more effective.

If you are a guest speaker, do your homework ahead of time. Call the pastor or ministry leader and ask how many people will be there, what their spiritual maturity level is, and what the predominant demographic looks like. Will it be casual or formal? Do they have a good sense of humor, or are they more serious? Equip yourself before you start.

2. What do I want to tell them? Now that you’ve identified your listeners, you need to decide what to tell them. Shape it for your intended target so it meets one of their direct needs.

Start by considering what is unique about the specific group you’re addressing. What challenges are they facing in life? What is their daily life like? What needs are they facing at this moment? Are they college educated? What do they do for a living? Are they rural or urban? Then take a look at your text and your preliminary prep. How does this individual sermon meet a prevailing need in that one group you will be preaching to?

3. What should they do about it? Now that you have narrowed it down, go one step further. Think about how your listeners will put into practice what you tell them in this message. What God has to say is the same for everyone, but each person must put it into practice in his or her own life.

For instance, a sermon on relationships will be applied differently by different people. A group of singles may need to be challenged to remain pure in their dating life. A group of married couples may need to hear that it’s important to continue dating their spouse.

4. How will I get their attention? Now that you have an idea of who your listeners are, plan a way to grab their attention. This should happen in the first few minutes of your message. If you’re speaking to people who don’t normally attend church, use that time to draw them in. They may be thinking sermons are boring, so show them with humor or drama how interesting a sermon can be.

Knowing your listeners also lets you get right to the point. You can use that attention-grabbing technique to lay out your topic, letting them know what you have to say will be important to them personally. Why should they care to listen? If you’ve done your homework, you can easily answer that question.

This idea of knowing your listeners may feel intuitive, especially if you’ve been preaching to the same people for several years now. But the mistake is in assuming you know enough about them.

Take some time to really evaluate how well you understand them. Maybe you could have coffee each week with a different member of your church, someone who is representative of key demographics. And then listen. How does this person think and feel about church, about family, about politics, about sports, and even about you and your sermons?

When you know the people to whom you’re talking, what you say will be that much more effective.

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