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Connecting with More Listeners

Preaching that connects to the diverse needs of your hearers.
Connecting with More Listeners

Writing and teaching in the field of homiletics has focused predominantly on getting the text right (exegesis), getting the style right (rhetoric), and, most importantly, getting God right (theology). These are, no doubt, essential concerns and skills for effective preaching. But something is missing. The preaching event involves not only God, the preacher, and the biblical text, but the people who listen to the sermon. Getting the listener "right" is a paramount, though often neglected, consideration in preaching.

The diverse and shifting needs of listeners require the preacher to connect as much as possible with those who listen for information, inspiration, reflection, and application.

Effective sermons engage the varied listening styles represented in the congregation. Too often, we preachers become stylistically self-absorbed. We are tempted to let our stylistic preferences dominate our preaching. The only problem with my preferences is that they center on me, the preacher, and not the needs of the people to whom I preach. Sometimes we preachers promote our personal style from preference to principle without even realizing we're doing it. Our preferred preaching style matters, to be sure, but no more than the varied listening styles of the people to whom we preach. The most fruitful preachers have learned to overcome their personal preferences to address the diverse needs of listeners. Let's explore four primary ways that listeners engage sermons so that our preaching can impact more lives.

Some listen with the mind for exegetical information

Some people want the sermon to, more than anything else, inform them concerning the world in which the Bible is set. People who want to be in the biblical "know" care deeply about the meaning of words and the historical background of the text you're preaching. You can see these listeners perking up and jotting notes when the preacher shares an informative exegetical gem. They actually do want to know what happened to the Jebusites! These listeners typically want a logical sermon outline with clear points drawn from the deep study of one biblical text. People who listen to the sermon for information tend to appreciate sermons titled: 3 Conflicts in the Corinthian Congregation, Principles of Love According to Ecclesiastes 4:9-12, and Learning from the Seven Churches in Revelation.

Can you picture someone in your congregation who listens to the sermon with the mind for information? Dave wanted my sermons to drip with exegetical meat. No word study could be too detailed, no historical background too exhaustive for Dave. When I wrote my sermon I pictured how Dave, and those like him, would receive it.

Some listen with the heart for illustrative inspiration

Many people listen to the sermon primarily for inspiration not information. This is not to say the inspirational sermon cannot inform; it's just that the primary aim is inspiration. These listeners want their heart touched through the message. They want to be inspired to live for Christ in the world. These listeners often check out during the Greek word studies but lean forward to hear illustrations that hit the heart. More than other types of listeners, those who listen with the heart appreciate the testimonial accounts of the preacher—even when overdone! They don't care much about the logic and flow of the sermon as long as "stories for the heart" are interspersed throughout the message. Some inspirational sermon titles might include: God Comforts the Broken-Hearted, You Matter to God, and God Can Redeem Your Dark Past.

Joe seemed to access my sermons through his heart. There were many Sundays when I saw tears flow from his eyes, especially while I told stories about God's gracious, life-transforming interactions with people. Do you have some "Joe's" in your congregation? If so, picture their faces as you develop the sermon.

Some listen with the soul for theological reflection

Listeners who crave the space for deep theological reflection are similar to those who are engaged via exegetical information. The distinction is that the information-hungry listeners want to get into the details of the passage, while theologically reflective listeners want to focus on the forest and not the trees. People who listen to the sermon mostly for theological reflection want to explore and grasp the nature and purposes of God. While most listeners are comfortable with concrete language, theologically reflective listeners feel right at home in the conceptual realm. Examples of sermon titles for reflective listeners might be: Why is there Pain in a World that a Loving God Created, Implications of the Incarnation, and The Trinity as a Model for Christian Community.

Patrick listens with the soul for theological reflection. After my sermon was delivered he often wanted to discuss other angles on my topic that I failed to consider. He didn't do this arrogantly; he just enjoyed having thoughtful theological discussions that related, even if loosely, to the sermon. He didn't accept simple answers to thoughtful theological questions. Do you have a "Patrick" or two in your congregation, someone who wants the sermon to create space for reflection from various theological vantage points? Include in the sermon what will engage those listeners.

Some listen with the hands for practical application

There are people who listen to the sermon for practical wisdom they can immediately apply to their lives. They want the sermon to give them something they can do now to live for God. These application-oriented listeners are not chiefly interested in theological reflection, hearty inspiration, and exegetical information alone; they are doers who want the sermon to provide them with practical life-application. If the sermon is of the linear propositional sort, it should delineate application with every point. The narrative sermon, built on plot not points, should also explore several avenues for application. Here are some sermon titles that might fall into this category: How to Develop a Healthy Marriage, Ways to Develop Your Relationship with Christ, and 5 Insights for Holy Time-Management.

Rich worked on Wall Street. He is a bottom line guy in a bottom line world. While he needs to be stretched toward theological reflection, he must be able to see the light of application at the end of the sermonic tunnel. To ensure that my sermons have ample application, I think of Rich. I ask myself questions like, how will the biblical theology of my sermon apply to marriage, dating and parenting, to finances, work, and emotions? Think of the "Rich" in your congregation when you write your sermons.


Your congregation consists of diverse people who listen with their mind for exegetical information, their heart for illustrative inspiration, their soul for theological reflection, and their hands for practical application. No listener should be put in an airtight box, however, since the preaching needs of that particular listener may change, sometimes week to week. On any given Sunday, a worshipper shows up hungry to reflect upon the deeper questions of the soul because her co-workers are asking those tough questions. The following week, she shows up wanting practical application she can embody in her new dating relationship. The week after that, she hopes the sermon will provide the information and inspiration she'll need from God's Word to help her with job-related decisions. The diverse and shifting needs of listeners require the preacher to connect as much as possible with those who listen for information, inspiration, reflection, and application.

Practical exercises

Snapshots: Identify people in your congregation who typify one of the four primary ways that listeners engage the sermon. Once you have identified a person for each listening style, put their pictures in the four corners of your computer screen as you write the sermon. This practice may seem strange, but it works—trust me. Just make sure that one of the four people doesn't walk in on you while you're writing the sermon. That could be a problem.

Single Sermon: Consider ways that your upcoming sermon can intersect with the four kinds of listeners. What parts of your sermon will inform and inspire, as well as make room for reflection and application? After you write the first draft of the sermon, designate each major move or part with "information," "inspiration," "reflection," or "application." Discern which listener needs are neglected or overused. Then, edit the sermon to connect with more listeners.

Sermon Series: Sketch out a four-week sermon series, designing each sermon to primarily address one of the four listener needs. Week one of the series might be developed to appeal mostly to those who listen with the heart for inspiration. Week two can be designed to mostly address those who listen with the mind for information. Write the sermon for week three to appeal mostly to those who listen with the soul for reflection. Finally, the week four sermon might be written to engage those who listen with their hands for application. The order of the four could be varied, though the progression from inspiration to information to reflection to application works extremely well for both the sermon series and the stand-alone sermon.

Lenny Luchetti is the lead pastor of Woodland Church (Battle Creek, MI) and the author of Preaching Essentials: A Practical Guide and Preaching with Empathy: Crafting Sermons in a Callous Culture .

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