In The 21st Century Pastor, David Fisher discusses when he moved from rural Goldendale, Washington, to historic Park Street Church in downtown Boston. The move forced him to acknowledge the significance of location. He asks the question, “Do you know where you live?”
Fisher implies that too few preachers actually “know their address.” I remember someone telling me that this really doesn’t matter: all you have to do is just preach the gospel (after all, God’s Word never returns unto Him empty). This critic went on to say that Paul “just preached” without worrying about his audience. Another member in the audience spoke up and asked the man to read Acts 17. In that chapter, Paul starts off in a Jewish synagogue and ends up on Mars Hill in Athens. Any cursory reading of Paul’s speeches in that chapter reveal he knew the difference. While the gospel didn’t change, his approach was entirely different.
In Illinois, preaching south of I-70 is very different from preaching north of I-80. In Quincy, preaching west of 12th street is different than east of 24th street. And it’s that way across the country, with audiences varying greatly even within one community.
Who Are These People?
Effective preaching (only) occurs when we know to whom we’re preaching. One of my favorite experiences as a guest speaker (which I did often when a full-time professor) was having people thank me for coming and then say, “We can’t wait until our preacher gets back.” That’s another way of them saying, “We know his voice and he knows us.”
So, what do I need to know to increase my effectiveness? In short, everything possible. Given a little time and intentional pastoral investment, that will be true. It also requires intentionality on our part. The most important information is anecdotal or relational. But even the mundane figures can have real significance.
The easiest information to gather is demographic. A trip to the city or county offices can provide the general information you need for the surrounding area. The economic department always has up-to-date information for their marketing purposes. These figures provide a solid baseline for comparing “us” to “them.” Is the congregation reaching this community—the one that currently exists?
I sat in an elders’ meeting one night and listened to an older farmer (a great elder, by the way) say, “We’re just an old river town.” Meaning blue collar, aging, unchanging—some of which was certainly true. However, as I slid the most recent economic report to the men at the table, I pointed out that the majority of jobs were now white collar, and the fastest-growing economic bracket was those making over $100k per year. Our community had changed.
“A trip to the city or county offices can provide the general information you need for the surrounding area.”
Without going into tedious detail, the broad strokes of what you should know about the congregation have to do with measuring reality. How many people attend? Percentage of male and female? Age categories? Ethnic diversity? Employment status: not merely how many are employed, but, more importantly, in what fields? Location: do they drive from some distance to come to church or are they local? The list could go on. Nancy Ammerman’s (et al) Studying Congregations: a New Handbook is a useable resource for determining what information to get and how to assess it.
Psychographics provide far more insightful information than demographics but require significantly greater effort to attain. But getting the information is a good discipleship opportunity as well as a means of getting to know the “real” church to which you preach.
Demographics tell you I’m a white, middle class, older, male. Psychographics reveal I struggle with change, value a good work ethic, am a teetotaler, and love to work in my yard.
Here, you must work at determining a host of individuals’ psychographic characteristics while also developing a sense of the congregation’s psychographic personality. You may discover you have a group of people who value education (demographics would have revealed how many have gone to college, have advanced degrees, etc.) and yet be forced to deal with a congregational personality that remains skeptical of scholarship and academic expertise.
How many of your folks volunteer in the community? What are the values expressed toward the various economic brackets (some dislike the wealthy as much as they do the poor)? Are they generous toward the poor (through someone other than the church)? What kinds of vehicles do they drive? What are their homes like? Landscaping? Do they value the church building/landscape as much as their personal residence?
“What lifestyles are represented among your people and how are those received by others?”
What lifestyles are represented among your people and how are those received by others? How are those lifestyles perceived within the community? Do your people attend civic, social, cultural events? Do they make comments about those who do or don’t do the same?
Here is where listening becomes a fine art and a remarkable tool. Knowing where you live is more than a physical address question.
We’ll make up a new word for one more category. What is the religious character of your congregation? This is made of demographics and psychographics, based on a lot of observation and evaluation. Pay special attention to what you hear in the community…if you can gain enough credibility that people will be honest and open with you.
The obvious questions include: Where are they on the scale of being socially conservative to socially liberal? Attitudes toward believers from other church backgrounds? Involvement in inter-congregational activities? Partnerships with social service agencies, schools, or other churches?
You also want to seek to determine spiritual depth. What level of biblical literacy exists (not merely in general, but on a scale)? Do some know nothing at all about the Bible? Could some teach in a seminary? Where are the bulk of the people? Do they pray? Are they open to spiritual conversations? Are they invested in the church community (small groups, service teams, volunteering in church activities)? Use your imagination and collect a wide variety of anecdotes about what kinds of people attend.
Preaching to those who ARE here…
David Larsen, past professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, advised his classes to “put some cookies on every shelf.” In other words, on any given Sunday (or at least within 2 to 3 Sundays), there should be something for everyone.
Bible translations come in different reading levels. The old KJV was written at a 12th grade reading level, the NIV at an 8th grade level, and the ESV at a 9th grade reading level. A similar scale is needed for sermons. What’s in this sermon for the guest who has never been in a church before? What’s in it for the 80-year-old saint who knows her Bible better than you do? What applies to the person who might be struggling to stay married, as well as to the person celebrating 50+ years?
“Put some cookies on every shelf.”
We are preaching to real people who are sitting before us each week. They deserve to hear something crafted for them…specifically. This is why buying sermons, plagiarizing sermons, or using artificial intelligence for sermons should be anathema to any serious preacher. Jesus said the sheep know the voice of their shepherd. Our people deserve to hear our voices delivering messages specifically for them…not for some generic blog post or YouTube presentation.
Preaching to those who ARE NOT here…
Less often considered is the need to preach to those who are not here in the church. It seems counterintuitive, but it’s true. You must preach as if these people are there. Demographics tell you which age group, ethnic group, or social group is missing. Psychographics reveal what values, lifestyles, or personalities are absent. Reliographics recognize what attitudes/behaviors may be keeping them away.
If you preach also to those who are not there, a grandma might go home and say to her grandson, “You should have heard the preacher today; he was talking about….” A businesswoman who goes to the gym might mention to her workout partners that the message she heard on Sunday spoke to some issues they’ve discussed over sports drinks after workouts. And those who are not here (yet) begin to come.
“You must preach as if these people are there.”
While getting to know your congregation’s personality and characteristics, you’ll be amazed at a beneficial discovery that comes as a by-product. You’ll discover the obstacles to the future change that you hope to produce. And you’ll find the fault lines along which potential divides could occur. That information can make the most relevant preaching effective—because it’s couched in appropriate language and images.
Knowing and Being Known
Effective preaching occurs when the preacher knows those to whom they preach. But the most effective preaching takes place when the listeners also know the preacher. Revealing yourself, while risky, magnifies the possibility that you will be heard. So, be yourself. Listeners want to hear from the same person they see at the soccer game or grocery store when they see them at the platform.