As a preacher, your aim is to please God and God alone. But that doesn’t mean it is entirely unhelpful to consider what questions your audience may have when they listen to you preach. This is especially true for new preachers or when you’re preaching to an audience for the first time. Considering what questions your hearers will have will help you to better connect with them.
Much has been written about questions to consider when preparing a sermon, but I’ve seen little about which questions your listeners will have when they hear you preach. Preachers tend to think about exegesis, appropriately relating the text to Christ, contextualization, and so on. This is all so very important. But most of your listeners don’t look for these elements; instead, they have much more simple and practical things on their minds.
Having preached and listened to many sermons myself, below you will find a few questions that I think may enter the minds of your hearers. This list, like most lists, is not exhaustive. And they are primarily (but not exclusively) intended for new preachers or those preaching to a new audience.
1. Can I trust you?
The biggest thing people want to know when they hear you preach is whether or not they can trust you, whether you are a sincere person, or whether you are trying to act like somebody you’re not. Yes, homiletical competency is extremely important, but people can overlook a little bit of weakness in preaching skills for a godly, genuine preacher. On the contrary, no amount of speaking ability can make up for a lack of trust.
No doubt, some are wolves and won’t trust you no matter what. They not only want you to fall but actively try to consider how they can take part in it. But for a genuine believer who desires to grow in godliness, trustworthiness ranks among the top of the traits they look for in a preacher.
Is this person genuine? Can I trust them? Do I get a sense that he cares for me? That’s what your listeners will ask.
2. Why should I listen to you?
By this, I don’t mean flexing all of your theological credentials or resume experience. Instead, I mean letting people know why what you’re about to say matters to them.
Sermon introductions and opening remarks in a sermon are crucial. Don’t squander it. While you want to avoid gimmicks, it is not a bad idea to consider how you can quickly capture the attention of your audience. This is less important if you have built-in relational capital with your hearers, but it still can be helpful nevertheless. People often ask, “What’s in it for me?” They shouldn’t. But they do. Let them know why what you’re about to say matters.
3. What in the world are you talking about?
It is hard to overemphasize the importance of clarity in the pulpit. Some are more talented than others, but clarity in the pulpit is often aided by knowing your subject material exceptionally well, writing a word-for-word manuscript, practicing or verbally reading your sermon aloud multiples times, and experience. It takes effort. Some of us are more advanced than others, or wired differently. So you are free to come up with your own system. But all preachers would do well to consider how they can be crystal clear.
As the old saying goes, tell people what you’re going to say, say it, and then tell them what you said. That may not always be transferrable in preaching, but people won’t be helped if they don’t know what you’re talking about. Repetition in writing is boring, but powerful in the pulpit.
Here are some keyword phrases I sometimes use in my sermons to capture attention and promote clarity:
1. “The big idea of this text is . . .”
2. “Here’s the theme of this passage. . .”
3. “So how can you apply this to your life? I’ll show you four ways from this passage. First, . . .”
4. “Let me tell you a story that illustrates this.”
5. “How do I know that the point of this text is worship? Look with me in verse two . . .”
You don’t want to talk down to people or come off as insulting, but figuring out ways to say things with clarity is critical.
4. Are you trying to show off?
No one would argue, of course, that explaining what redemption and salvation and propitiation means in a sermon when it arises in a text is crucial in Christian preaching. But this always must be done in a clear, accessible, and easy-to-understand way. Being smart is good, but it does no good if your knowledge can’t be passed on to others. Worse, it is a sign of pride when you are trying to show off. People can generally sniff out a preacher who’s more concerned with looking smart than being helpful.
One of the worst compliments I can receive as a preacher is, “Boy, you’re so knowledgable.” I’m encouraged that my hard work is shown, but I am discouraged that I may have not done a good enough job of being accessible. On the flip side, the best thing — or one of the best things — people can tell me is that they understand me, that I am clear. The point of your hard work in your study is not so that people will be impressed by you, but so that you can explain, illustrate, and apply the text in an accessible manner.
5. Why are you not looking at me?
Some preachers hardly look at their audience when they preach. They rightly believe the efficacy of a sermon is not the result of their engagement with the crowd, but with the Spirit using the Word. Others would agree with this sentiment, but take pains to show eye-contact since it is a sign of affection. What should you do? This is the dilemma when taking preaching advice.
I’m in the camp that believes eye-contact is important. This is particularly true during your introduction, conclusion, when you relate the text to Jesus, and when there is a line or two that you really want to stick with your people. I don’t think you have to memorize your entire sermon manuscript, but surely people will connect with you more if you actually look at them. Sermon content is more important than sermon delivery, but sermon delivery is crucial.
These are some questions that people may have when they hear you preach. Your desire should be to be faithful to the passage at all costs, but understanding what goes through the minds of your hearers will help you in that endeavor.
More Preaching Resources
In addition to these questions, you may also want to consider three other resources:
1. How to Write an Expository Sermon: A Step By Step Guide. A guide that walks you through how to put together an expository sermon.
2. Expository Sermon Example. An example of an expository sermon.
3. Expository Sermon Outline Example. If you like to use an outline when preach, here is one to consider using.