Preachers: Read Your Audience

June 15, 2007

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.]


  1. […] The Unashamed Workman blog has a post up on Reading Your Audience when preaching. The author suggests that preachers must change their presentation based on the congregation that is actually there. He then notes five types of audiences and how we should change our presentation to address each one. Bookmark to: This entry is filed under Preaching, blog. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site. Related Posts […]

  2. Given point 2 above I hope to try out having sermons near the beginning of the church meetings I will lead in future. I’ve never understood why most churches and liturgies have the sermon in the second half of services. I guess it’s a hang over from a liturgy devoid of the real conclusion – the Lord’s Supper. In my experience, typical church services provide no opportunity to respond to the preached word in a formal way.

  3. Dave,
    We have sometimes reverted to an earlier preach format in my own church and have usually found it successful. There are probably advantages/disadvantages whichever way you go. I hasten to add that more often than not I begin my sermons later in the service feeling things are simmering nicely. My usual problem is trying not destroy what has already been built!

  4. The point about the distracted audience reminded me of one of those strange moments in preaching. Last summer I was about two minutes into my message when an elderly gentleman burst into the back of the sanctuary, calling to his son, who is a fireman, for help. Apparently, a tractor had overturned down our rural country road on another elderly man. A few of our men immediately rushed out to help. Everyone was clearly upset, and I stopped and we prayed, and then I continued to preach. Several minutes later one of the men who had left returned, and I stopped again to ask for a report. He said everything was ok, and relieved, I finished the message much less distracted than earlier. After the service the rest of the men had returned, and we found out that the victim of the accident had actually been seriously hurt, and although he ended up spending a lot of time in the hospital, he recovered. We had been unintentionally given a false report in the service, but if we had received the true report, the distraction would have definitely continued! Thankfully the times are rare, but sometimes you do have to stop and address the situation.

  5. What if you meet an audience like Jonathan Edwards had the time he first preached “Sinners in the hands of an angry God”? They did not let him finish the sermon…it was a glorious moment!

  6. #2 is so crucial. We have to continually vary the opening to our sermons in order to beging continually engaging. If a speaker doesn’t stop #2 right away, we’ve lost the congregation and the message for them that week. In effect then, we’ve spent a good number of hours bringing people to a place of easy daydreaming.

  7. […] The Unashamed Workman blog has a post up on Reading Your Audience when preaching. The author suggests that preachers must change their presentation based on the congregation that is actually there. He then notes five types of audiences and how we should change our presentation to address each one. […]

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