The best preachers in this world remain anonymous. I am frequently asked: “Who are today’s best preachers?” My stock answer is “no one you have heard of.” I am convinced that the best preachers are some of those who craft sermons, week in and week out — sometimes two or three times per week — and talk to people whom they love and know through eyeball-to-eyeball experience.
The people who step up to preach in their hometown ballpark, and hit single after single, are the people with the highest averages. Yet the bat often cracks louder in another park. Thus, the crowd at the away game is far more impressed because they get to see the home run!
Sermons at home and away differ in both liberty and liability. Lest preachers who succeed week after week before the home crowd think they are unworthy of the road game, we need to identify and learn from some of these different privileges and responsibilities. Moreover, no matter how comfortable we may be in our own ballpark, times come when we’re asked to bat in another stadium. The faces and the boundaries may be distinct. How do we preach at home versus away?
Preachers at home and away command attention differently.
The preacher at home has to work hard to gain and sustain attention. Familiarity breeds “here we go again.” With today’s congregation driving on the information superhighway, the preacher has to supply stimulating reasons for audience members to comply with the “thirty-minute parking” sign. Too many preachers assume such attention, but the attention they receive is closer to social courtesy than to spiritual curiosity. Typically, the preacher — especially the home preacher — must touch a need, surface a relevant issue, or at least “announce” an interesting topic within two minutes. Otherwise, the sermon will fall upon wandering minds and hearts.
The preacher at the away game is awarded probationary attention. A visiting voice prompts people to give two to three minutes to discern whether this preacher has anything to say worth hearing. If the preacher can signal to the audience that the sermon will be relevant, different than the usual, or perhaps will include humor, the preacher gains a few more minutes. Like the preacher at home, however, the away preacher has to swing hard and with precision in the first inning.
Sermons at home and away have distinct ground rules.
The preacher at home must avoid predictability. If every sermon begins with a startling statement or ends with humor, the crowd thumbs the program or steps out for popcorn when this preacher comes to the plate. The preacher must work to vary illustrations, sermonic structure, and biblical genres. Introductions and conclusions carry unusual weight when it comes to predictability.
Perhaps even a predictable pattern can be approached with variety, however. If every sermon presents a “preaching issue” to the audience, something at stake in their lives, the preacher might raise and develop issues in varying ways. The preacher can surface the issue by asking a question that touches a person’s need, and then point them to the Scripture for the answer. Or perhaps the preacher will develop the issue through a specific example, or by citing statistics that imply “you fit here,” or by speaking a startling statement or question as the sermon’s first words.
Probably no element of the sermon suffers more from predictability than the conclusion. Closing the Bible, stepping down in front of the pulpit to make a concluding statement, or announcing, “let me close with this,” stops communication like a TV time-out. If the preacher signals to the audience that “it’s over,” it is. The home crowd knows the way out of the parking lot and they can flutter their bulletin, reach for the songbook, or coat their children like no other crowd. Preaching to the same crowd requires variety.
Most preachers at the away game need not worry about predictability.1 More than once I have listened to accolades as people exited the worship service only to think “if only they knew what I preached at home last week!” Preachers know their favorite stories or anecdotes. They know which sermons hit home runs. Preachers travel with their best stuff, and they pack light. I know one preacher who remarks “that sermon will travel well.”
One caution warrants mention, however. Because a sermon goes over the fence in one park doesn’t mean it will make the wall in another. In fact, the away preacher must not assume that he or she can swing the same way in every stadium. While there are a few generic sermons that touch almost any Christian because they are based on the great truths of God’s Word or universally relevant issues, an audience strongly influences a sermon’s purpose.
The away preacher can stick with the generic themes, but if the preacher chooses to do otherwise, detailed audience analysis is crucial. It usually takes only a phone call or two to learn about the away crowd. What are their interests, needs, or relevant issues? Are there boundaries in this particular park? What will it take to bat well? Many visiting sermons could have avoided being a “swing-and-a-miss” had the preacher practiced for the specific game. While the away preacher need not be concerned about prediction, precision is vital. The ground rules are different.
Preachers at home and away are perceived with different credibility and rapport.
The preacher at home receives the credibility of a regular starter. If the preacher at home has established a reputation for thorough exegesis, relevant messages, and skilled delivery, the preacher steps into the pulpit with momentum. Moreover, the home preacher has the advantage of knowing the people, their needs, tastes, interests, hurts, and joys. The home preacher has married, buried, and baptized those to whom the sermon is addressed. The home preacher has been to the Christmas party, the school play, the community carnival, or the hospital with the audience. The preacher knows the crowd, and if the ministry enjoys a loving relationship, credibility and rapport have been established outside of the pulpit.
The away preacher, however, steps up as a pinch-hitter. Pinch-hitters appear with high expectations but mixed hopes. The away preacher must establish rapport immediately with an audience to be perceived as one of the team.
Last year our church celebrated its 150th year anniversary by having four preachers of international reputation speak on consecutive Sundays of the anniversary month. I marveled that the preacher who, in my judgment, had the most to say — substantively and biblically — was the least appreciated. While several factors may have been involved, I cannot help but think that the chief issue was a matter of rapport. The other three preachers related directly and immediately to the audience. They went beyond the mundane “I’m happy to be here” to let us know that they were human and interested in our historical and vision-casting celebration.
