Grant Fishbook started preaching full time in 2003, but every few years, he’d discover that he wasn’t connecting with the modern audience. At first, he thought maybe he was the problem—maybe he wasn’t doing something right, or maybe he subconsciously changed something.
Eventually, he realized that the needs and desires of his audience changed, and he hadn’t.
He started asking a question that helped him reconnect with his congregation and communicate the gospel in a way that resonated better. He explains in the following excerpt from his course, How to Communicate Effectively to Modern Audiences.
What do modern audiences want?
. . . I began to ask my audience questions: “Hey, what do you need from me?” And I think that’s a powerful question. I think it’s a powerful question in a marriage; I think it’s a powerful question in a church: “What do you need from me, so that I can truly communicate the Word of God in a faithful way to your heart?” I began to uncover some incredibly interesting insights in my heart as a pastor that I’d never heard before; this was all new to me.
Desire for deeper questions
I found people saying, “You know, Grant, we have a deep desire to have a deeper question answered.” Years ago, I believe the question was “What is true?” People just simply wanted to know: “You tell me what’s true. I’ll make a decision from there.” And then over the years, the question changed to: “What is right? And how do I decide—in a world of moral relativity and questions about absolute truth—how do I figure out, well, what’s both true and right?”
In this latest iteration I’ve heard the people asking me more and more often, “You know, Grant, what’s good? What is good? Where can I find it? Why is there so much hopelessness in the world today?” And if you listen to a lot of modern teachers, I think and I agree with many of them that what’s coming (the next question) is: “What is beautiful?” Now, let’s be honest, it’s hard to encompass what’s true, what’s right, what’s good, and what’s beautiful with three points and a poem; in fact, I believe it’s impossible. But that’s what they were saying: “We have that deep desire.”
We were also finding that as the audience began to change right in front of me, that there was an increasing openness to the hard truths of Scripture. They wanted to hear the hard material; they wanted to listen to what Jesus said that would make them cringe; they were not afraid anymore to be confronted with the deep, difficult, sometimes painful portions of Scripture. In fact, they craved it; they wanted it more than anything.
Aversion to alliteration and acrostics
As I began to talk to the people that I was communicating with, I found that this was a theme that came up over and over and over again, which was . . . an aversion to alliteration and acrostics. I mean, I used to love the letter P . . . That’s the way I was taught in Bible college and in seminary to preach, right? I had to do this muscle memory thing with a certain letter or a certain word. And what I found was people began, in the modern context, to see that as almost inauthentic: that it was overly rehearsed, that it stripped away somehow the humanity because nothing in the rest of their world lined up with the letter P or a beautiful word. And so, there was an aversion to alliteration and acrostics.
Attraction to transparency and authenticity
As a part of that, I found as I talked to my audience that there was a deep attraction to transparency and authenticity—that they actually craved hearing when I got it wrong; in fact, they weren’t interested at all in hearing when I got it right. Now, they wanted me to be a person of character, but they wanted to know whether or not I actually had a disagreement with my wife on the way to church. They wanted to know when I got into loggerheads with my son or my daughter. They wanted to know when I had to go into somebody else’s office here at the church and ask for forgiveness because I just had a bad attitude toward them. They wanted to know the real person behind the music stand, behind the pulpit, behind whatever it is that you stand behind when you’re delivering the Word of God. So, there was a deep attraction to transparency and authenticity.
Demand for life application
There was also a high demand for life application. In fact, they would just straight out tell me, “Grant, I’m so tired of information; I actually want to experience transformation. So take that OT story, take Joseph in jail for more than a decade, and explain to me how in the world that man could ever say that the Lord his God was with him. Help me put that together, because I feel like I’m in prison. I feel like God has left me. I feel like I’m at the lowest moment in my life, and I don’t know where else to turn.” They wanted me to take Scripture and wrap it around their day-to-day life. And that had really changed. It wasn’t about the information anymore. It’s about: “I need this to last beyond Sunday afternoon; I actually need it to help me get from Monday through Saturday.”
Attraction to unresolved tension
I also began to find in modern audiences that there was an attraction to unresolved tension. I have this necessary discipline in my life as a pastor that I need to fix everything and to put it at rest. And what I found was with modern audiences (especially with younger audiences), they didn’t want me to finish the story and tie it up like a nice Hallmark movie. They actually wanted to live inside of the tension of the text; they wanted to feel the tension between how was Joseph—being punished when he was falsely accused by Potiphar’s wife—how did he sit in that and still find a way and a path back to God?
So there was an attraction to unresolved tension, which I think came out of what I have found to be one of the most prolific understanding moments for me as a pastor. I had a young college man come and approach me one time after church, and he was not trying to be critical. He simply said these words to me: “Grant, teach me how to think. Don’t tell me what to think.”
I believe that biblical filter is so unbelievably powerful today: when we have an opportunity to step into their world and experience it through their eyes, but to give them that biblical filter, that biblical worldview, that biblical focus, so they know how to filter culture and thought and school and ideologies and education and everything else that comes to them. They simply want to know—“I need to understand the ‘how to’ not necessarily just the ‘what to.’ ”
Desire to go straight to the Scripture
I found one more incredible trend that has really sent me in a bit of a different trajectory, and I would say that it’s the modern audience’s desire to go straight to the Scripture. I have found that my Bible has become a new foundation for me to stand on once again with a deep conviction that it holds all of the truth that everyone needs in order to survive in our world today. And I heard an appeal from my own audience: “Grant, take us to the Word over again. Never apologize for what’s inside of it. Let us squirm, let us struggle, and don’t try to candy-coat it for us. In fact, we would prefer it if you would just cut straight to the heart of what the Word of God is saying and allow it to truly be what it says it is, which is sharper than any two-edged sword.”
Conclusion: understand your audience
I want to encourage you to ask some questions of your audience today. Maybe you’re simply feeling disconnected from them. Could it be that you’re not doing anything wrong, but that your audience has changed and that you need to adjust the course and adjust your voice to be able to truly reach into their heart, not just for the sake of information, but for the sake of transformation?
Learn more from Grant Fishbook in his course, How to Communicate Effectively to Modern Audiences. It’s a great review of how audiences have changed and what they’re looking for from preachers, teachers, and leaders.
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