Every congregation is unique. If you have ever preached in a different church, you will know what I mean. What are some of the factors that influence how responsive a congregation will be? Let me list a few. Some of these will just reassure you that you are not going mad. Some may suggest things that you might be able to change.
1. Culture – Different national groups respond in different ways. I remember preaching in a country that had just come out of a brutal civil war. The listeners seemed so hard to me, as if nothing could move them. Actually they were not as internally hard as they were externally, but it took some getting used to for me as the preacher. At the same time, it isn’t fair, or even possible, to simply use broad brush strokes for describing responsiveness. There may be a more typically British congregation, but each British congregation is still unique. The same is true for American, or Italian, or Kenyan, etc.
2. Church Culture – Each church is different. Different personalities will affect the tone of a church congregation. It could be a person with a hearty laugh, or it could be an immature person with showy spirituality. The leadership will affect the tone of a church; corporate culture is their responsibility, whether they recognize it or not. A church with clear vision and momentum will react to a preacher differently than a church without direction left to personal preferences and a social club mentality. Everyone makes a difference to a church culture, especially those in official or unofficial leadership.
3. Age – If there is a typical age in a group, it will influence responsiveness. Compare and contrast talking to children, to teens, to young adults, to middle-aged folk, and to the elderly. For one thing, if they don’t catch what you are saying, they won’t respond as you might expect them to respond. Seems obvious, but be sure to preach appropriately to the ages present.
4. Speaker – Just in case we are starting to think that it is all about the congregation, here’s a big factor in their responsiveness – the speaker! Is the speaker engaging? Warm? Flippant? Friendly? Upset? Easy to listen to? Distant? Is there lots of eye contact? What about a smile? Is the body language suggestive of an approachable person, or one who is aloof and disengaged? Do the listeners get the sense that the speaker likes them, that the speaker cares about what is being preached, that the speaker wants to be there? The same congregation can be warm and responsive, then with another speaker seem cold and uninterested. They aren’t being fickle!
5. Subject – Some subjects will be more engaging than others. If the subject seems less engaging, don’t settle for low engagement ... what can you do to engage the listeners? Is there a way to bring a narrative aspect to the message, either in organization, in setting of biblical scene (i.e., preach the narrative setting of an epistle section), or at least in illustrative content? A good preacher can make a dull subject engaging. In fact, a good preacher will do so without hesitation, since only listening listeners will typically be touched by a message.
6. Level – Engaging content preached over the heads of listeners, or patronizingly offered, will not actually engage. Too heady and people feel intimated and drift. Too patronizing and people get frustrated and feel like their time is being stolen. Make sure you pitch things at an appropriate level. Just because you have read technical material in your preparation does not mean that people need to know that. Aim to communicate, not to impress.
7. Proxemics – Are you elevated above the listeners, are you on the same level, or are they looking down at you? How far away are they? Is there furniture separating you from them? These things can all make a huge difference. Sometimes something as small as standing beside the lectern instead of behind it can make a huge difference.
8. Spiritual Maturity – Perhaps this is the overall goal, but if you are preaching to a church over a period of time, then hopefully this will increase. As maturity increases, people should be leaning in more to biblical preaching that offers Christ and engages hearts. (Bear in mind that when temperatures increased in some, the New Testament always seems to show others who became harder ... response will not be universally positive!)
What other factors would you add to the list?