Engaging Culture

Know Your Audience: It Matters More Than You Think

Whenever Christian websites like The Christian Post or Charisma News post my articles on leadership or media, I usually get criticism from some Christians who wonder if I’m even a believer. Responses like “You don’t need leadership principles, all you need is the Word of God.” Or, “Talking about sharing our faith through the media is ridiculous. It’s ungodly to evangelize through a channel owned by nonbelievers.” On and on. There are plenty of “armchair experts” out there who are more than happy to criticize (usually anonymously.) But knowing your audience matters, and the “843 Acres” online devotional had some interesting thoughts on that issue:

“Know your audience” is not just the key to successful startups and effective communications, it’s also the key to compelling gospel presentations. Matthew, knowing that his audience was primarily Jewish, emphasized how Jesus fulfilled the Hebrew Scriptures. Greeks and Gentiles would’ve turned to Mark, who translates some words into Latin and didn’t assume that they knew Jewish customs.

When Paul visited new cities, he frequently went to synagogues and reasoned from the Hebrew Scriptures with the Jewish intelligentsia. In Athens, however, he also went to Areopagus, the highest court in the land. Here, he didn’t reason from the Hebrew Scriptures because his audience wouldn’t have known its prophecies. Instead, he took what they did know–their own poets and philosophers–and showed how Jesus fulfilled their longings, too: “I found also an altar with this inscription, TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you … as even your own poets have said, ‘For we are indeed his offspring.”

Today, our cities look like Athens–most of our neighbors are not familiar with the Jewish Scriptures. They are, however, familiar with Harry Potter, sports, money, The Hunger Games, celebrity personas, movies, The Wall Street Journal, etc. How familiar are we with the language of our culture? Have we walked around our cities, as Paul walked around Athens, weeping and discerning what has captured the affections of our neighbors?

lt has never been enough to simply “preach the gospel” while ignoring the context and background of your audience.  Think about it – what are the unique pathways that will help your target audience understand your message more effectively?

A little consideration of that question will make a huge difference in your results.

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  1. I was blown away by the naivete of some of your critics. So let’s talk to a group of Sr citizens about raising children. What a joke! You posting on those sites is a perfect example of knowing your audience.Even before the reference was given to Paul in Athens my mind had turned there. Now THERE was a man who knew his audience! i also think if there was ever someone who knew His audience it was Jesus. Keep writing Phil.

    1. Thanks Bill. Yes, “naiveté” is a good word. All great evangelists put enormous effort into understanding their audiences, and I’m amazed at the number of people who don’t see that…
      Thanks for the great comment!

  2. Love this post. I deal with this a lot, particularly from Christians who think the gospel can only be preached circa 1930’s styles and methods. To a group of inner city kids who see death and crime on a daily basis, the average church is about as irrelevant to their lives as a post card from Hawaii. So preaching to them using grandma’s methodology is a guaranteed fail. And let’s talk about that term ‘to preach’. Even THAT needs to be redefined in a modern context in order to be more effective. Pop stars and rappers are the new evangelists. They just ‘preach’ an anti-Christ message. Preaching is larger than just the pulpit. Way larger. We now have Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TinyChat, etc as viable platforms to ‘preach’ from. It’s time the church in the west caught up to the times.

  3. Hammer…nail…direct hit! It doesn’t matter what tool we use to reach an audience; it may be sports, Rotary Club, etc. the message ultimately has to be relevant to people at their point of need. It’s tiring to see “arm-chair quarterbacks” opining on the best way to reach an audience when they aren’t even willing to get out of their own living room and talk to a neighbor. Touch a heart before you ask for a hand!!!

  4. Foursquare pastor, Dennis Easter, has been known for years as one who could ‘re-birth’ or ‘revitalize’ a failing church, and he has an impressive list of accomplishments in that vein. However, when assigned to perform his magic with a sadly declining church in the Pacific Northwest, he found himself faced with new challenges that center around the theme of your post. After considerable prayer, consideration, and walking the streets of his new town, Dennis heard this from the Lord, “You are not here to impose a success formula. Let the city inform you about how to progress from here.” He and his leaders spend weeks/months simply listening to the city and made subsequent decisions based on what they heard. The result? They sold the ‘big church’ and ultimately planted some seven churches that now speak relationally and relevantly into seven cultural segments of that city. THAT’S knowing your audience!

  5. Excellent post, Phil. Spot on.

    Read years ago that Billy Graham – before speaking @ any city-wide crusade – would begin subscribing to the city’s daily paper 1-2 months before arriving in that city. He’d read their paper every day and would weave local news and events into his messages during the crusade.

    How smart. The papers helped him gather the pulse of the city & people he was speaking to.

  6. Jesus was a master storyteller. Engaging His audience. Not “talking down” to them as was the custom of the Pharisees. Using parables— vignettes of everyday life to teach spiritual truths. Knowing that if people could relate to what He was teaching. They would understand the Gospel easier and be more willing to accept it as truth. We would be wise to do the same.

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