Why Preachers Should Plan For A Non-Christian Audience

Having preached to churches in Africa, Europe, North America, and South America, to heart-led zealots and to head-led intellectuals, to groups of Christians ranging from middle school students (which takes a special gifting of the Lord) to senior adults (which is a special blessing from the Lord), and to brand new Christians and mature Christians alike, I have come to realize one constant in preaching: preachers should assume a non-christian audience.

Yes.  Even in the Bible belt, preachers should assume a non-Christian audience.  Allow me to explain.

Consider the Great Commission: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20 ESV)

Jesus commands the church to make disciples, in part, by teaching them ALL that He commanded.  In other words, we should not aim to leave any detail out.

In the course of a preaching ministry it may become tempting to cut corners in preparation and delivery under the assumption that your audience will bring a certain level of understanding to the preaching event.  If a pastor assumes a Christian audience he may:

  • skim the surface in a cursory manner rather than plunge to the depths of the meaning when unpacking a Biblical text
  • neglect to ask the questions that will help make the most helpful application of the Biblical text
  • neglect to revisit the basic and essential truth of the gospel
  • neglect to call the audience to consider some manner of life change decision

After all, if the audience is Christian, the pastors think, then “they will have already heard all this before…” The “this audience is all Christian” assumption actually hand-cuffs the pastor in the worst possible time — the preparation and study period.  This assumption places limits on the creative study process by wrongly informing the pastor that everyone has already heard this passage before, everyone will already know this story, and everyone will be disinterested and checking the web on their phones. This will produce an insecure study period, which is followed by an even more insecure delivery.  In the moment, the pastor is thinking (subconsciously), “Okay, the audience already knows this Bible passage so I am simply adding white noise to their already crowded mental Bible library.  Hurry thorough it.  Hurry through it.  Skip to the funny joke I have or the video I found on youtube.”  Again, this does not produce a helpful preaching moment.

On the other hand, if a pastor assumes a non-Christian audience, he will likely:

  • feel the need to plunge deep into God’s Word so as to make sure to cover all the fundamental aspects of a particular text
  • ask the questions that will best aid the readers in making application of a Biblical text
  • make sure to visit the basic and essential truth of the gospel so as to give every listener a chance to respond
  • plead with the audience to make a change in light of the Biblical text

After all, if the audience is all non-Christian, then the pastor will get to be the first presenter of the text.  In the preparation and study period there will be an open range of possibilities for creatively presenting this passage to a hungry audience.  There will be a palpable energy and joy in teaching a text for the first time.  This wide-open study time will produce a wide-open and exciting preaching moment.  The Bible teaching will be more than just a taken-for-granted exercise.  It will be a wonderfully rewarding time to carefully wade into the Bible for discovery of truth.  When preaching to a non-Christian audience the Bible study sets up a helpful time of application and a call to make significant life change — something the audience will eagerly anticipate due to the fresh love of following Christ.

So the question comes up — what if my church audience is all Christian or mixed?  I think the approach is the same.

I have found that even maturing Christians do not mind hearing a Bible passage presented with fresh insight and application.  Growing Christians are not put-off by an energetic and joyful presentation of God’s Word.  On the contrary, growing Christians are  more often put-off by boring preaching that is rushed, hackneyed, and condescending — the kind that comes when a pastor assumes a Christian audience.

Bottom Line: If you assume a non-Christian audience you will be helpful for both Christians and non-Christians alike.  Get rid of the Christian jargon.  Use descriptive language.  Make in-depth study a priority.  Call your audience to life change.

About Doug Hankins

Although not a Christian in his youth, Doug came to believe in Jesus during his teenage years. When not playing sports or pastoring Doug is probably spending time with his wife, reading a good book, or drinking some hot tea. Doug's first book Dawson Trotman: In His Own Words is available wherever books are sold. You can follow Doug on twitter.
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