When I was a seminary student I loved going to chapel and listening to the godly men and women who preached each day. Except for one thing.
Most speakers assumed the audience was made up of 25-year-old young adults who were single or newly married with limited life and ministry experience.
This assumption came through in their illustrations, application points and general statements.
As a career-changing married man in his late 30’s with four children, I often felt left out and overlooked!
How did this happen?
The answer is easy – people make assumptions. When most of those speakers were in seminary – their assumptions were accurate. But as seminary student profiles grew in diversity, they continued to operate on old information.
This is a challenge we all face when asked to preach to an audience that is unfamiliar.
We make assumptions.
And to miss the audience is to communicate we don’t care about them.
So we must exegete our audiences just as carefully as we exegete our text.
Over the years, as I have made my own mistakes when guest preaching, and so I have developed the following 10-questions that I now ask whenever speaking to an unfamiliar audience. I hope you find them helpful:
1. How many people will be in the audience?
Assuming you will preach to 500 people and seeing only 50 when you arrive could be quite a shock. Get a realistic picture of attendance.
2. How long are you expecting me to speak?
When I minister in India – a sermon less than an hour is nearly an insult! But an hour sermon in my suburban church will lead to all kinds of scheduling problems. Find out the expected length and stick to it!
3. What are the technology and audio-visual resources?
I normally use a wireless microphone – and a couple times when guest preaching I have been “surprised” by a hand-held or stationary microphone. This small detail impacts how you move, handle notes and deliver your message.
If you use video-clips, slides, music or any other elements requiring technology, check and double check what will and will not work. Arrive early and run through all technology before your sermon. Remember, “What can go wrong will go wrong” if you have not worked through these issues in advance.
4. What is the predominant age, gender ratio, educational/occupational background?
Find out these basic facts as early as possible. Chances are you will be surprised, and this information can then inform your sermon structure, illustrations and application.
5. What is the physical set-up of the room.
If you have never been to a location before the “picture” in your mind will likely be vastly different than reality. Is there a stage? Are you expected to sit on stage? Is there a pulpit? Is there room to move about while preaching? Get a lay of the land before you arrive.
6. Has this audience faced any significant recent events or milestones? (either positive or negative?)
This is a really important question. If there has been a tragic death in the congregation and you are speaking on suffering, having this information will allow you to minister at a deeper level. The same holds true for milestones of blessing.
7. What is the overall mood / feelings of this audience?
Are they anticipating great things for the future? Are they struggling with discouragement? Are they content with the status quo?
Preaching at a declining church or a dynamic, growing church are two very different experiences. Take the temperature of the audience before you arrive.
8. What translation of the Bible do you commonly use?
I was on my way to preach at a small church and I thought to ask my host, “Are you a KJV only group?” “Yes, of course.” My next question was, “Can I borrow your Bible?” If I had not asked that question, this church would not have been able to receive my sermon.
9. What is the general formality or informality of dress? (suit/tie/dress, pants, shorts, etc.). What do speakers to this audience generally wear?
If you are over-dressed or under-dressed, I can tell you what people in the audience are thinking: “Why didn’t anyone tell him / her what to wear?” Don’t let your clothing be a distraction from your sermon.
10. I will be talking about ______________ subject, how do you think they will respond?
Will they find this challenging, or will I be “preaching to the choir?” Have they been exposed to this passage / topic recently?
One time I was guest preaching on the topic of suffering which included a discussion of “health and wealth” theology in a sub-point. I asked this question and found out that 75% of my audience was raised with this teaching, and many still subscribed to it as the “grid” through which they viewed suffering.
While this knowledge did not change what I preached it made me much more sensitive to how I communicated my message.
And so, the next time you are asked to be a guest preacher don’t make assumptions.
Submit these questions to your contact person and you will preach a more confident, effective and life-changing sermon!
What other questions have you found helpful to ask prior to preaching? Please leave a comment below.