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Some time ago, I was attending a pastor's conference and heard something I did not expect. 

One of the plenary speakers preached a very angry evangelistic sermon. Did I mention I was at a pastor’s conference? I suppose we were all wondering why we pastors were being encouraged (browbeaten?) to come to Jesus, but then the preacher told us. “Why am I preaching an evangelistic sermon at a pastor’s conference?” he asked. “Because I think pastors ought to get saved!”

Now, I agree that pastors should be saved. However, I have to wonder if that was the right sermon for that crowd. Was an evangelistic sermon really in order in that venue? We’ll leave it to the Lord to determine that answer, but the larger question goes to whether we as preachers do a good job of connecting with our audiences. (Forgive that “worldly” expression, but not all crowds we preach to will be “congregations” in the traditional sense.)

Do we really understand the person sitting before us? Do we really know who’s listening?

I’d like to consider what I call “congregational exegesis.”—in other words, getting to know the primary makeup of the crowds we will most consistently address as pastors and preachers.

Though not exhaustive, I’ll give four brief suggestions.

First, don’t assume.

Don’t make assumptions based on geographical or denominational setting. 

Rural does not necessarily mean uneducated, and urban does not necessarily mean postmodern. 

I was talking to a pastor recently who pastors a church in the country, but his church is over the river and through the woods a short distance from a state university. He preaches every week to some of the brightest among us.

We also cannot assume that people believe or are even aware of everything in our doctrinal confessions.

I am a Baptist pastor, but I am aware that—as hard as we try—not everyone in our church is thoroughly Baptist. For one thing, many of them watch and podcast their favorite preachers (Wait! That’s not me?) and have been shaped by them, whether positively or negatively. They are also watching shows on cable that present impressive arguments to bolster claims that undermine the validity of the Bible. This is the kind of thing with which I compete every Sunday.

Second, ask questions.

If you are a guest preacher somewhere, ask your host pastor or event director for insight into your audience. If you are a pastor, ask questions of the search committee and then of various church members.

What kinds of questions should you ask? All kinds. Begin with empirical information, such as age, education, and socio-economic levels. Ask what kinds of things they have been studying together (denominational materials, popular books, etc.). What has shaped them? Ask if they have any particular doctrinal biases that you can think of.

For example, before accepting a pastorate at one church, I learned that one of my predecessors was forced out after he began speaking in tongues. This was a very traditional Baptist church, and I learned that I had to be careful of every mention of the Holy Spirit (you know, a member of the Trinity).

In my current church, a particular eschatological position was so cherished by some of the older members that one of them accused me of not being a Christian because I hold to a different position. This let me know that I needed to go slowly and be particularly clear when talking about anything concerning the return of Jesus. I haven’t hidden or changed my convictions, but my communication is nuanced by this awareness.

Third, spend time with them.

Pastors, we must spend time with our members.

As a seminary professor, I often hear students describe their calling as to be a “teaching pastor.” They explain that they don’t really want to visit hospitals, preach funerals or provide counseling. They just want to preach.

Personally, I don’t know how I could effectively preach consistently to people I don’t know.

Eat with them. Watch football with them. Have them in your home and go to theirs (when invited, of course).

And listen. Listen. Listen.

My relationships with my church members affect my preaching as much as anything. For example, I recently preached a series through the Psalms because I had a number of church members talking (over the lunch table, at the golf course, etc.) about struggling in their spiritual lives—worship, prayer, devotion and such. I preached about dozens of Psalms that exemplified the heart cries of God’s people during spiritual highs as well as in dark and dry places.

I was surprised at the numerous thanks I received on a weekly basis.

Fourth (and this might be a surprise), observe social media.

While I suppose I should offer an obligatory word of caution about the dangers of all things Internet, I cannot overstate the value of pastors being on Facebook and Twitter.

Not only do I learn what movies my people are seeing, what music they are listening to and what places they are frequenting (all things which shape their worldviews), but since their keyboards give them a strange kind of boldness, I learn a lot about their struggles. I have learned of illnesses, bad marriages, depression and a host of other things that needed my attention—just from checking out my newsfeed.

This is a big piece of the puzzle that helps me to put together a picture of the people who sit under my preaching week to week.

Now, you might think that your Bible and the Holy Spirit are all you need to know what and how to preach. And I will agree that the Bible is your sourcebook, and the Holy Spirit is your wisdom and your guide. However, when the Lord calls us to preach His Word to His people, the least we can do is put the effort into understanding who these people of God truly are.

Mike Miller is the pastor of First Baptist Church in Kenner, LA (New Orleans metro area). He is Campus Pastor and Associate Professor of Expository Preaching at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. Formerly, he was a corporate jet pilot. He has an MDiv with Biblical Languages, DMin in Expository Preaching, Thm, and PhD in Preaching. He is also married with 3 kids.

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Clay Gentry

commented on Nov 20, 2013

One comment really struck me, "I am a Baptist pastor, but I am aware that?as hard as we try?not everyone in our church is thoroughly Baptist." Why not just seek to make them "thoroughly Christian" or "thorough disciples of Christ." That's what is wrong with far too many preachers and congregations. They simple want to make people into the image of their "party" instead of Christ. The apostle Paul condemned this mentality in 1 Corinthians 1:10-17 why then to you perpetuate it here?

Mike Miller

commented on Nov 20, 2013

Sorry. The above comment was meant to be a reply to yours. Thank you for taking the time to read my thoughts and for offering your input.

Mike Miller

commented on Nov 20, 2013

Brother, you are reading way too much into what I said. I'm not trying to make anyone Baptist, though we do expect them to agree with our statement of faith. Our mission is to make disciples. My point was that we can't assume our members believe--or even know--everything in our statement of faith. In other words, I can't assume all my members are familiar with or accept all orthodox Christian doctrines--or particularly Baptist doctrines. My comment about making them Baptist was meant to be tongue-in-cheek, knowing that even members of our churches might be listening to those who do not espouse Christian doctrine.

