Each spring I set out a red bird feeder in my backyard. It is a red metal box that stands affixed on a five foot pole. I always position it so we can see the swarm of birds that come to it through our kitchen window. I’ve always felt that that bird feeder is the simplest metaphor for understanding a preaching audience that I’ve ever witnessed. Here’s why.
When the bird feeder has food, birds magically appear. Without any marketing effort on my part, within two days of setting out the feeder birds are swarming all over it. I’m convinced there are two reasons for that. One is birds, need to eat. Second, birds follow each other to where there’s food. People are a lot like birds – if you are setting out fresh bread each week, and don’t grow weary, over time people will come and bring friends.
When the bird feeder is empty, birds simply go away. The same drive to eat is the same drive that causes birds to look elsewhere when their food source is gone. I’ve noticed that when the feeder empties, birds will fly back to it off and on for a few days, checking to see if something new has been placed in it. Eventually, though, they stop coming. Again, people are a lot like birds. One’s commitment to Christ will only hold them so long in a congregation where the Gospel is not being preached regularly, effectively, and creatively.
I choose which birds show up by the birdseed I place in it. I didn’t realize this when I first got the feeder, but the kind of seed you set out determines which birds come to your feeder. Peanuts are very popular with jays, crows, chickadees, titmice, and woodpeckers. Safflower is a favorite among cardinals. The most popular seed is the black oil sunflower seed, which attracts a whole host of birds. Most seed mixes that you find in a grocery store are six percent sunflower seeds and a 40-percent mix of smaller seeds to attract a variety of smaller birds.
I must pick seed for birds that live near my house. When I put my bird feeder out this spring, I made the mistake of not reading the label on the seed bag I grabbed at the grocery store. I put the feeder out, filled it with seed, and very few birds came. I thought, this is strange. When I went to Google for help, I found an article that shared this eerily transferrable principle to preaching: “The biggest bird-feeding mistake many novice backyard birders make is choosing birdseed for birds they hope to attract, not the birds already in their yard.”
And that, my friends, is why I’m telling you about my bird feeder (and risking that you’ll ask for my man-card back).
Lessons From a Bird Feeder
Who we write our sermons for dictates who will join our congregations. Churches are not defined as much by our worship style, dress, facility, or mission, as by our preaching.
Preach to everyone, and we preach to no one in particular. Sermons become this vague amalgam of words thrown aimlessly into the air. Preach to a narrowly defined target, and you’ll be shocked at who walks through our door.
Here are four questions I’d like for you to wrestle with:
1. Who lives in your Community?
Draw a circle around your building (representing a five-mile radius) and tell me about those people. Don’t tell me about the incredibly cool people that show up in the Instagram feeds of churches you admire in other states. I want to know about your people. Who are they? What are their needs? And most important, how do you know what you think about them is accurate?
Getting a Percept study is a good first step. I also highly suggest doing door-to-door surveys. Annual surveys of the new people who have come to your church in the last 12 months are incredibly helpful.
2. Whom do you connect with and why?
Next, I want to know about you as a preacher. I’m not so much concerned about your personal demographic information (age, ethnicity, etc.) as I am about your personal psychographic information (what you believe, your worldview, your cultural sensibilities).
Half the battle of staying motivated with preaching is defining the “kind of seed” you prefer to set out on a regular basis.
The best way to identify this is to take a look back over the sermons you’ve already preached and take note of the dominant themes that keep emerging.
Psychographically speaking, these are the kinds of “seeds” you were born to preach on week after week, year after year. These themes will show up in whatever you preach on – whether it is preaching through Proverbs 13 or a New Testament passage on marriage. You’re going to tackle those issues/topics/passages in one of these ways.
Here are the four primary “themes” I keep coming back to over and over again as a preacher:
- Afflicting the comfortable
- Comforting the afflicted
- Wrestling with doubts
- Inspiring courage
It doesn’t matter what topic I’m preaching on (parenting, hope, the atonement, etc.), I know I will treat it in one of those four ways. For instance, if I’m preaching on marriage, I will try to jar guys out of being complacent (afflict the comfortable), or I will talk about the struggles of marriage (wrestling with doubts), or I’ll try to get marriage partners to take steps they fear taking (inspiring courage), or I’ll talk about how marriage is tough (comforting the afflicted).
Topics change, but how I deal with those topics remains the same.
3. Who is your primary and secondary target?
I tell senior pastors that I coach that churches grow and reach full redemptive health when senior pastors choose, and then preach to, one primary target: either Christians or non-Christians.
To which group do you preach best?
Defining your primary preaching audience
To whom do you most naturally speak? That’s your primary audience.
Who is most naturally drawn to you when you are stripped of pretense and decidedly yourself?
