Preaching to Mixed Audiences

Preaching to Mixed Audiences November 8, 2012

When Bill Hybels (not the image) came up with the idea of “seeker-sensitive services” his aim was to preach or teach in such a way that it didn’t turn off the nonChristian visitor. In fact, Willow Creek sought to create services — weekend services — that were attractive to nonChristians and that drew upon the questions of those far from God.  So Bill learned to “preach” to mixed audiences.

Once a friend invited me to Nassau Bahamas to speak at his church, which was a seeker-friendly church (he’s now a Roman Catholic, so he didn’t stick with the seeker-friendly model). To make a long story short, I spoke from Colossians (if my memory serves me right) and did my best, after his rather frequent explanations, to use language that was “seeker-sensitive.” When I was done I asked him how I did and the impact of what he said went about like this: “Not.Even.Close!”

What is this mixed audience speaking like? What are the marks of doing it well? By the way, do you think “non-believers” attended early Christian worship gatherings? Do you think the sermon of Paul on the Areopagus in Acts 17 is “seeker-sensitive”?

Ask Andy Stanley, because in his book Deep & Wide he talks about this. Most of us have an environment designed for believers and church people; so we’ve learned to speak to churched people. Andy’s goal for his sermons is to present the Scriptures so they are helpful and compelling so that everybody in the audience is glad to have attended and leaves with the intention of returning. [This does not mean watering down the content or offensiveness of the gospel.]

Here are his seven principles, but it’s not about content but about presentation and approach:

1. Let them know you know they’re out there and you’re happy about it.

2. Begin with the audience in mind, not your message. [I often say I teach students a subject, not a subject to students.]

3. Pick one passage and stick with it … everybody will be glad you did.

4. Give them permission not to believe … or obey. [This fits his theory of involving the audience.]

5. Avoid “The Bible Says” … because it doesn’t. It’s not a book; it’s way better than that. Cite authors, not “the Book.” Don’t assume they know.

6. Acknowledge the odd… it would be odd not to. Natural vs. supernatural, blue parakeet passages…

7. Don’t go mystical … unless you want a new car.

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  • Mark Edward

    The Didache forbade the non-baptized from partaking of the Eucharist, which would necessarily mean the non-baptized were intermixed with the baptized. The question is, did the author of the Didache consider non-baptized to be non-Christian, since being baptized seems to have been the formal ‘entry’ into the Christian community?

  • Rick

    “This does not mean watering down the content or offensiveness of the gospel.”

    In theory- yes. In general practice- not so much.

  • Could you clarify the last point, Scot?

  • Joe Canner

    Re: “watering down the … offensiveness of the gospel”

    What is it really that is “offensive” about the gospel? Many evangelicals seem to think that preaching the gospel requires calling out specific sins for special notice. This is certainly “offensive” but I’m not convinced that this is what Paul meant. Acts 17 doesn’t seem to include much of this, and elsewhere Paul talks about the “offense of the cross” (Gal 5:14) and preaching “Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Cor 1:23). The cross is offensive because it is was humiliating for Jesus and it is humiliating for us to accept it as our only way of salvation. It’s the Holy Spirit’s job to convict us of sin, both before and after repentance. Christians can assist in that process, but the Biblical model seems to be primarily in private and with gentleness (Matt 18, Gal 6).

  • Chuck

    What is the main purpose of our worship gathering? Haven’t we historically gathered around the Word and Table? We hear from God through his Word, we respond to him in re-consecration as we remember Him at the Eucharistic table, and then we are sent out with a charge to be His faithful witnesses in our world?
    I certainly believe that our worship gatherings should be simple, approachable, and understandable. But it seems to me that to be overly focused on the “seekers” among us has led not only to watered down preaching but watered down worship in general. This may somehow pique the interest of seekers but IMO it also makes our worship and liturgy less God-focused and less formational to the church. Not good things.

  • phil_style

    @ Joe, exactly.

    The offensiveness of the gospel is [in part, or even perhaps largely] the notion (offensive in its time, to Jews and Greeks) that Divinity could be subject to the horrors and power of humans.

