Several years ago, having just arrived in a small town to visit family members, I telephoned a friend, the pastor at a local church, to let him know that I was there. During the conversation, he asked me to preach at his church service the next day. Surprised, but not willing to turn down the offer, I accepted.
When looking over the congregation the next morning, I felt confident about the message.
However, as the sanctuary began to fill up, I was horrified: At least 75 percent of those in attendance were under the age of 15. My sermon addressed issues faced by adults, not by kids.
While the service progressed, I hastily added a few things to my sermon in an attempt to bridge the gap. But it was an exercise in futility.
What information is useful to preachers when called to preach to a congregation with which they are not familiar? Below is a description of the categories I inquire about when gathering data about congregations.
The location of the church is important. For example, if invited to preach at a church in an urban area, you can better relate to your audience by understanding the challenges and opportunities endemic to that urban community. The same holds true for a suburban or rural church. Other locations could include a collegiate church setting, military base, or hospital community. Granted, in a number of churches the congregants do not live locally; nonetheless, the community does affect the overall ethos of the congregation.
The occasion is also important. Why were you asked to preach? What were the special circumstances? This knowledge can help you better reach the listeners of the host congregation. It is important to know the occasion that you’re called upon to preach.
Expected attendance helps the speaker decide what delivery approach would be most suitable. A small intimate group doesn’t require the same delivery as would hundreds or thousands of listeners. In a smaller group setting, the speaker may opt to have a group-study dialogue instead of a monologue.
Attention span gives the speaker an idea of the listeners’ attention threshold. Attention span can vary from region to region and culture to culture. At one preaching engagement, I preached for nearly 35 minutes, which was commonly accepted at my home church. However, after 25 minutes, I noticed the host starting to get fidgety. After the sermon, he kindly remarked that I had preached too long. I later discovered that the resident pastor, then on vacation, usually preached for 20 minutes or less, and that is what the church was accustomed to.
The gender category identifies the male to female ratio of the congregation. This can be helpful in terms of dealing with issues common to one gender more so than another.
Age range is really helpful in finding out the age clusters within the congregation. Every congregation has a median (average) age and a dominant age cluster. Determining the largest age group can be helpful in targeting certain life cycle needs and issues linked to various age groups.
Racial, national, and ethnic composition can help the speaker be attuned to cultural and national sensitivity. This can also be helpful in ascertaining attitudes toward theological, national, and socioeconomic issues.
Marital composition of the congregation is the ratio of intact marriages to single listeners. This information helps you use illustrations and depict issues familiar to married couples and/or singles. Moreover, it is good to remember that within the marital category, subcategories of marital status exist, such as single, never married; and single, divorced or widowed. In addition, there are early years, middle years, empty nest, and retirement stages of marriage.
Education level helps you use appropriate language. Moreover, one can assume that a more educated audience is widely read and exposed to more information. Therefore, you can prepare material that, perhaps, might not be appreciated by a less educated congregation.
Information provided in the occupation sector category will give the speaker an idea of the occupations of members. Every congregation has a dominant employment sector, such as manufacturing, professional, migrant, or health care. At one church where I preached, a large number of the members were in the auto manufacturing sector. At another church, the congregation consisted mainly of lawyers and teachers. The key is to ascertain the largest area of employment. Include material in your sermon that would be familiar to the listeners’ occupation.
You will also want to ask if there is anything else you need to know. For example, some churches expect a guest speaker to perform several functions in the liturgy, such as dedicatory prayer, pastoral prayer, or the invocation. Oftentimes, this is not communicated in the preliminary correspondence.
You will also want to know who the person is that you need to contact before you reach the church and while you are there. Sometimes, the host pastor may be out of town, and the person with whom you communicated initially may not be the contact person at the church.
Jeff Scott Cook, in The Elements of Speechwriting and Public Speaking, stated, “The first secret of good speaking is to know who’s listening.” 1 Asking these questions helps you to know who is listening. Fred Craddock wrote in Preaching,“sermon should speak for as well to the congregation.” 2 Therefore, when called upon to preach to a congregation with which we are not familiar, it is important to know something about the congregation so that the preacher can effectively speak for and to the congregation.
1 Jeff Scott Cook, The Elements of Speechwriting and Public Speaking (N.Y.: Macmillan, 1989), 3.
2 Fred Craddock, Preaching (Nashville: Abingdon, 1985), 26; italics supplied.