When you preach remember your audience. As you preach week to week think about the people you will be addressing, their lives, their struggles, their hopes, their temptations, and preach to them. The Word of God is powerful and can work in the lives of God’s people when it’s proclaimed (Heb. 4:12), but we wield the sword of the Spirit with wisdom when we know our context and use the Bible properly to address our listeners (Eph. 6:17).
Jesus Knew His Audience
Jesus is often called the master teacher. He was an unmatched genius in teaching because he taught with authority and spoke like no one ever did (Matt. 7:28-29; Jn. 7:46). His use of the scriptures amazed the masses as he was formally untrained yet extraordinary (Jn. 7:15). One of the things we must not overlook as we appreciate the effectiveness of Jesus’ teaching was his knowledge of his audience. Jesus’ omniscience was certainly an advantage that we do not possess (Jn. 2:24-25), but he also possessed an awareness of his listeners that is within our ability to mimic.
He taught in simple parables that would be easy for the common man to understand (Matt. 12:34; Mk. 12:37; Lk. 15:1-2). He did not address his disciples with the same tone and fierceness that he did the pharisees (Lk. 13:1-2). When discussing the resurrection with the Sadducees he went to the books they viewed as authoritative to make the point that this life is not all there is (Matt. 22:29-32). When he talked with a woman from Samaria, he chose his subject wisely and winsomely and she became a believer (Jn. 4:29). If we are going to teach like Jesus did and be the best we can be in proclamation for him, we need to know our audience like he did.
The Apostles Knew Their Audience
When Peter preached the gospel to Jews on Pentecost, he appealed to the Old Testament Scriptures that the Jews in his audience knew and respected (Acts 2:16-28). When Paul spoke to those in the synagogue, he appealed to the Hebrew Bible to make his case (Acts 13:26-41), but when preaching to the pagans in Lystra and Athens he appealed to nature and quoted their poets (Acts 14:15-17; 17:22-31).
Paul knew he was preaching primarily to gentiles and Peter spoke mostly to Jews; no doubt this effected the packaging of their material (Gal. 2:8). Paul spoke of using wisdom in his evangelistic efforts as he became all things to all people so that he might save some (1 Cor. 9:19-22).
The gospel never changed, but the audience often did, and the apostles were willing to change with it. Knowing their audience as they preached and spread the gospel did not weaken their efforts but strengthened them.
Knowing Our Audience
Preacher, remember to know your audience. This means when you preach weekly remember you are addressing your local congregation. Do not craft sermons to address the brotherhood controversies that may be taking place. Do not write your sermon with the intent of solving all of the challenging issues of Christendom. You are not preaching to your Greek professor or homiletical instructor. Remember your weekly sermon or Bible class is not being prepared for all the preachers in your local area.
You are preaching to toddlers, teens, moms, and dads. There will be college educated people in your audience and those who have never read the Bible. Some members are blue collar and work with their hands and others work with small children. There may be corporate white-collar workers in your audience and those who work in customer service.
Keep in mind the various life circumstances people find themselves in as you preach. Is a fifteen-minute aside on the Greek etymology of a word necessary? Do you think diving into the details of Hebrew and Greek will help them understand the passage under discussion? This is not an admonition to dumb down the Word of God, but to package it in such a way that it can be digested by those to whom you are actually preaching.
Simplicity is not to be equated with shallowness, but let’s be careful that we are trying to be effective and not impressive. If you’re in Alabama don’t pretend to preach to New Yorkers. If you’re in California don’t use the pulpit to solve the church’s problems in Florida. Remember your audience and don’t preach to an imaginary one.
Remembering our audience means realizing that we are preaching to God’s people. There is certainly a time to rebuke, but even the most misbehaved of God’s children are still saints, sanctified, and special (1 Cor. 1:1-9). There are hard sermons to preach but let’s be sure that all of our sermons have a tone of hope because we are preaching to those on the winning team (Col. 1:5; 1 Pet. 1:3-5).
May our brethren know we see their positive efforts and appreciate the hard work they are already doing even when there are areas where improvement is needed. Make sure they never have to doubt that you are persuaded of good things concerning them (Heb. 6:9-10).
Don’t ignore certain demographics in your audience as you preach. You preach to women and to the elderly. You preach to sports fanatics and those who do not know what a first down or three-pointer is. Remember to not make all of your illustrations about current pop culture or about things that will be missed by half of the congregation. Also, keep in mind that there are millennials and members of Gen Z present and so do not try and resurrect the 1950’s right before their eyes. Be balanced in your approach.
The only way to truly know your audience is to get to know them. Do not let the news tell you about certain demographics and generational groups, talk to them yourself. Spend time with the people you preach to so that your preaching will be personal and relevant. Find out their interests, hobbies, and ways that you can use the Word of God to connect with them intellectually. Make the investment in listening to their stories and learn about their lives. Paul was observant in Athens before he ever said a word (Acts 17:16, 23). When he spoke, he knew what to address because he had been paying attention.
A doctor can know all the medicinal jargon in the world but unless he knows his patient, he might diagnose the wrong illness or prescribe the wrong medicine. Learn the idols of your people’s hearts and use the gospel to counteract it. Listen for the things they are truly hoping in and the things they are afraid of and allow the gospel to immunize their souls. Share your life with them and let them know you’re human and your sermons are for you first.
The Word of God never changes, but our context often does. We need to be wise and attentive. Read the prophets and notice how their illustrations, material, and packaging was tailored to the nation and circumstance they were addressing. Read the gospels and be impressed not only with Jesus’ material, but how he perfectly applied it depending on who he was talking with. Let the Book of Acts show you how the apostles and disciples made good choices when they were in Jerusalem to use the Scriptures, and when in Gentile territory to use what was familiar to them to introduce them to scripture.
Knowing our context is a part of loving our neighbors well (Lev. 19:18). It means we care enough to learn what they care about and what they are struggling with so that we can listen and help point them to the Lord. Preach the word and always preach it wisely.