Preaching is one of the cherished skills of most pastors. Indeed, most of the training received in seminary, the core criterion evaluated during the candidating process, and a central factor in a church’s evaluation of its pastor is the pastor’s ability to use the pulpit as a platform from which acceptable information is broadcast to the body.
But just as organizational structures and fundraising practices must change with the times, effective communication also requires keeping in touch with the changing nature of the culture, the audience and the communication forum. As teachers of God’s Word, the core of our message must never be compromised: God’s truths and principles never change, no matter what the communication context may be. Those who alter the heart of His message may be communicating effectively, but they are not communicating God’s message to the audience.
However, the styles used to convey God’s message to His people must change over the course of time because culture and context are constantly changing. The apostle Paul was clear about the importance of contextualization. He taught of its significance (1 Corinthians 9:19-23); he also applied that principle in his epistles and recorded sermons.
Effective communication is an art, but is founded upon some core principles. First, effective communicators understand how an audience hears information. Second, they understand what an audience will listen to. Third, they convey a clear and meaningful message to the audience. Finally, they seek and evaluate feedback so that subsequent communications will continue to hit the mark and have the desired influence.
While writing The Index of Leading Spiritual Indicators (Word Books: Dallas, TX, 1996), several new insights struck me in relation to the art of preaching. Those have been borne out by a wealth of research we have conducted in recent times. Let me share some of these insights with you.
Who Is the Audience?
To a large extent, much of the preaching that takes place is designed for an older audience. That is because many preachers have yet to accept a critical reality: churches are now serving a new majority.
If you think of the population in terms of generations, anchored around the years of the Baby Boom generation, you can easily understand this reality. There are four adult generations in the U.S. today. The Seniors are the 27 million still alive who were born before 1927. The Builders are the 43 million born from 1927-1945. The Boomers are the nation’s largest generation ever, currently 78 million strong, born between 1946 and 1964. The Baby Busters are America’s second largest generation ever, the 70 million born between 1965 and 1983. To be consistent, though, you must divide the Busters into those who are adults (defined as 18 or older) and those who are pre-adult. That gives us 52 million Busters.
Applying our research data to those sums to determine who is sitting in the pews — i.e. being exposed to preaching — brings us to a conclusion which may startle you. Even though individuals from the Builder and Seniors segments are more likely to attend church services, they are so dramatically outnumbered by the younger generations that in the aggregate audience of church att-endance Busters and Boomers outnum-ber their elders by a three to two mar-gin. In other words, about 60% of the adults who are present to hear sermons in Christian churches on any given weekend are 50 or younger. Thus, the “old faithfuls” of the church, the stal-warts counted on to be the bedrock of the congregation, represent a shrinking force, numerically. You might call this chronological reality the emergence of the “new majority.”
Also realize another crucial demographic fact: your audience is likely to be dominated by women. Women outnumber men in a typical church service by nearly a three to two margin. The research also confirms that church attendance among men is continuing to decline.
How They Hear
So we have established that your audience is likely to be comprised largely of females and people under 50. What have we learned in recent years about the ways in which such people receive and interpret information? Here are a few considerations:
1. Younger adults are accustomed to receiving information at a faster rate of transmission than are older adults. Pacing has become a crucial element in determining whether the typical listener sticks with an entire sermon.
2. Time is treasured. After the 20 minute mark, a sermon tends to lose younger listeners, who have been trained to think in short segments. Among the younger Busters, the tendency is to tune out after six to eight minutes — unless there is some type of transition that renews their interest.
3. The language used by the communicator determines the openness to the information. Language which is theological, judgmental, or incessantly paternalistic creates problems for many younger listeners.
Another filter relates to the attitude of the speaker. Individuals whose preaching comes across as arrogant or insensitive are not given the benefit of the doubt by the audience.
The medium used to transmit information impacts the perceived credibility of that information. Information conveyed through the use of technology often has a higher degree of believability than does information coming directly out of a speaker’s mouth.
Young adults increasingly have a tendency to integrate disparate information into new perspectives on reality. Educational psychologists tell us that today’s young people are “mosaic thinkers,” able to put information together in new patterns, often arriving at unusual, novel or surprising conclusions. This is in contrast to early Boomers, Builders and Seniors who are “linear thinkers”, assembling facts in a predictable path and generally arriving at predictable conclusions.
The product of a heavy diet of mass media, the uncritical embrace of computer technologies and the national shift in morals and values has been an entirely new filter through which Americans receive and interpret information. Whether we applaud or oppose that filter is not the issue at hand: the mere emergence of the new filter mandates a new style of sermon development and delivery.
