If you really want your sermons to land, you need to know your audience. Learning to read the biblical text from the perspective of a potential audience helps you understand what questions and concerns they might have. Even more importantly, knowing who your audience is will help you to edit out information, stories, and jokes that won’t hit your target.
Personas change everything
If you’ve kept up on discussions about church growth, you’re probably familiar with personas. Personas provide a way to summarize information about an observed or researched demographic. You typically depict a persona as a specific—but not entirely real—individual that’s synthesized from observations of a group’s traits, interests, desires, and motives.
Identifying personas enables churches to focus on reaching a specific and memorable cast of characters instead of trying to appeal to everyone.
Typically, churches talk about personas and demographics when they’re overhauling ministries, deciding on outreach ideas, and updating their sanctuary. But there’s not enough discussion about personas in the area it really counts: the message.
A lot of sermon prep is focused on communicating specific ideas and truths. When you learn to do this in a way that speaks to your church’s key demographic—while reaching out to personas you aspire to connect with—your preaching becomes a draw in itself.
You probably already have a preaching calendar that lays out when you tackle specific topics. Factoring personas into that calendar will greatly influence how, when, and what topics you cover.
Personas affect how you address topics
Jesus talked about finances a lot, and you probably have a schedule where you address it as well. This is a good example of a topic that can be greatly empowered when you focus on speaking to a specific demographic.
Let’s look at a couple of personas:
Affluent Albert: As a local professional, Albert’s doing pretty well. He’s got a big house, nice cars, and takes international vacations with his family every year. He has a considerable nest egg, and financial security isn’t a topic he spends much time thinking about.
Middle-class Martin: While he’s not doing as well as Affluent Albert, Middle-class Martin isn’t doing too badly. He’s fairly secure, and he gets to enjoy the occasional getaway to Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon. But he doesn’t have much saved up and occasionally worries about whether his company’s going to be downsized. His big concern is how he’ll stay afloat if he needs to find another job.
Struggling Sherry: This is a single mother who’s juggling a couple of jobs just to keep a roof over her head and food on the table. She doesn’t really remember the last time she went out and did something frivolous. Since she lives hand-to-mouth, she always feels like she’s one inconvenience away from complete financial meltdown.
While many of the financial principles in the Bible apply to all three of these personas, there’s no one-size-fits all way of approaching the topic. Speaking to Affluent Albert in a way that challenges him won’t land with Struggling Sherry. So, for the most part, we tend to speak to Middle-class Martin as a default.
Learning to engage a specific persona isn’t about changing or softening the truth, it’s about using illustrations, stories, examples, and principles that challenge and encourage a specific somebody rather than a generic everybody.
Personas affect when you address topics
As you’re mapping out your preaching calendar, you want to think about when your key persona is most likely going to be in attendance.
Maybe your church is in a college town and you’re making a concerted effort to reach out to, say, Hipster Harold. When it comes to topics you think will resonate with him, you want to make sure they’re scheduled around summer vacation, holidays, and study-heavy weeks.
Personas affect what topics you address
Have you ever visited a church and sat through a message that didn’t resonate with you at all? Maybe it’s because you were a college student and they were in the middle of a series on parenting. It could be that you were closer to retirement age and the topic was aimed at youth.
It’s not bad if your sermons don’t connect with everyone. There’s no way they will. But if you don’t have a persona in mind that you generally speak to, you’ll bounce from topic to topic in a way that never fully connects with anyone for very long.
You can’t give a monologue that connects with everyone, so choose topics that specifically touch someone.
Personas will grow your church
The first impulse for most pastors when they first think about preaching to specific personas is to dismiss the idea entirely. After all, to focus on a specific demographic means you’re going to alienate everyone else, right?
In an attempt to speak to everyone all the time, our preaching tends to get a little tepid. It might feel like it has a wider appeal, but it lacks a lot of the fire and impact it could have if you knew exactly who you were talking to. There are many people in your congregation who will stick around just to experience the greater passion, direction, and purpose that comes with knowing precisely who you’re talking to.
You’ll also discover that your effectiveness for reaching that demographic will go up. When people feel like you get them, they’ll become committed to your ministry—and then they’ll bring others.