Exegeting Your Audience
Preachers exegete both the biblical text and the audience to speak the gospel in the language of their hearers. Here are tools to facilitate the task of audience exegesis.
by Delonn Rance
“¡Si alguno tiene sed, que venga a mí y beba! ¡Vengan a las aguas todos los que tengan sed!” (Juan 7:37; Isaías 55:11). What a wonderful invitation from God’s Word. Yet many reading this article zoned out or skipped the previous two sentences. A similar phenomenon occurs when audiences attempt to listen to preachers who do not speak their language because the preacher did not make the effort to exegete his or her audience. To be an effective preacher requires that the preacher exegete not only the biblical text, but the audience as well.
I listened to a radio preacher argue passionately that all one needed to do was preach the Word. But what does this mean? As a missionary I appreciate his desire to stay grounded and focused on revealed Truth, but should a preacher just repeat Scripture? If so, in which language? Preaching in English to an audience that only speaks Mandarin is not really preaching the Word. If language is important, then would we not need to interpret (exegete) other communication elements as well?
The core of the gospel does not change (preachers are to be stewards of that gospel — 2 Corinthians 4:1,2; 1 Timothy 6:20; 2 Timothy 1:12–14) — but often hearers reject the message, not because they do not need it, but because they do not hear it. The English translation of the Spanish text above: “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink” (John 7:37), and “Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters” (Isaiah 55:1) resonates with those who have tasted that Water. Because someone spoke our language, we received the good news of life in Jesus Christ; we drank of the free gift of the Water of Life.
Communicators in the biblical text demonstrate the importance of exegeting their audience. The tools of the social sciences can facilitate the spiritual-discernment process that matches the appropriate communication to the corresponding audience and context.
Exegeting Your Audience: Discovering the Appropriate Cup
Noted missionary evangelist Sadhu Sundar Singh presents a compelling illustration of the need to exegete one’s audience. In a period of ineffective communication of the gospel in colonial India, Sundar Singh supernaturally encountered Christ and began to travel throughout India preaching as a Christian sadhu or holy man. In addressing missionaries, Singh told of a high-caste Hindu traveling by train in the heat of the summer. Someone recognized that the heat was about to overcome this man and brought him a cup of water to revive him. Despite his condition, the man rejected the water because the cup belonged to a person of another caste. Then, discovering that the man had his own cup in the seat beside him, they rushed back to the faucet, filled his cup, and offered it to him. This time he received it with gratitude. Then Sundar Singh said, “This is what I have been trying to tell you missionaries from abroad. You have been offering the Water of Life to the people of India in a foreign cup, and we have been unwilling to receive it. If you offer it in our own cup, we are much more likely to accept it.”2
Biblical truth never changes: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8) whether in India, Afghanistan, El Salvador, New York, Chicago, or Muskogee. The good news that Jesus became flesh and dwelt among us to show us “that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3,4). This is grounded in history. But the means of communication must change according to one’s audience. Each person, each community, and each culture is unique, requiring a particular cup of communication. As followers of Christ, we recognize we live in a world filled with people thirsty for what only the Water of Life can satisfy. However, many in our world today reject the Water, not because they are not dying of thirst, but because of the offense of the cup. God in His sovereignty has chosen to communicate His good news through us His followers. We are the cup.
For missionaries, this means following Christ’s example of taking up the towel of service, setting aside the robes of our own culture, learning a new language, assuming new ways of thinking and acting to effectively communicate the good news without losing our identity in Christ. Likewise, though the cultural distance may not be as great, the preacher must exegete her or his audience to discover the appropriate cup to communicate.
The cup never saves. Only the Living Water transforms and gives eternal life to those who drink it. In the quest for the appropriate cup, the preacher can be seduced into thinking that the cup (i.e. style, skill, relevancy, or the form used to communicate) is the main thing, the critical factor. Cup issues, however, only become significant if they prevent the audience from hearing the truth of the gospel. Cup issues are critical if they prevent access to the gospel or divide the body of Christ. In themselves they are not salvific or divine.
The church of Jesus Christ needs all kinds of cups for all kinds of people and communities and cultures. The only superior cup is the one wrapped in the towel, unnoticed by those enthralled in the joy of drinking the water. The same is true of preaching.
