The Power of Knowing Your Audience

Have you ever said a joke where people didn’t understand the punch line? Not because it was inappropriate, but because people couldn’t relate to the joke. I have been there and done that!

I have lived in large cities in England and Malaysia, but I’m from rural Indiana. I learned football isn’t always football. And biscuits, jelly, and chips are all completely different in England to America. In England, if I went into a restaurant and ordered biscuits and gravy, they would wonder why I wanted brown gravy on my cookies. I have had my fair share of strange looks because I didn’t understand something about the context in which I was speaking.

When we are preparing a sermon or a Bible study, we hope we are being diligent in our preparation in order to be faithful to the scriptures. We study a passage to hear from God what the passage says about God and what it means for our lives today.

We study the Bible, but do we take time to study the people to whom we are communicating? Do we understand the audience that is listening?

In the U.S., we live in a diverse society generationally, culturally, and economically. Knowing who is listening makes all the difference if we want to be heard by the people with whom we want to communicate. Understanding your context makes all the difference when preaching, teaching, or especially when sharing Jesus with someone over a conversation. We have to understand the context in which we speak. This is what missionaries learn to do. We all have to learn to be missionaries to our context.

What can we learn from the greatest missionary?

In Acts 13 and 14, the Apostle Paul was on his first missionary journey. During this trip, he completely changed his tactics in what and how he spoke based on his context. He moved from speaking to Jews and God-fearing Gentiles to only Gentiles. Through his travels, he started off by going to the synagogue first, retelling Jewish history and how Jesus was the fulfillment of the promised Messiah. He did this in Cyprus, Pisidian Antioch, and Iconium. The Jewish people for the most part rejected the message of Jesus, but the Gentiles were open.

When Paul and Barnabas arrived in Lystra, this was deep Gentile territory. This was where Paul switched his tactics based on his context. Instead of revealing Jesus through the line of David, he talked about God the Creator and the one who had been blessing them their whole lives. Paul again most famously used this strategy with more success on Mars Hill in Athens to the Greek philosophers (Acts 17:22-34). In this way, Paul preached a contextual message. He spoke where people were at. He adapted the message of Jesus without changing the meaning or watering down the Gospel message.

Do you know your context?

Just as Paul understood and contextualized his message, we need to adjust our message to the people to whom we want to reach and minister. Some questions you might ask to learn your context are:

What sports do people watch? What are their hobbies? What food do they eat? What kinds of jobs do they have? What makes them laugh? More importantly, who needs prayer? What do they need prayer for? What challenges are people facing? What is going on in the lives of the people in my church and community?

Here are four ways to get to know the people in your context:

1. Share food. Meet people in your church for coffee or a meal. Sharing a meal with someone is one of the best ways to get to know someone deeply. Dedicate one day a week to eating with a Christian and someone who is not a Christian yet.

2. Be on mission together. Going on a short-term mission trip helps people to get to know the people you see every day. It is a somewhat of a mystery, but people open up and masks come off as you step outside the comfort zone of your everyday setting. Another option is to do a local mission together. Having a common mission unites people. You have side conversations that don’t normally happen in day-to-day life.

3. Plan a church retreat. Go on a church retreat together. This is a way to relax and spiritually recharge as a church. Even on a weekend-away retreat, you spend as much time with your people as you do every Sunday of the entire year.

4. Pray over every person. Pray through the members on your church social media page, church directory, or anywhere else you can see the faces of the people in your congregation. Take time to pray for each person and ask the Holy Spirit for wisdom in speaking to these people.