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Connecting with Non-Christians

Why to analyze your audience when preparing for evangelistic preaching.

Connecting with Non-Christians

Most evangelistic sermons I hear take some form of the four spiritual laws (from Campus Crusade), combine them with a few proof texts, sprinkle in an illustration or two, and then cap it all off with the "sinner's prayer." The sermon's theology is sound, but the sermon takes the same form regardless of the audience. The sermon feels like a suit off the rack. It doesn't take into account the audience's unique size and shape.

To some extent, this is understandable. The fundamental content of the gospel never changes, no matter who the audience is. The life situations and presuppositions of our listeners, on the other hand, vary widely and should affect the shape of the sermon. Formulating a series of true propositions and lobbing them in the direction of the audience does not mean we have preached effectively. Genuine communication involves what is heard as much as what is said.

Genuine communication involves what is heard as much as what is said.

This means if we hope to be understood by our listeners, we must analyze the audience as carefully as we analyze the text. This analysis commonly focuses on the demographics of the audience, their specific life situations, and the occasion of the sermon. Does the audience cluster in a particular age, gender, or economic range? Are they single, married, divorced? Have they come because they are spiritual seekers, or is it a special occasion? Have they come voluntarily or were they "forced" to come?

Have those who practice audience analysis lost their confidence in the gospel? Are they less dependent on God? Donald K. Smith, professor of international communication at Western Seminary, believes just the opposite. He says audience analysis presupposes confidence both in the nature of the gospel message and in the power of the Holy Spirit to convince. "Preachers less sure of their message focus on techniques rather than on the audience," he explains. "Paul knew Scripture thoroughly; he knew by experience the power of the Holy Spirit and the living Jesus Christ. Consequently, he was so confident of the message that he could give careful attention to the audience, building bridges of understanding."

Tools for building bridges

The goal in audience analysis is to identify the experiences, problems, and questions shared by our listeners that can serve as a point of contact with the text. The felt need raised by the preacher must be genuinely related to the need that lies behind the text. The solution offered must correlate with the solution stated or implied by the author of the text.

A sermon based on the parable of the prodigal son, for example, might find a point of contact with the audience in the themes of rebellion, parental heartbreak, and family division that are reflected in the story. But an application that promised, "Trust Christ and he will heal your family relationships," would be illegitimate. Jesus' purpose in telling this story was not to provide a model for handling rebellious children or sibling rivalry. He was painting a picture of the kind of person God accepts.

Once we identify legitimate contact points with the audience, we can integrate them into the message in the following ways:

  1. Draw the audience into the message during the introduction. Although your goal is to explain the text, the introduction should not begin with the text. Instead it should raise a felt need consistent with the fundamental concern that lies behind the passage. In the evangelistic sermon, this felt need is not the ultimate need for a personal relationship with Jesus Christ; rather it is a symptom of sin and the resulting alienation from God and humanity it produces. During the introduction, speak to the audience about the audience and then point them to the text.
  2. Use the known to explain the unknown. Jesus often used stories and parables drawn from everyday experiences to explain divine realities. When he spoke to the woman of Samaria, he capitalized on her natural thirst to make her aware of an underlying thirst that only he could satisfy (John 4:10). He used the relationship between a parent and a child to help his audience understand the nature of God's love (Matthew 7:9-11). Which of your listeners' experiences can help them understand their need for Christ or God's provision of grace?
  3. Support the truth with story illustrations. When Nathan confronted David about his adultery, he used a carefully crafted story to reveal the gravity of his sin (2 Samuel 12:1-7). Story illustrations enable the audience to see themselves through God's eyes.

In a recent sermon based on the parable of the prodigal son, I began by telling the story of Bill. Bill's father was a religious man who sent his son to church and private school, hoping it would teach him the same values. Bill spent most of his life running hard in the other direction. But every so often he would stop just long enough to look at his life and ask himself this troubling question: "What would my father say?"

I transitioned from the introduction to the Big Idea by saying: "It's an old story isn't it? Sons don't get along with their fathers. That's also true in the heavenly realm. Jesus told a parable in Luke 15:11-32 to illustrate this fact and to help us understand the nature of God's forgiveness. It is a story whose message is essentially this: If you want to understand the true nature of forgiveness, you must ask yourself this question: 'What would my father say?'"

In the conclusion of the message I picked up Bill's story again and described him lying in a hospital bed, his health broken by a lifetime of alcohol abuse: "The picture was bleak. Doctors said his death was inevitable. But in his last hours, this prodigal who had spent a life running from his Heavenly Father finally turned for home. 'And while he was still a long way off, his heavenly father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him, and kissed him.' It is never too late. As long as you have breath, you have hope. Even now your Heavenly Father scans the horizon, watching for the first sign of your return. Go to him."

Balancing the divine and human in preaching

If God does not work with us, our preaching will fall on deaf ears. But our dependence on God's power does not relieve us of the responsibility to make the message clear to our listeners. When the apostle Paul asked for God's assistance in preaching the gospel, he asked for help to "proclaim it clearly, as I should"(Colossians 4:4). This prayer reflects the right balance of dependence on divine power and human responsibility.

Effective evangelistic preaching takes a miracle. But it is a miracle mediated through our use of human language. God's Spirit does not ignore the ordinary process of human understanding when he moves listeners to respond to our message. In order to respond, they must first understand us. In order for them to understand us, we must understand them.

John Koessler is professor and chair of the Pastoral Studies Department at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, Illinois.

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