Rhetoric & Homiletics: Mentally Engaging The Audience

(continued from the previous post)

  If a pastor believes that his audience is not periodically or regularly challenging what he is saying as he moves along, then he lacks the self-awareness of his own mental activity when listening to a fellow pastor or speaker.  Pastors have all kinds of questions running through their minds when listening to other pastors, conference speakers, or workshop presentations, fellow pastors&staff members.

While there are those who by personality, age, bent, or newness of faith are unquestioning listeners, that is by far the exception.  Our uniqueness, diversity of experiences in life, gifts, individual soul liberty, cultural influences, temperaments, and surely our sinfulness all contribute to “listeners’ skepticism.”

It might be argued that if the listeners are not challenging what is being said, they are mentally unengaged, and that is not a good preaching-teaching situation.  In fact, tension is part of what keeps an audience following the message.  You are speaking so as to upset the equilibrium.  Challenging the audience’s thinking is part and parcel of preaching — To make them comfortable, uncomfortable.

When a preacher-Bible teacher makes certain statements, the “burden of proof” can shift to him/her.  His/her statements can initiate questions in the listeners’ minds, which now must be answered.  The preacher-teacher makes a statement, primarily a crucial statement, and the audience is now responding to that statement with a QUESTION.

  • I don’t know if that is true.
  • Ahhhh . . . . Not so sure . . . . What about . . . .
  • But Hesitations 1:1 states . . . . How does that square?
  • Now you are meddling, and I am not sure what you are saying is accurate or fair-minded because . . .
  • Aren’t there other interpretations / explanation / conclusions you could draw
  • You apparently never went through this-or-that yourself.  You wouldn’t be so confident if . . .
  • Not so sure — Explain what the Bible means when it says . . . .
  • Is that consistent with what you said / we believe / you do / our church practices?
  • Aren’t you a little hyperbolic?

When this happens, the “audience question” shifts the responsibility to the preacher-teacher. 

To not answer that question is to weaken the argument that is being made and maybe even the sermon’s effectiveness. [2].  We know that — in fact, some may well be questioning that statement.  What preacher-teacher-speaker hasn’t made such sermonic comments as . . . .

  • I know that some will disagree with that statement. . . . .
    or
  • Let me prove that point. . . .
    or
  • Some take this passage to be saying, but I believe that such is mistaken in that . . . .
    or
  • I am not exaggerating when I make that statement. . . . .
    or
  • I am aware that some are saying . . . . and I am going to answer that question.  Stay with me.

Part of sermon preparation
is anticipating questions
that shift the burden of proof to you.

There is a “back and forth” process that takes place when speaking.  Like chess, the speaker and the listeners are making moves.  Unlike chess, the moves being made by the audience are coming from multiple minds.  You are playing “Big Blue.”  In fact, maybe, there are actually multiple chess boards.  Multiple games are taking place simultaneously.  Some are making the same move — asking the same theological question, pushing back with the same move because they are seasoned Bible students.  Other chess players are making different moves because you have touched them where they live.

There is a back and forth process when you preach-teach and to not recognize such is to weaken your message’s effectiveness.  In fact, “questions-answers” are part of the reason an audience mentally engages — just as in conversation.

“Questions & Answers”
are the elixirs of personal engagement!

In a conversation, you only need to ask a few questions, and the conversation takes on a life of its own as the answers are given.  “Questions & Answers” are the elixirs of engagement. [3]

For Example: What makes for a good “workshop session?”  I have attended a good number of convention workshops.  I am convinced that many do grasp what those attending are looking for — an interactive experience.  Those attending are wanting to ENGAGE back and forth with the worship speaker or panel. After a 15-20 minute general overview, the audience has some crucial questions they would like addressed.  Instead, the pattern is 45-50 minutes of presentation with 10-15 minutes of interaction — “Sorry, we are out of time.  Wish we could spend more time interacting!”  You could have had you understood the importance of asking and answering questions.  Let the workshop go where those attending find it profitable!

Unfortunately, the preaching process is not as clear and clean-cut as that which takes place in a conversation.  In a conversation . . .

(#1) You often know what the question is.
(#2) You can answer the question before moving on much further.
(#3) If the question has not been satisfactorily answered, you will be more likely to recognize that and have another chance to respond or defeat that objection.
(#4) A question can be re-stated and/or clarified if the issue has been missed.
(#5) Support and/or additional proof can be requested.
(#6) You can receive “immediate” verbal and non-verbal feedback as to the acceptability of the answer.

In contrast, preaching-teaching-speaking does not carry those conversational dynamics.

√  When a preacher-teacher makes assertions,[1] which are not unmistakably present in the pages of Scripture, the burden of proof shifts to the speaker.[2] 

√  When a question is acceptably answered (or promised to be answered), the burden falls back on the audience member to continue to listen and to “listen.” 

√  When a question remains unanswered, the listener feels no obligation to “listen,” to accept the point being made. 

When answering questions, not being asked, you come across irrelevant or worse.

When a question is answered with weak or little-to-no support, further listening is hampered.

When a question is mis-answered by failing to get to the heart of the issue, further listening is hindered, and credibility is affected.

While in preaching — “I am going to “circle back around” (sorry – didn’t mean to sound political) next week and pick up that point / issue / problem” — is an option [6], it has its perils because . . . .

  • the audience may have changed by next week, or
  • the question has morphed into yet other questions, or
  • no longer is there a question — it was resolved or forgotten, or
  • the crucial question has become even more acute, or
  • credibility may have been weakened or damaged, or
  • the sufficiency of the previous argument has radically dropped off

  Part of sermon preparation
is anticipating questions
BEFORE
that next message.

Those questions will not only help you develop the content and direction of your message, and they will help bring an audience along with your sermonic journey, but they will give authenticity, legitimacy, and credibility; it communicates that you have thought through the crucial and relevant issues which must be hurdled and accompany such a message.



1. Most times, those assertions are “feasible or defeasible arguments.”  They can be, and will be, argued by a few or the many who believe otherwise.

2. If you want to understand Andy Stanley’s preaching — realize that he is willing to create tension by calling up the unstated but existent questions of his audience.  They are engaged because he is addressing the questions they have concerning that biblical truth or principle (i.e. — “Well, what do you do then if that is true.  If I have this box of hopes, dreams, and expectations, and my spouse is not fulfilling them, what do I do with this box?  I’m going to answer that — next week . . . .promise . . but let me give you just part of the answer, and then next week we will flesh that out.”).

3. Similar to a conversational setting is a counseling session, or a Bible-teaching situation where there are genuine opportunities for questions, or the personal and informal interaction that takes place before and after “a church service.”

4. The fact of the matter is that knowing what the Bible teaches — after years of Bible education, hundreds of books available and read, and years of preaching and teaching — is not the hardest part of sermon preparation.  In most cases, we all know what the passage teaches — unless we just love preaching the novel.  In most cases, the part that takes WORK involves HOW TO EFFECTIVELY COMMUNICATE THOSE TRUTHS!

5. If you can’t equip and edify, you are not called to the preaching-teaching ministry.  You may well have a role in ministry, but not in the effective communication of biblical truths and principles.

6. In preaching, having a second chance after blowing up a sermon is always some comfort.  That is what makes doing a wedding, a funeral, a special group occasion more perilous!

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