    The idea that humans can kill god (or at least his “beloved”) is offensive because it runs counter to all concepts of the divine that existed at that time.

    Whether you are orthodox or not, the concept of a crucified god/ savior/ messiah/ divine son is offensive to any theist who holds their god in high esteem.

  • I think that at least part of our assumptions about the worship gathering are based around a Christendom world view. If everyone is already saved then of course the main purpose is gathering for the eucharist and to hear the word of the lord.

    We don’t live in Christendom. We live in a world where many, even those that have grown up in the church, have never actually heard the gospel.

    I sit week after week in our church listening to people saying variations of ‘I grew up in a loving home where we occasionally went to church and when I got old enough I didn’t keep going to church because I never got what the gospel was all about.”

    Not all churches are like this. But a significant portion of our churches are preaching the offensiveness of sin without any corresponding offensiveness of grace.

    I saw a blog post earlier this week that said, “the song doesn’t say they will know us because we are dicks”. But that is essentially what many have come to understand Paul to mean.

  • phil_style

    There is the tendency, among some christian communities, to revel in the fact that their behavior is offensive, closed-minded or generally has the hallmarks of poor social/ cultural engagement.

    They seem to take heart in the idea that only be being ridiculed by society at large can they demonstrate to themselves that they must be following the true path of Christ. I supposed this is based in a wooden reading of the scriptures that make note of the sometimes culturally difficult elements of the faith.

    But how far does one push this? It seems some folks have determined almost that causing an offense, or being culturally irreverent (as opposed to irrelevant which is more accidental) is an end in and of itself.
    Is being “odd” a marker of the true believer?
    Is being an offensive prat a marker?

    Or is imitating Christ’s self-sacrificial love for others the marker?

  • steve jung

    word and table
    discipleship and obedience

    to be seeker-sensitive is to explain the deep things and prepare them to join us in following Christ. We don’t entertain, but worship.
    We don’t water down, we glorify God.
    We must decrease, He must increase.
    We never change the Gospel for them, but we must change for the Gospel.

  • Michael

    Since the discussion is on the offensiveness of the gospel and not the questions Scot asked …

    Isn’t the Jesus creed an offensive message?

  • Michael

    Scot – what about a different category of distinction than seeker and Christian? How about seeker and comfortable?

    Because I’ve noticed that those hungry for God and seeking (whether Christian or non Christian) are the ones who respond to my preaching. It’s the comfortable/confident (whether Christian or non) who generally fault-find or miss the point.

  • Scot,

    Good post! I like what Andy Stanley says in your post. I think in a mixed audience, one has to be very careful about the use of “in house” terminology with little or no explanation. Sometimes speakers will refer to numerous scriptures, using language that just isn’t familiar to the outsider. I don’t think we have to dumb down a message to a mixed audience. I do believe there has to be some effort given to clarity.

  • Leslie M.


    Thank you for Jesus Creed. I learn so much from this sight. I live in Australia, and we watch or listen to Andy Stanley online. And we are very much in an unchurched culture here.

    Simply trying to discern what the Acts 2 church did and then trying to replicate that …well, I think too much water has passed under the bridge. And for all the criticism NP receives I really think Andy and Reggie Joiner and others like them do a better job of honoring the intent of Paul’s writing than a lot of their critics.

    Paul’s instructions in I Corinthians 14:22-25 indicate non believers attended and that their sensibilities should be considered. I think Paul was quite gracious in his speech at the Areopagus (especially when we know how he sometimes spoke to other church leaders :). He quoted their own poets. He started at the place where they were philosophically speaking. We can learn much from that speech. Paul was invited there to speak to a group of learned men without much else to do. Paul rightly discerned his setting and audience, I think Andy Stanley rightly discerns his. I also think he has rightly discerned that his church is to be a modern day Areopagus. It is a throughly Christian ideal to create an Areopagus for the rest of us. (Those of us WITH things to do :). I think all urban and suburban communities need such a church, I’m sure NP has a considerable back door. Some of his critics should be thanking him.

    On a side note…I work each week in preK’s in a makeshift space where the service times can vary by 25 min. One of my favorite aspects about the NP service model is it is always an hour and 5 min. long.