If it is Christians, own that. Don’t try to be something you’re not. If it is non-Christians, own that, too. Don’t try to shape yourself into something you’re not.
The issue isn’t whether or not you’ll speak to both. of course you’ll speak to both, especially since in our 21st-century culture the audiences are virtually indistinguishable anyway. They may have different needs, but they’re fighting the same battles.
The issue I’m pressing is for you to find the courage to be your authentic self in the pulpit.
I most naturally relate best with non-Christians. That is because of who I am not as a result of a choice I made. I prefer the company of the irreligious businessmen over the person that listens to the local Christian radio station and owns every Max Lucado book on the market.
Here’s the thing: if you do listen to the local Christian radio station and Max Lucado is your bro, then own that. Be who you are. Both Peter and Paul had the same mission (preaching the gospel) but felt called to different audiences. I know my lane: I’m a church planter/evangelism/speak to non-Christians guy. Many of my friends are not, and they are amazing at what they do. The last thing they should try to do is be like me, and me like them.
The one thing all senior pastors have in common is the shame we feel when we don’t line up with other people’s expectations of us. Forget expectations. Forget trying to be like me. Or Groeschel. Or Stanley. Or your predecessor. Choose yourself. Be the messy, amazing senior pastor God created you to be – the person your community needs and the people in your church will eventually want.
Choose to be yourself, then preach that way.
Will people leave? Of course. Will new birds come? Of course. But those new birds will bring their friends and their friends, friends because you are authentically providing the food both you and they eat. Why? There’s nothing more powerful than listening to someone preach who is comfortable in their own skin.
Understanding your secondary preaching audience
If you connect better with Christians, then present a seed mix on Sunday for 60 percent Christian / 40 percent non-Christian. Make Christians your primary target, but still speak to non-Christians like they’re in the room.
If you connect better with non-Christians, make them your 60 percent seed mix. Still speak to Christians, of course (which you will do naturally anyway because you’re still preaching the Bible every week), but let the non-Christians know you love and care for them and answer their questions first.
To me, the subtle and only distinguishing mark that divides the two targets is whose questions you answer first. The first group you identify and apply the passage to is your primary target.
For instance, if I’m preaching on Ephesians 5, I’ll say something like, “Now for those of you who are here and have not bought into this Christianity thing yet, you’ll notice that . . . ”
If I were speaking primarily to Christians, I would say, “For those of us who have made Jesus the center of our lives, we have to work to make him the center of our marriages, etc.”
The key here is to decide who your primary audience is and stick with it. There is no right or wrong here. There is only authentic or inauthentic.
4. Have you defined the prototypical person you’re preaching to?
I don’t believe you’ve defined your preaching audience until you’ve answered the questions who, what, where, when, and why. Then you need to craft a target profile on paper of the prototypical person in the seats.
Rick Warren was the first one to popularize this. Unfortunately, people ruthlessly criticized him, claiming he was simply re-baptizing a marketing strategy that should not be used in the church. All I can point to is, most of his critics aren’t even in ministry today, and Rick Warren and Saddleback have baptized over 45,000 people.
Here is the profile of “Unchurched John” that I read before every message I write:
My preaching audience defined: “Unchurched John”
This sermon is for everyone, but especially for my friend Unchurched John, a 35-year-old married father of three. John is a sharp business guy who started his own business and is finally starting to earn good money. John is consumed with being successful, wealthy, attractive, and powerful. He loves his kids and is actively involved in all their activities, but he and his wife have grown distant. Except for coaching his kids’ sports teams on the weekend, he has dumped all household management duties onto his wife.
John is having an affair with his job but fantasizes from time to time about having one with someone at work. Since he’s not willing to blow up his family, he deals with his pent-up stress and frustration in other ways: sporadic exercise, self-help business books, expensive vacations, buying nicer cars and homes, porn, and alcohol. Faced with raising kids while not knowing exactly what they believe as parents, his wife has convinced him to consider visiting our church. CCV comes highly recommended by some of their friends. He’s not thrilled with the idea of the other option – going back to the Catholic Church – so he gives in. He agrees to visit CCV. Once.
Today John has walked through the door, critiquing everything and everyone under his breath. He finds a seat and sits down with his arms crossed, waiting for me to say something crazy that will confirm his suspicions about me, the church, and “organized religion.”
Today I’ve got two minutes to intrigue him, and another 26 minutes to hook him. This may be the only chance John has to find his way back to God. If he leaves today without having been drawn to Jesus, he may never come back; not just to CCV, but to any church.
The stakes could not be higher. Heaven and Hell hang in the balance. We’ve worked for this moment. We’ve prayed for this moment. All of Heaven is cheering us on. It all comes down to this . . .