Exegeting Your Audience: Demonstrated in Scripture
Jesus (and the entire biblical text) demonstrates the need to exegete one’s audience by using multiple cups to communicate the gospel in unique contexts to specific audiences. Communication cups Jesus utilized include physical touch, dramatic actions, miraculous signs and wonders, dialog, poetry, prophetic rebuke, stories and parables. When Nicodemus, a leader in the Jewish community, approached Jesus in John 3, Jesus communicated in terms of being born again. Jesus recognized (exegeted) that Nicodemus presumed to know the answers (i.e. that the Messiah would overthrow the power of the Roman oppressors and establish the fullness of the kingdom of God on earth). Nicodemus needed deconstruction to experience the truth of salvation by total dependence on the grace offered by Jesus through His death and resurrection. He needed to be born again, born of the Spirit. Jesus called Nicodemus — who based his hope on race, position, knowledge, power, and works — to total dependence on the righteousness of Christ.
In John 4, Jesus communicated with a woman who did not need someone to tell her that her situation was hopeless. Culturally, society marginalized her and she had no access to the means of salvation. Jesus violates the cultural norms of appropriate behavior in opening the lines of communication and access to truth by requesting a favor of the woman. The woman heard for the first time that in spite of the physical, social, and religious realities that surrounded her, she could access salvation. Jesus offered this salvation as a free gift accepted by faith, as simple as drinking the water that Jesus offered her. The impact of Jesus’ use of this communication cup is that not only this woman, but the entire Samaritan village declared that Jesus is the Savior of the world (John 4:42).
Exegeting Your Audience: Discernment Tools in Anthropology and the Social Sciences
While there are no easy steps to exegeting community and discerning the appropriate communication cup, the Spirit can use the tools and principles of cross-cultural communication theory to improve preaching effectiveness. The following observations on worldview, cognitive processes, and elements of acculturation illustrate how an understanding and use of the social sciences can facilitate effective communication.
Worldview refers to how people perceive or see their world. Cross-cultural communication theory identifies specific communication styles that are more effective among particular worldviews. The preacher’s delivery should attempt to authentically communicate according to the worldview of the audience. Non-Christians in the West explain the world and their experiences in terms of natural causes. Conversational preaching, articulate, educated logic expressed with sincerity and controlled passion, makes sense to this worldview. However, if the audience is primarily of an animistic background where spiritual beings and experiences fill the world of nature, a different style is appropriate. (A majority of the population of the world perceives reality from this perspective.) For those who come from this worldview, if the message is important, the delivery style must be dramatic, passionate, varied in tone, pitch, and rhythm, and filled with movement and other nonverbal forms of communication (i.e. an old-time Pentecostal preacher). Signs, wonders, and manifestations of the Spirit demonstrate the authenticity of the message for this audience.
Language shapes our thinking. While humans utilize various cognitive processes, anthropologists assert that certain processes predominate in specific cultures. One form is not superior to the other, but different means of communication are more effective among specific types of thinkers. In the West the conceptual way of thinking is dominant. If the hearer can identify and categorize the message, they know it. Concise, articulate arguments and theories impact audiences. The ABCs of the gospel effectively transmit the core message to this way of thinking, as does the three-point sermon that moves from theory to practical application supported by handouts and PowerPoints.
The bulleted sermon, however, makes no sense to other types of thinking. Intuitive thinkers, also described as quantum thinkers, seek mystical knowledge that emerges from inner experience and vision (spiritual knowledge). The preacher must avoid drawing explicit conclusions from the text, allowing the hearers to explore the mystery of divine truth and experience the aha moment as revealed by the Spirit. Biblical doctrines of illumination and baptism in the Holy Spirit are vital to spiritual growth among intuitive thinkers.
People with origins in the cultures of Latin America, Africa, and areas of Asia think in terms of concrete situations and how it impacts their relationships. They do not seek to interpret the Bible as much as live the Bible. Like the thinking in many cultures in the Bible, effective communication utilizes stories, parables, dramatic speech enhanced with nonverbal communication accompanied by physical demonstrations, power encounters, and signs and wonders.
Critical to the process of exegeting one’s audience to preach in such a way as to be heard, understood, touched, and changed by the Word of God (i.e. discerning the appropriate cup) is shared experience (i.e. the preacher must investigate, question, and humbly identify with the audience to live out the Word).
As a missionary, every time I visit a congregation my desire is to inspire, to educate, and to move my hearers to a deeper understanding, commitment, and engagement with God’s global mission. Most churches I visit in the United States are predominately conceptual thinkers. My message must clearly communicate the task and the motive and means to fulfill the task. God in His Word mandated that the people of God, His church — motivated by His love and empowered by His Spirit — take the gospel to every people group and to every person. Based on these concepts, all within the hearing of the preacher should pray, give, and go.
