Sermon Audience Engagement, Featured

Sermons that Connect with Your Audience and Stick

Have you ever had a message fall completely flat? Everyone has. Few feelings are as dire as the one you experience delivering your message knowing with every second that passes, you lose more and more of the audience. 

The Chevy Guy at the 2014 World Series knows exactly how this feels.

There are many different reasons a message might nose dive during a service and many might be out of your control. However, there is one that we want to talk about which is completely in your control and that is knowing your audience.

Yes, you may know the age range of who you’re speaking to.

Yes, you may know the geographic region of the individuals you’re trying to reach.

Yes, you may know the subject matter you’ve been asked to speak on (a message, a memorial service, a wedding service, a devotional).

But knowing your audience goes so far beyond ages and locations.

And just to prove the point that knowing your audience is more than ages and locations, pastors who preach multiple services can tell you that there is often a noticeable difference between the audience during the first service from the audience during the final service.

Whether you are preaching to the same group week in and week out, filling in for the youth or children’s pastors, or guest speaking at another church, there are some things you should consider during the preparation of your message. 

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Put Yourself In the Shoes of the People You’re Preaching To

Pastors should be the most empathetic and sympathetic people in the lives of others. The people in your church should be able to count on you to share in their grief or misfortune because you’ve been there in your own life or because you are committed to being present with them while they are suffering. 

It’s easy to take an empathetic posture when going to visit someone in the hospital, or doing a home visit to check in on a family who is going through loss, or even meeting with a couple at the church whose relationship is strained. Whatever the scenario, the extreme circumstances act as a strong signal to slow down, begin to contemplate the feelings and thoughts of someone else, and enter into a moment someone else is experiencing.

It is much harder to remember to take this posture when preparing our message week in and week out. It is almost as if we reverse the thought process and approach the weekly message as an invitation for someone else to come into our world. It isn’t something we do intentionally. Unfortunately, it happens naturally. 

The weekend congregation may be a collection of people you’re familiar with but it still represents a wide range of individuals.

  • Churched individuals
  • Unchurched individuals
  • New believers
  • Long-time believers
  • Doubters and cynics
  • Roman Catholic background
  • Protestant background
  • Charismatic background
  • Fundamental background
  • Young people
  • Seniors
  • Parents
  • Casual churchgoers

As you draft your big idea and put together your sermon outline you will want to consider how different points of your sermon might be received by different people in the audience. This doesn’t mean you change the core of what you say, but it does mean considering how you deliver portions of your message and whether or not you need to make any specific distinctions to help shepherd and lead different members of your congregation.

Your People Are Inviting Their Friends

If accounting for and catering your messages for regular attendees weren’t enough, you also need to consider how portions of your message might be received by first time visitors. 

What’s more is some of those visitors will be invited specifically by people in your congregation who are trusting that the service will be a positive experience for their friends or family visiting for the first time.

For sure you have some people in your church who go out of their way to reguarly invite others to church and it’s not as big of a challenge for them. But for every one person like that, you have dozens more who have had to work up the courage and confidence to invite someone they’ve known for years to attend. 

Again, we’re not changing what we say, but we are mindful that the audience is made up of many different individuals and many different stories… all of which should be given consideration in how the message is delivered that weekend.

A message on speaking in tongues or drinking the blood of Jesus may be normal to you and many of your people, but you have to understand that to those unfamiliar with some of the more nuanced aspects of the faith, it could be frightening or intimidating and there is some explaining that may need to be done.

The overall point we’re trying to make is that as much as you may ‘know’ your audience week in and week out, there are many seats being filled in the audience by people whose stories are crossing paths with the Gospel for the first time and extra care is necessary as you preach certain passages of scripture.

Introduce Context to Complex Elements of the Faith

It is possible some might quickly judge a discussion about caring for the needs of the audience as watering down the Gospel or censoring the faith for the sake of being seeker sensitive. This could not be further from the truth.

