Preaching to a wide range of people

Peter Adam

We often find ourselves preaching to a wide range of people:

  • Christian and Biblical knowledge and understanding – from Biblically illiterate to those who have come from a Christian background and spent a lifetime meditating on the Bible.
  • Educational background –
  • Cultural and ethnic and religious background –
  • Christian life and experience.
  • Different ages, different temperaments, different experiences of life,

Here are two quotations about the exegesis of the Bible in preaching, from Eugene Peterson:

‘Exegesis does not mean mastering the text, it means submitting to it as it is given to us. Exegesis doesn’t take charge of the text and impose superior knowledge on it; it enters the world of the text and lets the text ‘read’ us. Exegesis is an act of sustained humility.’ ‘Exegesis is an act of love.’ [1]

As we need love and sustained humility in our careful exegesis and reading of the Bible, so also we need love and sustained humility as we serve the congregation. We often think that training for ministry is being trained to speak. Actually, we need to be trained to listen as well: listen attentively, carefully, humbly and lovingly to God when we read the Bible, and listen attentively, carefully, humbly and lovingly to our people in all our interactions with them. And we also need to listen attentively, carefully, humbly and lovingly to our world, and their worlds as well, so we know how to preach to them about daily issues, and how to preach to enquirers and unbelievers who come to church as well.

Here are some useful questions. You will easily see in each case how important these questions are, how asking them will help your preaching, and how failing to ask them will hinder your preaching.

Bible knowledge, Biblical literacy, and Biblical relevance

When the Bible passage is read, what words or phrases will people: hear for the first time, not know, not understand, misunderstand, be upset by, react against, welcome, or enjoy?

What connections with other parts of the Bible will people make, and if I make any connections, how many people will follow them, and so how much detail to I need to give?

What background knowledge of the Bible is assumed by the sermon, and is this realistic?

How can I help people grapple with the fact that shaping your lives and beliefs by ancient texts is not generally a Western activity?

How can I help people have the patience to pay attention to an ancient text?

What misunderstandings of the Bible have shaped those who hear?

What misuse of the Bible has shaped those who hear?

Christian backgrounds, religious backgrounds, secular backgrounds

What do I need to keep in mind in my communication in the light of the many different Christian backgrounds of those who hear?

What do I need to keep in mind in my communication in the light of the many different religious backgrounds of those who hear?

What do I need to keep in mind in my communication in the light of the many different secular backgrounds of those who hear?

Remember that there are many different Christian traditions, Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox, Liberal, Charismatic, Fundamentalist, etc. Remember that there are many different religions, and versions of those religions. And remember that there are many different sub-cultures or tribes even within one nation in the West.

Different cultural and sub-cultural patterns of behaviour and communication, and different kinds of people

Some people like plain speaking, others are offended by it. Some people like simplicity and clear communication, others like subtilty or complexity. Some like to be reminded and reassured by things they already know, others want to hear something new. Some learn by listening, others learn by talking or by thinking. Some people like your hobbies and interests, and some people don’t. Some people are temperamentally unlikely to feel guilt, and for other guilt is a natural reaction to any information. Some people are natural individualists, but most people do, feel, and assume what their tribe does, feels, or assumes. Some people are emotionally fragile, and other are emotionally robust. Some people have a strong sense of family loyalty and duty, others do not. Some people like listening to long and dense sermons, most to do not. Some people have a long attention span, and most do not. Some people have a sense of humour, some do not, and there are many types of humour. Some people want strong authority figures, others react against them.

For most people, their first and decisive response to what they hear in a Bible reading or sermon is ‘How do I feel about this?’ Then, possibly ‘What should I do about this?’ ‘What do I believe about this?’ is more unlikely.

So we should recognise the order of response: feeling, doing, thinking. And again, most people are defined and shaped by the tribe they belong to, either by background or by choice. So they will feel what others in their tribe feel. We see this clearly in the issue of climate change. People have very strong feelings about it, but very few could support their feelings with relevant scientific evidence. They ‘just know’.

So most people’s response to a Bible reading or sermon is what they feel about it. Practical people will want to know what it looks like in practice, what practical difference it makes. Very few people know what their worldview is, don’t recognise their deepest assumptions, and have never critiqued them, nor thought about the reasons for adopting those views. ‘This is ridiculous’ is more likely to be an emotional statement than a rational one.

This does not mean that we should not tackle worldview [theological] issues. In fact we need to, because lies harm and Bible truth heals and sets us free. And worldview comparisons can be a useful lever to get people to question their feelings, their assumptions, their practices, and their lives.


Is all of this too challenging and too difficult? It is challenging and difficult, but you cannot address every human specifically in every sermon! You cannot achieve in a sermon the relevance that you can achieve in a one-to-one conversation or Bible study.

But you must be a loving person. For love builds bridges, creates confidence, establishes trust, and encourages patience in those who hear.

  1. Eugene Peterson, Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 2006 p. 55, 57.