When speaking to an audience of Salvadorans, the majority of whom are concrete/relational thinkers, I would not begin the message with the task but with a story of how Juan encountered God’s love on the basketball court, how love drew him into the Kingdom, and how he now shares that love among another people groups. Rather than three logical points that lead to a conclusion with action steps, I weave together a series of stories, both biblical and contemporary, that allow the hearer to experience the truth of the story. Because someone communicated God’s story to me, I now participate in that story along with my fellow believers by sharing our life together with those who have never heard the story by praying, giving, and going.
In speaking about missions to university students, who tend to think intuitively, the missionary task reveals itself as the mystery, diversity, and passion of God as explored in the Word and the world as community. Frederick Buechner describes preaching for this way of thinking: “Basically, it is to proclaim a Mystery before which, before whom, even our most exalted ideas turn to straw. It is also to proclaim this Mystery with a passion that ideas alone have little to do with. It is to try to put the gospel into words not the way you would compose an essay but the way you would write a poem or a love letter — putting your heart into it, your own excitement, most of all your own life. It is to speak words that you hope may, by grace, be bearers not simply of new understanding but for new life both for the ones you are speaking to and also for you.”3 The hearer enters into God’s mystery and mission by creating space for Him to work and reveal himself in prayer, by economically living by faith, and stepping out into unknown environments so others from all nations may begin the journey of discovery of the infinite God revealed in the good news.
Audiences think in all three ways, but the preacher must utilize communication forms that connect in ways that make sense to them. The Bible communicates effectively to all ways of thinking. Storytelling is not only biblical but communicates effectively in each of the cognitive processes identified above: among conceptual thinkers, the story illustrates the point; for the intuitive, the story creates a mental environment where each hearer can discover the truth of the story; among concrete relational thinkers, the story is the point.
Anthropology offers preachers cultural inventories that they can use to identify cultural characteristics of the audience and how they differ from that of the preacher4 so the preacher can bridge the cultural communication gap. Each congregation has its own unique subculture. Moving from one church or audience to another requires cultural exegesis for the preacher to increase communication effectiveness.
Acculturation is the identification process by which an adult effectively lives and communicates in a culture other than the one in which he or she was born. When a preacher and audience share the same culture, background, and experience, communication flows with little thought of cultural identification. With increased cultural distance between preacher and audience, however, the need for audience exegesis and acculturation also increases. While a preacher cannot participate in every experience of the audience, the more experience that speaker and audience have in common, the more effective their communication.
This indicates a need for the preacher to get out and live what the people in the pew, chair, or theater seat experience. A rural audience requires that a preacher participate in farming and small-town activities. An urban audience tends to be more individualistic with community by association often valuing a multicultural environment. A wise preacher joins volunteer organizations and seeks experiences common to the audience like public transportation, cultural events, and educational opportunities. Following Jesus’ example, who took up the towel of humanity to make His Father known, the preacher takes up the towel of audience identification because “no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him” (John 13:16).
The Holy Spirit through the missionary people of God continues to invite the thirsty to drink. “The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come!’ And let the one who hears say, ‘Come!’ Let the one who is thirsty come; and let the one who wishes take the free gift of the water of life” (Revelation 22:17).
The Bible illustrates that each audience requires a unique cup to provide access to this life-giving water. The Water of Life, the gospel, never changes, but the communication cup must change. All kinds are needed for all kinds of people; all kinds of ecclesial cups for all kinds of communities; all kinds of preaching for all kinds of hearers. In preaching the gospel there should be no offense but the offense of the Cross. All preaching must point to the Cross, what God has done to make possible the redemption of people from every nation.
Preachers are tasked with the hard work of exegeting the biblical text and exegeting the audience to speak the gospel in the language of their hearers. Like the tools of biblical exegesis there are cross-cultural communication tools available that facilitate the task of audience exegesis. Preachers utilize these tools as a means of spiritual discernment. Ultimately, the preacher’s effectiveness will depend on his or her total reliance on the Spirit for only the Spirit leads into all truth (John 16:13).
1. La Santa Biblia, Nueva Versión Internacional® NVI® Copyright © 1999 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
2. John T. Seamonds, Tell It Well: Communicating the Gospel Across Cultures (Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press, 1981), 12.
3. Frederick Buechner, Listening to Your Life: Daily Meditations With Frederick Buechner(New York: HarperOne, 1992), 327.
4. E.g. Sherwood Lingenfelter and Marvin Mayers, Mininstering Cross-Culturally: An Incarnational Model for Personal Relationships (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic Press, 2003).