Connecting with listeners in preaching

speaker-listenerA few years ago, there was a wonderful advert featuring the late Rik Mayall. As he strolled around his penthouse apartment, he turned to the camera:

Hi, Rik Mayall here. If you’re like me: immensely rich, talented, handsome, isn’t it a bore?

I cannot even remember what the ad was for (after research, it turns out to be for the Nintendo Gameboy)—but I loved the spoof on the attempts of stars to make connections with ordinary people. It stuck in my mind because of the perennial challenge for preachers: how do I connect effectively with those I am speaking to, so that what I am sharing will make sense in the context of their own lives? This is, in part, a question of appropriate personal self-disclosure, but it goes beyond that.

It was highlighted for me just before Easter as a result of my speaking, in close succession, in three very different contexts. The first was a retreat of Northern Church Leaders, which included Anglican and Roman Catholic bishops and area leaders from other denominations. The second was at Oxford Community Church, a charismatic congregation which is part of the Salt and Light network. The third was preaching on Palm Sunday at HMP Whatton, a sex offenders prison.

Speaking in such different contexts can be very demanding; it made me realise how much I depend on the knowledge of the regular congregation I speak to, not just in terms of their situation and life experiences, but in terms of their expectations of preaching, and how they might respond and interact during a sermon. When speaking in a new context, I do not know whether they will laugh at my jokes, relate to my illustrations, or engage with my theological position. In some cases, a passing comment about something that would be taken for granted in my own context could provide a serious distraction in a context where that idea was contested or controversial.

In the three contexts I had visited, there was no doubt that we shared common concerns and aspirations as human beings and as disciples of Christ wanting to see his kingdom come. But at the level of particulars, these were three groups with whom I did not have things in common. Most challenging, of course, was the prison context, since I could not refer to everyday experiences I have in my life which the prisoners could not have access to. This made me aware of the movement we constantly make between commonality and particularity. All our experiences sit somewhere on the range between the common and the particular, and both ends of the range need to be used in preaching. In any particular area of life, we can identify things that are particular to me, or we can move to more common questions. Here are things I could mention in the area of relationships, moving from the particular to the general or common:

  • Something that happened recently with friends
  • The things I like to do with friends and family
  • The friendships I have
  • My marital and family situation
  • My need for relationships
  • The question of human loneliness

If we stay at the top of the scale, we are only going to connect with listeners who share the detailed particulars of our life and situation, and doing this habitually will create monochrome congregations (or will only work in such a context). So we need to move down the scale if we are to engage with a range of different people. But we cannot only ever talk in generalities, and only address the questions we face in the most common terms. For one thing, our congregations are not infinitely variable—there are particular things we share in terms of language, culture and location. And our hearers need to know how the gospel works out in the particulars of their lives.

So one aspect of preaching is to identify the particulars, move down the scale to explore the common questions we face, see how the gospel engages with those questions, and then move back up the scale to see the difference that makes in the particulars of life. As it happens, that gives quite a good structure to a sermon, known as chiasm. It is a regular feature of teaching and speech in the Bible.

But this movement doesn’t just apply in the ‘forward’ direction, in relation to our listeners. It also applies in relation the Scripture, as our source for understanding the gospel. In many parts of Scripture, we are presented with the particulars of the biblical characters—and, since these characters live in a different time and culture from us, they are not always particulars we can relate to. So part of the exploration of Scripture is about moving along the same scale, in order that our listeners can find common concern with the people in Scripture. As they understand how God’s grace transformed those situations, they can begin to see how God’s grace might transform their own.

And as an illustration of how not to do it, here is Rik Mayall:

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