Let’s be honest. Most of us pastor-types were taught to preach primarily to a modern, well-churched or church-experienced audience. The target of our preaching was essentially “one of us.”

I hear some of you howling in protest. “I was taught how to preach evangelistically!” Yeah, so was I… but those preaching methods presumed that those hearing the message held some stock in scripture. That’s not so much the case with folks who weren’t raised in the church. Sure, they may respect that the Bible is the Christian holy book, but other than “love one another” and “do unto others” kinds of passages, to many the Bible is pretty much just another outdated book that is irrelevant to real life in the twenty-first century. And so, when we start our sermons by reading a passage of scripture, explaining it, and finally applying it, we’ve built our sermon on a pretty shaky presumption.

So, if you want to reach those who aren’t already a churched target (which is to say, if you want to grow your church by reaching those beyond the walls of the church), you’ll need to start where your target is starting … the real life of the unchurched culture. This is just one of the reasons we stress the importance of topical sermon series that deal with the issues and concerns and interests of your less-than-churched target audience. 

Preaching to the Churched

Start with scripture. Explain it. Apply it to real life.

The presumption in this case is that those hearing the Word believe that it carries some authority and that the truths can be applied to their lives.

Preaching to the Less-Than-Churched

Start with and explore an issue/concern/interest of the target audience. Look for culture’s answers (for good or not). Note how scripture speaks to the issue (compare and/or contrast). Apply the scripture to real life.

The presumption here is that those hearing the Word have few or no positive experiences with scripture. This preaching method introduces the scriptures as being relevant to and increasingly authoritative in their lives.

To wrap this up, I want to offer two observations from the New Testament.

  1. The only times Jesus started with scripture (in his case, the Old Testament) were those times when he was addressing the “well-churched.” The rest of the time he started with a story or an issue (and frankly, he rarely cited scripture to unbelievers at all).
  2. Not one time do we see a New Testament preacher exegete a scripture passage when they preached. In fact, if one didn’t know better, one might conclude that on those occasions when the New Testament speakers and writers mention the scriptures they wander mighty close to eisegesis. (In fact, I believe all three of my homiletics professors would have failed me if I’d have tried it.)

That doesn’t necessarily mean we’re called to emulate their preaching practices, but I think it’s worthy of note. If your target audience isn’t the church, then we’re going to have to preach differently.

Question: Are there some other ways you would alter your preaching style for each of these two audiences? Share your thoughts in the Comments section below.