Throughout the Gospels, Jesus never once waters down the truth or censors his message and when there are more complex truths that need to be communicated, Jesus is prepared with a correct argument that is thoughtful of who is listening.

Talk about the blood of Jesus, baptism, money, spiritual gifts, and Balaam’s donkey as you normally would, but be ever aware that there are some listening who have zero context for a specific topic. You can serve them by preparing a thoughtful explaination, giving them backstory to root the point of your message in.

“Hey, I know this may sound funny if you’ve never heard people talk about blood like this before. It may even make you kind of squeemish, but here is why blood is important…” and then go into a few examples in scripture of how God used the blood of the lamb to identify houses to pass over during the plagues in Egypt. 

If you’re willing to take the time and energy to craft a simple explanation in care of those who may not be familiar with a particular aspect of faith, it gives you the opportunity to start a conversation with that person rather than shut down conversation before it even began.

Talk to Each Audience

If you’re overwhelmed by the diversity of people in your weekend audience, that’s okay. It is overwhelming to think that your message needs to connect with a single mom new to the faith and with a couple who has been married for 50 years, following Jesus since they were children. 

There is a healthy amount of stress that comes with being a pastor. It isn’t a stress that produces anger or frustration, but rather, a stress that is born out of the responsibility to communicate the Gospel and carry the truth. A keen awareness that you have a responsibility to talk to each audience represented in your congregation should compel the pastor to be well prepared and reliant on the Holy Spirit.

You may reference something in your message and half of the audience will understand it. Once you take a few additional moments to explain that same reference, the rest of your audience will go, “Ah, okay, that makes a lot of sense.”

While the lions share of ‘talking to each audience’ will be accomplished during your preparation and when practicing your delivery, there are two things you can keep in mind during the actual service.

First, make it a point to address each collection of individuals in attendance. Your application is a great place to make your sermon specific for each demographic in your audience. As you make your point, then illustrate how it could apply to young families. Follow that by how it applies to single people. Follow that by explaining how it applies to empty nesters. Follow that by how it applies to people who do not yet profess faith in Christ.

Second, do not take for granted people’s knowledge of the Bible. Assume that the only character in God’s story that people are familiar with is themselves. As you make references to “David” or “Caleb” do not assume that anyone in the room knows who these people are or why they are important to the overall story. Take a few moments to explain who David is and why his character is relevant to the passage you’re exploring. You can make the connections because you know the stories, but if someone doesn’t know the stories, not only will they not be able to connect with the larger point you’re making, but they may feel alienated and come to false beliefs about your church and their place in it.

Project What You Want to Attract

The truth is that much of what you preach on Sunday needs to project what you want the church to become. 

First and foremost, this means casting your big vision in every message. Reinforcing your values in pockets of each message. Mentioning your mission and sharing how the church is fulfilling that mission on a regular basis.

But it also means to speak to the audience that you want to attract. 

If you want to attract visitors, speak to visitors.

If you want to attract young people, speak to young people.

If you want to attract people of color, speak to people of color.

If you want to attract older people, speak to older people.

Project what you want to attract in your messages, communication, and relationships and that will help you realize that desire.

It is okay for you to speak to the unchurched person, even if you know there are no unchurched people in the room. It gives the people in your congregation permission to invite their neighbor because they know the message will connect with them. There aren’t going to be any surprises, and even if there are surprises, those surprises will be well explained and respectful of the audience.

Preaching That Sticks with Your Audience Hello Church! Podcast

Chapter Markers

0:00 Season of the Sermon
0:31 Storytelling Episode
1:05 Sponsored by Sermonary 2.0
2:54 Preaching Based Upon Your Audience
4:45 Put Yourself In Their Shoes
8:45 Explain Things Correctly
10:03 Talk to Each Audience
11:35 Tips for Reaching Entire Audience
14:08 Project What You Want to Attract
18:09 Final Thoughts
19:05 Next Episode, The Conclusion

Resources Mentioned


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Plan a year’s worth of sermon series in advance with this simple, but powerful spreadsheet!

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