In order to preach effectively, we must be at home in the world of the Bible, and in the world of our people. We need to know them. Jay Adams, in Preaching with Purpose, suggests three principal ways to analyze the congregation to whom we preach. Perhaps it’s worth evaluating our own ministry through these categories to see where we might be missing out on helpful understanding of our listeners?
1. Informal contact with people. More than just rubbing shoulders on a Sunday or in church activities (where people tend to act the way they feel they should), this means getting into the normal lives of the people in the church. Spending time with people at home, at work and at play is time well spent. Without probing or surveying, plenty of useful insight will emerge in this natural environment.
2. Counseling contact with people. Not surprisingly from Jay Adams, he sees the value of counseling people. Obviously confidentiality must be respected, but analysis of counseling notes will point to trends, concerns, areas of struggle. He points out that just as preachers are helped by counseling, so counselors are helped by preaching. If a counselor does not preach then they are in danger from not doing the deliberate and regular biblical exegesis they need to be biblically solid in their ministry.
3. Formal contact with people. Finally, Adams advocates for doing systematic, deliberate analysis of the congregation. When first arriving in a church it is important to analyze the congregation and review the diet they have received from the pulpit. Then regular surveys of key people, probing of elders, and so on, all helps to fill in the picture for the preacher.
Do we take “audience analysis” seriously? Is there one approach, of these three, that needs more deliberate effort on our part?
I am continuing to read Jay Adams book Preaching with Purpose (1982). Chapters 5 and 6 concern selecting a preaching portion, but point beyond stage 1 to the oft-neglected stage 3 in my process – passage purpose. Adams points out that a preaching passage has unity not because of literary convention, or by rhetorical fiat and received homiletical tradition. A preaching passage has unity because of the author’s purpose (“telically speaking” – major emphasis on the term “telos” and “telic” in Adams!)
Each book has an overarching goal, or perhaps several main goals. Some books state that goal (see John 20:30-31, 1John5:13), while in others it is through studying the whole that the goals become apparent. It is the preacher’s task to determine what that overarching goal is, then also to determine what the specific purpose in the indiviual passage is. This individual passage purpose will relate to the overarching goal(s). What was the author intending to achieve? Was this section to inform, to convince or to motivate? (Three developmental questions in Adams form)
So often preachers study the passage content, but give little or no attention to passage intent. Without the intention or purpose of the author, the passage remains a collection of content details. When we add in to the study process the critical element of passage purpose, then we are able to genuinely understand the passage, and hopefully, to beneficially preach the passage. Without passage purpose, a message is likely to pull a passage out of context and misrepresent the intention of the content. As I’ve written elsewhere, the message purpose does not have to match the passage purpose, but it does have to begin there and it does have some restraints imposed by the passage purpose.
Next time you are selecting and studying a passage, give some deliberate thought to the passage purpose – you haven’t really studied the passage until you do!