In fact, we have discovered that the younger the adult, the less interested they are in a smooth presentation. Excellence and professionalism are “performance strategies” that appeal to the late Builders and early Boomers. Among the Busters, however, the keys are relevance, genuineness and authenticity. They are more interested in experiencing a sincere and honest presentation that raises meaningful questions than a polished speech that provides all the answers. Preachers who address the audience without constant reference to notes, and those who do not “hide” behind a pulpit, also seem to generate a more positive response from their listeners.
The Substance of Style
The new majority of church-goers also looks for different substance in sermons. We have learned that younger adults resonate with “visionary preaching”: that is, sermons which are not narrowly focused on the here and now, but which empower the listener to envision a better future which they may play a role in creating and enjoying.
Understand that the new majority is also an audience which does not accept the existence of moral absolutes. This is true among both the believers and the non-believers in the new majority who attend Christian churches. The communications strategy that has most effectively overcome that obstacle has been the intelligent use of stories as the means of conveying truth. Stories, to the post-modernist, relativistic mind, are undeniable: experience is permitted where theology or philosophy is rejected.
Increasingly we find that the entire approach of “talking at the audience” is an ill-fated form of communication. Churches which have been experimenting with interactive learning times, dialogical sermons and other forms of Socratic communication are hitting a resonant chord among younger adults — and both threatening and baffling the typical Builder or Senior. To the Buster mind, participation in the process of learning and arriving at truths or principles is even more crucial than the truths or principles themselves.
More and more of the audience members are also searching for preachers who come from the Bill Clinton school of preaching: empathetic public speaking (“I feel your pain”). Naturally, if this is not genuine and authentic at the same time — i.e. evincing a sense of vulnerability and compassion along with street-grown wisdom — then people reject the presentation as an act, a piece of staged religiosity and manipulation. However, those who preach with true sensitivity and depth serve as magnets to a pair of generations which are admittedly emotionally damaged and relationally starved.
In the midst of communicating messages which seem genuine, sensitive, realistic, visionary and participatory, we have also noted that young listeners are turned off by excessive quotes, historical references or literary references. This probably does not surprise you since the younger generations are less familiar with classic works of literature and the names of literary or spiritual giants, and with the basics of world history than are older Americans. The use of quotes from esteemed individuals serves little purpose: the credibility lent by the quoted figure is not likely to be appreciated or accepted by the younger audience.
Remember, too, that Scriptural references may not have the intended impact upon young listeners. Relatively few of the Busters and late Boomers know the names of the books of the Bible or even the most basic or popular Scriptural passages. While the Word of God instructs, it pierces and it empowers us, if carelessly used in preaching to a biblically illiterate audience it may also unnecessarily discourage or repulse the listener — not because of the content of the Word, but because of how such references were used in the communication.
Logistical Realities
It may be helpful to keep in mind two other factors which could impact your ability to influence young adults through preaching.
The first is that when a young adult attends a church these days, it is not likely that he or she will return the following week. What does this do for the preacher who likes to preach topical series which build upon each other? Consistency in attendance is a cultural artifact in America
The second noteworthy trend is that more and more young people attend a group of churches, rather than a single church. Because they have entirely different objectives than most church leaders, many young adults select a handful of nearby churches that they believe will serve their own series of needs. On any given weekend they will attend the church which they believe is best equipped to satisfy the most pressing need with which they are struggling at the moment: emotional, spiritual, relational, physical, intellectual, etc. Again, this challenges the preacher to consider not only the limitations of progressive sermons, but also the perceived value provided by his or her preacher’s messages.
Opportunities and Obstacles
This is a great day for those who wish to influence the thinking and behavior of our society. We live among a growing number of people who are confused, but searching; discouraged but not hopeless; lonely but open; religious but spiritually empty. It is, as Charles Handy has so eloquently described, a time of paradox.
Those paradoxes even penetrate our Christian realm. We live in a nation where the spiritual quest is reaching a furious pitch; yet, those involved in the quest are deserting the faith systems which have traditionally delivered answers to their predecessors. We are a nation which is more highly educated than ever; at the same time, we are a nation undermined by rampant functional illiteracy. There are a variety of such paradoxes.
Great preaching retains the ability to inspire, direct, educate, encourage and chastise today’s people. But the means of developing and delivering a great sermon these days is quite different than that which has been done in the recent past. If you are in a context in which the new majority is your target audience, rethink the style and substance of your preaching — never compromising the truths of the Bible, but always seeking ways of making those truths relevant and comprehensible to your core listeners.

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