Exegeting Your Audience
Knowing how your audience hears and interprets what you say is easily just as important as proper interpretation and presentation of the Bible. | by Doug Murren
Most church communicators spend years learning to exegete the Bible and do good theology. And we all know even more would serve us well. But there is a very serious lack in learning how to understand or do what I call “exegeting your audience.”
How can a minister grow a congregation without knowing how to minister to that congregation? It can’t be done. Knowing how your audience hears and interprets what you say is easily just as important as proper interpretation and presentation of the Bible, yet we rarely teach on this approach.
Paradigms affect the message
One of the first exercises I undertake in learning about my audience is to take on different paradigms of what and who I am as a speaker. Taking on a different angle as a presenter can help us hit people in ways that can open them up to our messages more than we realize.
We can pivot to paradigms like these:
- Physician – Following in the steps of our Great Physician as a healer.
- Leader – Or let’s say apostle or commander of the mission of the church.
- Teacher – We are accountable to make certain we pass on and develop a love for the book and a grasp of its content and message and basic theology.
- Prophet – We are commanded to make the “word of the Lord” known for that moment. What the Spirit is saying to the churches is of vital importance to New Testament leadership.
- Evangelist – The leader of any flock knows the kingdom of God can never be static. It must always be about including the new and convincing the skeptical in every community.
- Guide – Giving direction to the church is another vital aspect of a responsible speaker and leader of the church.
- Elder – Speaking as an elder to the flock is an often forgotten dimension of the pulpit. An “elder” is often thought of in just functionary terms today but it is clear that in the Bible the concept carried with it the power of experience brought to bear on a new moment. The role of the elder is not to speak for the good old days but rather to use the rich, historically fought battles to bring understanding to the present fight. Novices and the untested were never valued to do so in either Testament.
- Advisor – Sometimes people just need trusted advice rather than a sermon.
Who is listening?
Not only is taking on a new origin point helpful in understanding who we are as the speaker but considering what factors are affecting our audiences is vital. As I prepare to speak, my first questions are always about the people I will be speaking to – what are their main points of pain, what will their level of Bible knowledge be, and what are their main fears. Remember, Jesus very often spoke to the emotional as well as spiritual challenges of His listeners.
We must also consider the range of our audience. Is it narrow? Most of us have never escaped having very narrow ranges in our audiences. We expect youth leaders to speak to their charge. Most of our age-specific study groups are purposefully directed to a narrow range of listeners. But being the teacher and pastor of a full congregation with a charge to reach cities requires some serious thought on answering just exactly who the audience is that we are charged to reach. Developing a congregation that is growing and vital requires speaking to a broad audience.
Then there’s the reality of our personal preferences, our preferred audience, our favorite audiences. Often the range of our impact as speakers and leaders is limited to the scope of our vision of what constitutes our preferred groups. We rarely consider the almost unending numbers of people types, sub-groupings in our society, etc. that offer us a wealth of information we could use in assessing or “exegeting” our audiences. Not looking at all the available categories causes us to cheat ourselves of a rich and valuable educational experience that would benefit us and our audiences.
What basic assumptions can you begin with?
I hate to tell you but there are no reliable basic assumptions anymore. None.
In the past, denominations and church groups tended to appeal to certain nationalities or races and then to education levels or regional origins. Later there were generationally and family-focused churches. Today our society is anything but monolithic. We are seeing an almost unending variety of social groupings and they all need to be reached.
It’s known that birds of a feather too often flock together, but churches can and do struggle. After decades we find the basic people groups of the local church no longer matching those in the vicinity of the church building. Cultural disconnects happen when people discover that the speaker has nothing to say, for example, to their amazingly complex, personal blended family situations or to shifts in socio-economic challenges in their lives.
The American ethos is evidenced by our gathering around “our felt needs” when it comes to church attendance. Churches that want to grow must therefore broaden the range of felt needs they address. Megachurches over the years have become masters at the trade-in this regard, but “exegeting a potential audience” is not just about growing numerically. Being an effective church requires knowing the needs of your church members and potential members and learning how to address them.
Research. Research. Research some more.
I find most folks understand that prayer and engagement with the community are necessary, but years of experience have taught me that we are no better in serving our audience than the quality of our research.
Without research, we don’t realize that we really haven’t known the truth about our neighborhoods and potential members. My years as a church designer have proven repeatedly that church leaders and lay leaders alike are frequently initiating programs and outreaches that are targeted incorrectly, targeted even to nonexistent groups of people. Churches spend little if anything on scientific research of not just their church but their community as well.
Personally, I hired the services of the Barna Group for several years to study our current church members as well as the basic people groups in different distances from our building.
I didn’t trust my assessment of the basic knowledge about what the church was about in our area. I was certain I didn’t really know all of the fears people had about church or even about life. I was certain other churches I knew had no satisfactory answers to my questions. You and I need the facts, not opinions or assumptions.
My feeling was that most of our assessments are limited to people types and breakdowns that are at least 60 years out of date. It’s for that reason, I believe, that we often tend to speak to issues that don’t exist any longer. Perhaps the basic nature of church development and even revival seasons is the emergence of what the original missiologists used to call a “cultural lift” every 10 to 20 years in churches. What happens is that the felt needs of the convinced cease to be relatable to the journey of our culture at large. Research will reveal this and help us stay on track.
We have proven we can learn and improve in recognizing and meeting felt needs. For years speakers knew very little, in my opinion, about how to speak to young men or even men in general. Thankfully we are doing a better job at that now because people made the effort to “exegete” their male audience and apply what the research revealed about the needs of men. It just goes to show that we can reach people in the middle of their life experiences if we do our homework.
Anyone can start here.
This is not an ad for the Barna Group but rather a suggestion or encouragement to seek out such groups because they can help you assess your potential and increase your effectiveness. Their help can be as basic as helping you target the most effective topics to reach people at large in your community. Their studies and analyses can give you some real insights into what is happening around you.
While a little qualified help can increase your possible impact, anyone can start here:
- You can learn a great deal about the family challenges in your area by making friends with some school officials. You will be surprised how much you can learn from school principals and counselors about issues families in your area are facing. You might be stunned, for example, by the level of opioid addiction in our cities. How often do we church leaders ever think to help address this area?
- Surveys where I could learn about my members’ real questions about life and the faith have been very useful. I learned so very much from what people shared and was quite surprised at how out of touch a leader can become within just a few short years.
- I hired time from psychiatrists and social workers who helped me understand questions about life that people were facing.
- Focus groups are incredible tools to discover where your listeners are challenged and what they are thinking. Make certain if you do some focus groups that you have church members include friends that don’t go to church in the group meetings.
- I have long made it my task to research surveys and studies in what the real areas of fear and levels of fear are in our families.
- It is helpful to pay attention to top-selling books and what core content people are interested in.
- I gave a yearly survey to our church on their Bible knowledge. It will surprise you how much help you can gain as a leader in planning your training and messages for people based upon your measurable growth measurements.
I have again and again discovered as a communicator that my assumptions about my listeners and what they really needed to hear were so very often dead wrong. Searching out the truth is the only way to know what needs to be said and done.
I can promise any communicator that if you begin to help people silence their fears, give them some skill at problem-solving issues they face, and give them basic insights into deploying the Bible into their life on their own you will fill any building you can find over time.
But I feel it all begins with good research. Investing the hours and sweat and blood that takes you beyond your assumptions and beyond what you run into in your counseling offices is how you successfully and effectively “exegete your audience.”