One of the benefits of speaking (or preaching) in front of the same crowd on a regular basis is the connection that develops over time. Just like a friendship, the more you learn about each other deepens the conversation. As life is shared together, bonds are formed outside of the preaching event that inform and color the preaching event.
But on any given Sunday there is a mix of people with varying levels of connection to the speaker. Some are brand new, first-time guests. Others have been around a short while; still others have been around a long time.
There will be a different connection for each group. This is why communicating through preaching is a great challenge. In growing churches with large numbers of first-timers and newcomers, the preacher cannot assume a connection where one does not exist.
So, how does a speaker go about building connections?
In short, a speaker must seek to establish empathy with his listeners. Unless the listeners have a sense that they are listening to a “real” person, the connection between speaker and listener will remain distant — making the reception of the message that much more difficult.
Empathy is established when the speaker is willing to share from his life how he has wrestled with the topic at hand. And it’s often best if the story doesn’t resolve with the speaker being the hero. When our listeners feel like we’ve walked in their shoes, they’re more willing to listen to us.
We can also establish empathy by speaking in a way that is similar to having a cup of coffee at Starbucks. A conversational tone invites the listener into our living room, as if we are speaking to them and to them only. The best advice I give to young preachers is this: be yourself. Don’t try to be Max Lucado or Andy Stanley or Mark Driscoll or Perry Noble or Ken Hensley. Listen to their podcasts to sharpen your saw but preach your own stuff in your own way. Be yourself.
When I was in college, there were several preaching students who would adopt a totally different persona as soon as they started preaching. One would slip into his “preacher’s voice,” lowering his regular voice a bit and talking in grand flourishes. The other fellow was a guy with a great sense of humor, except when he stepped behind the pulpit. From then to the end of his message, he would never once let his natural humor come out. The result: sermons that were dull and dry.
One final note: I’m a firm believer in speaking without notes. A few notes tucked into your Bible is fine; reading your outline or keeping your head buried behind a lectern keeps you disconnected from your crowd. The simplest way to establish a connection is to maintain eye contact with people in different parts of the room.
Why should a preacher care about speaker-audience connection? Because we’re not teaching traffic school!