When my wife and I moved to Seattle, Washington, in 2015 to plant a church, we realized we must understand what our people loved if we were to love our city well. Seattleites love their pro teams. So, we jumped on the bandwagon and began going to Seattle Mariners baseball games.
We’ve been going to Mariners’ games for several years now, and at this point, we know what to expect: good hotdogs, a great view of the Puget Sound from the West side of the stadium, and an evangelist with a bull-horn standing outside the ticket booth telling people they are going to hell.
Now I don’t know this man or his motivations. But here is one thing I do know: he may have a heart for the Gospel, but he has not taken the time to exegete his audience.
Pastors, it is important to know and understand your audience.
The truth of Scripture never changes, but the way we communicate that truth should if we want to be truly effective in reaching people with the Gospel.
So here are a few quick tips for exegeting your audience:
Know the passage well.
We cannot clearly communicate the truth until we clearly understand the text. Once we’ve done the hard work of exegesis, and we know it at a heart level, we are then able to creatively discover ways to communicate it best.
A good preacher takes something profound, understands it well, and then through the guidance of the Holy Spirit discovers a way to communicate it simply and compellingly to his audience.
Know your people well.
If you want to know how to preach to the people God has put under your care, you must take the time to know your people. You must become a pastor who knows how to ask good questions and really listens to the answers given.
Through one-on-one discipleship, small groups, and counseling, ask the Holy Spirit to give you a pulse on the needs and personalities in your church.
Here are some good questions to ask:
- What are some of the common themes I see people in my church dealing with?
- What spectrum of spiritual maturity am I dealing with in my church?
- Are most of the people new to the faith and in need of a firm foundation, or are they long-time believers in need of spiritual re-kindling?
- What are some “weak spots” in my church member’s orthodoxy (what they believe) and orthopraxy (how that belief is lived out)?
- What part of God’s vision for our church is not being understood and lived out within the Body?
Know your culture well.
Throughout Scripture, we see that Paul and the other biblical authors not only knew their audience, but the culture surrounding their audience as well. If we desire to be used by God to prepare our people for the spiritual battle they face outside the church, it is important for us to know what that battle looks like.
So when it comes to culture, here are some good questions to answer:
- What are the felt needs of the people in my city? Loneliness? Lack of purpose? Financial instability?
- What are some of the predominant beliefs people hold in my city? Are they spiritual? Agnostic? Affirming?
- What are some of the values that are being pushed on my church members on a daily basis?
- What pressures are people feeling at work, home, or school, that I can encourage them in or help them avoid?
- What are some of the ways people think differently than I was raised to think? How can I address those differences in my preaching?
Preach to the people God gives you, and to those you hope to reach.
For every pastor who desires to preach, there must first be a humble understanding that God has led them to the people and place that He wants them to shepherd. Without that recognition, there are two ditches pastors can unintentionally fall into when preaching. First, preaching to a different crowd than the one in front of them. Second, neglecting to preach to those they hope to reach.
In one ditch, we can preach a message fit for a seminary class, but unfit for the church we are leading. We may be tempted to pull out every exegetical tool in our toolbox, but we must realize it may not be the most effective way of communicating the message. There are times when explaining the Greek or Hebrew helps bring clarity and insight, and there are times when it sounds scholarly, but adds nothing to what we’re communicating.
The second ditch is neglecting those you hope to reach. If you are hoping to reach those who don’t know Christ, and yet you are preaching in a way that a lost person coming to your church would have a hard time understanding, you are not going to grow in reaching those people. Work hard to communicate in a way that both motivates believers and pleads with non-believers.
The work of understanding your culture and people is a hard task and takes a deep involvement with those around you and an ear to heaven. But remember this: God is more interested in telling them His story more than you are, and He will help you in this great task!
Dave Elliff is the Lead Pastor of The Roots Church in Seattle, Washington.