Speaking personally, it’s a rare occasion when I don’t modify my written-sermon to better communicate with the audience in front of me. The reason is simple: even with message and messenger prepared I can never fully anticipate the congregation that will sit before me (And even if I know the congregation, I don’t know what condition I will find them in!). So while preachers should never depart from their essential message, they must sometimes make small adjustments in light of ‘congregational mood.’
Let me give five examples of where some adjustment might be necessary:
1. The weary audience
It never ceases to amaze me just how much ‘physical conditions’ can negatively effect even the most attentive congregation. A few Sunday’s ago I preached on a very warm evening. As I scanned the congregation, ready to begin my introduction, several people were already asleep! To make things worse, the rest seemed destined to follow. Usually not one to skimp on length it nevertheless seemed prudent to keep up my pace, shorten a few minor points, and make sure I wasn’t ponderous. I’m glad to say that about half the audience eventually woke up!
2) The bored audience
If led poorly the opening part of the service can leave people in a very lethargic state; hardly ready to hear a sermon. Richard Bewes describes both the condition and the remedy:“Everything is sopoforic, boring and flat. A new dynamic is needed, and you are the one to provide it. Begin at once, cheerfully, buoyantly and with gusto. On ocassions I have started talking even before I had reached the speakrer’s place, so concerned was I to wake the room up!” (Speaking in Public Effectively, p86)
3. The distracted audience
It may be the sound of a siren, the cry of a young child, or the elderly gentleman fainting on the back row. Whatever the case, a whole variety of things can serve to distract our audience from the task at hand. At such moments, will it be a good idea to drop our voice and whisper our most significant point? No! We must slow our pace, patiently re-state the point at hand, waiting until the heads return to face us. Of course the distraction may be such that people cannot ignore it. In that case, our own personal intervention may be required.
4. The confused audience
It seemed so clear in our notes! But sometimes it becomes evident that our point is not so clear to our listeners. More often these days I take time to rephrase points I’m making when my audience emit the appearance of confusion. As much as is possible, we should work to work to dispel the mist, rather than leave our people in a fog of unclear ideas.
5. The sad/joyful audience
For a variety of reasons a congregation may convey a corporate sense of sadness on the one hand, or elated joy on the other. Either way, this is something we should take account of. There may be a mood of grief that we have to contend with: perhaps there has been a dreadful bereavement of a young one, the news of which has just been released minutes earlier. Or we may be visiting a church which has just gone through an agonizing departure of a pastor, or a church split. On such occassions, we wish to gently lift people’s spirits as we encourage them with the word of truth, but it is no time to be jovial. On the other hand, if it is a church anniversary, our dull tone will seem totally out of place. Though we should not be restricted by the mood of the congregation, we must nevertheless respect it in our approach.
[This is part two of a short Friday series, Expect the Unexpected. For part one.]