In essence, the away preacher has to say “I’m one of you; I live in the same world that you do and struggle with many of the same issues with which you struggle.” The preacher can ascertain such rapport with a humorous sentence or two, an anecdote, or just a simple statement of the fact, but the preacher must reveal humanness.
Perhaps the best way to achieve credibility and rapport is to relate something humorous about oneself as part of the sermon’s introduction. Every sermon will not permit such a tale, but if rapport can be established within the sermon, the opening remarks will not be perceived as the pinch-hitter’s warm-up swings. If the sermon does not allow such an introduction, it is important to warm up to the crowd and, more importantly, to let them warm up to the preacher. The preacher then can transition to the sermon via a pause or a verbal segue. The away preacher must take the time to relate to the audience in a personable, warm way. Otherwise, the preacher sounds like a courier who has little interest in the audience or message reception.
Preachers at home and away invest dissimilarly.
Away preachers invest at a high level of risk. Away preachers can get away with touchy topics such as stewardship, money, or social justice. They might incorporate their experiences to provide an unconventional perspective, such as how a person from the third-world would view material wealth or suffering.
When I am asked to preach in an “away” setting, I often ask those who have invited me for suggestions of topics or themes that would be appropriate. Commonly, I hear a long pause or observe a blank stare. Then, I ask if there is a needed topic or two that I may address because it is uncomfortable for the pastor to do so. It’s amazing how the suggestions suddenly pour forth.
Away preachers are Sunday consultants. They hike into town, tell everyone how to live, and breeze out of town. Little of long-term, practical consequence is at stake for the away preacher, so the away preacher is willing to invest with a higher level of risk. The home preacher, however, might fear being traded. Home preachers might have to read Monday’s articles about Sunday’s game, or worse yet, hear the article read over the phone! They have to play in the same park next week.
The home preacher usually, and probably wisely, takes only low risks. Unlike most investments, however, while the risks are lower the opportunity for return is greater. The home preacher acquires the value of long-term, steady investing. The home preacher does not set out to get rich quick. The home preacher has learned the value of “a little, over time.” Sermon by sermon, home preachers invest in the lives of the hometown crowd. And little by little the dividends mount up. There may not be the thundering applause that the away preacher grows accustomed to hearing, but the long-term value of the investment far exceeds that of the road game. People return to report how an investment made years ago is now paying great dividends in their lives. Such dividends are not the reward of a flashy home run but of consistent singles. Home and away preachers invest and receive returns with disparity.
Home and away preachers point sermons in diverse directions.
While it might seem that away preachers can call for more stark responses than preachers at home, such demands might abuse their visiting status. Often, away preachers cannot provide follow-up to people’s decisions or actions. Thus, they must be careful to call for a realistic response to the sermon. The home preacher possesses resources to offer ongoing discipleship, care, or counseling that grows out of response to a sermon.
Additionally, the home preacher can be more precise in calling for specific action, for the home preacher knows the people well enough to suggest concrete application. While the biblical text typically directs the nature of the response, the away preacher necessarily must suggest more general responses. Often, a series of examples of application of the sermon’s thesis is effective for communicating to the audience that “it can be done.”
Home and away preachers support their sermons divergently.
The home preacher must limit illustrations from the congregation to those that can be communicated with permission or anonymously. Quantitative limitation is also warranted, for if the congregation begins to think, “if I share this with the pastor, it may show up in a sermon,” trust is undermined. The away preacher can share illustrations from the preacher’s circle of friends or congregation, provided permission is granted or safeguards are employed to protect identities.
Away preachers typically enjoy a greater freedom with autobiographical illustrations. The away preacher’s sermon must not be a “self-report,” but the sermon can include insight into the preacher’s experience with what’s at stake in the sermon. Of course, all personal illustrations need to avoid the extremes of exaltation and denigration. The home preacher must be more careful with autobiographical material. If the audience “hears too much of the preacher,” they may be dismayed by his might or his plight. Personal illustration is very effective in visualizing application and giving the sermon a sense of realism, but people in the home crowd want a glimpse of the preacher, not a press release.
Sermons at home and away differ in both liberty and liability. When we recognize the distinctions of location and occasion we begin to forecast more accurately a sermon’s expectations, effect, and response.
Perhaps the comparisons between the nomadic preachers and the preachers who consistently slug in one park are unfair. Unfortunately, the away preacher often travels with unmerited fame. Yet the home preacher may suffer because of familiarity, or be taken for granted. Moreover, some traveling preachers who enjoy great fame might strike out if they had to do what pastors must do game after game. Regularly appearing in the line-up and pinch-hitting are very different tasks.
1Those preachers who are known well via their broadcast or widely-distributed sermons might present an exception to this rule of thumb. Their “familiarity” actually can work to their advantage, just as sounding different in person may threaten their credibility and communication. More than one audience has taken comfort in the fact that “he sounds just like he does on the radio.”

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