Mike Miller

commented on Nov 20, 2013

Brother, you are reading way too much into what I said. I'm not trying to make anyone Baptist, though we do expect them to agree with our statement of faith. Our mission is to make disciples. My point was that we can't assume our members believe--or even know--everything in our statement of faith. In other words, I can't assume all my members are familiar with or accept all orthodox Christian doctrines--or particularly Baotist doctrines. My comment about making them Baptist was meant to be tongue-in-cheek, knowing that even members of our churches might be listening to those who do not espouse Christian doctrine.

Karl Frank

commented on Nov 20, 2013

WOW ! What an article, wonder if Jesus has been able to read it yet ? In my humble opinion, preparing a sermon, message, should start with a six letter word, which is mentioned over one hundred (100) times in the BIBLE. Jesus spent three (3) years with His disciples, and the ONLY ITEM recorded in the BIBLE, G_d's inspired word, that they asked Jesus to teach them was how to PRAY. Paul when he first went out to preach did NOT request a detailed description of who he was going to preach to. Jesus when He preached did not go out and conduct user surveys first. The Holy Spirit is the one who guide and directs a pastor, minister who is preaching for our Lord and Savior.

Mike Miller

commented on Nov 20, 2013

Brother, thank you for pointing out the absolute necessity of prayer and reliance on the Holy Spirit. As I mentioned in my last paragraph, we cannot preach without the Bible and the Spirit. I hope you understand that my suggestions were not meant to be to the exclusion of those necessities, but were rather aimed at the necessity of the pastor knowing his people. Just as Paul became acquainted with the religious culture of Athens, we as preachers would do well to understand the people to whom we preach. Though I do have the Holy Spirit, I do not have the infallible knowledge of the hearts of people that Jesus has. Therefore, I need to work at getting to know my listeners if I am going to be effective at ministering to them from the pulpit in the long term. Blessings to you.

Chris Dublin

commented on Nov 20, 2013

I'm doing my very first sermon in January but I don't know what to talk about hellllp please?

Mike Miller

commented on Nov 20, 2013

Chris, feel free to contact me through my website, www.fbckenner.org. I'd be happy to talk to you.

Karl Frank

commented on Nov 21, 2013

Chris, Spent lots of time in prayer and follow His leading as to what to preach on. Then spend time in His word and more prayer time, and He will lead and direct you.

Michael Farrell

commented on Nov 20, 2013

Great article! Agree on all points. You are right, our Pastor's need to know God's people...spend time with them outside of the three-four preaching hours he has from the pulpit. I especially like how you brought the technology of the 21st century to assist in your ministering...I will be looking at your church website and I too may just become a podcast follower. Hold fast on Baptist doctrine, preach the truth, and continue to be bold for Him. -Rom 1:16

Mike Miller

commented on Nov 20, 2013

Thank you for your kind words and for your affirmation.--Mike

James Lee

commented on Nov 20, 2013

I sometimes don't make it through some of the articles and very seldom respond. But I have to tell you, Mike that your article held my attention. I have a pastor friend who scolds me every time he sees me because I get too close to the members of my church. I own a [as we call it in SC] HAWG cooker and join the men when we cook and do a large portion of the cooking. I help with the grass cutting and repairs to the property. I don't believe we can be all that God desires us to be to our people if we distance ourselves from them. Thanks for a great article and may the blessings of God be poured out on you and yours.

Mike Miller

commented on Nov 20, 2013

Thanks, James. I'm not really sure what it means for a pastor to get too close to his people. A shepherd usually smells like sheep because he lives with them. They know him, and he knows them by name. Keep it up, brother.

Charles Waters

commented on Nov 20, 2013

I agree. Knowing your audience is important. I have pastored the same church for 27 years. Knowing my people well helps me minister to them more effectively than I could if I was unaware of their personalities and preferences. However, I can't allow my relationship with them cause any topic to be off limits either. I have to be willing to "preach to the need" of my people but it is always best to wait for the clear leadership of the Lord for no matter how well I know them, He knows them better.

Mike Miller

commented on Nov 20, 2013

27 years! Thank you for your faithfulness, Charles. And thank you for your wise words.

commented on Nov 20, 2013

Pastor, great advise and eye opener, I agree with what you said, a good shepherd, like Jesus must be led by holy spirit,(JOHN6:63 ) speak thru the word of God and know your member ;, Jesus invite his member to his house to dine, go to mary, Martha and lazarus house and attend wedding at cana, , I believe these will enhance a shepherd attitude than just a preacher.God bless and continue to increase his power and wisdom in you, in Jesus name. Great advise, thank you.

Mike Miller

commented on Nov 20, 2013

Thank you, friend. Blessings to you in your ministry.

Tim Branton

commented on Nov 20, 2013

Brother, I do want to tell you that I did really enjoy the article even though many seem to find fault. I remember many years ago Dr. Myron Cederholm telling us that "God does not put a premium on ignorance." It is fashionable in some circles for preachers to criticize education and Bible colleges in particular. Frankly, I have yet to meet a man whom I thought had so much of the Holy Spirit in him that he didn't need any tools for the Spirit to use. If God needs a load hauled, it would seem to me that He would want a 18-wheeler rather than a pickup. I'll take all the help and education I can get. Spurgeon had little or no formal education but you cannot read his sermons without seeing that he had both--the learning of a man well read and the Spirit of God on his ministry.

Mike Miller

commented on Nov 21, 2013

That's a good word, Tim. Thanks!

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