Preaching to Personas: 5 Ways to Reach Your Intended Audience

who is the intended audience? (black writing on whiteboard)
Photo by Melanie Deziel on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

Who is the intended audience? And when you’re preparing a sermon, what steps can you take to help your sermon land with your intended audience?

Let me back up a few steps and say for starters: The world is a mess. That’s the least controversial thing you’ll read on the internet today. 

The Global Peace Index has been recording a steady deterioration in peacefulness in much of the world for more than a decade. Natural disasters are on the rise and, according to the UN, have increased by approximately 35 percent since the 1990s. And according to the World Health Organization we’re experiencing a global epidemic of depression, which is now the leading cause of illness and disability worldwide. Oh, and let’s not forget declining trust in institutions including government, media, corporations, and yes, religious institutions such as churches.

The world has gone mad, and the world is going mad. We’re on the brink of madness, and we’re already there.

Preaching to problems or people?

In a chaotic time like this, preachers may be tempted to become so concerned by the problems around them that they lose sight of the people in front of them. When the world is a mess, that’s precisely the time when we should refocus our attention on our people, reacquainting ourselves with them so that we can more intentionally craft sermons to help them make sense of this tumultuous time. 

I know what many of you are thinking: “I know my people. I have spent years getting to know them in offices and in atriums, in hospital rooms, and at wedding receptions. I don’t need to waste what precious little free time I have with an exercise like this.”

I don’t doubt that most preachers know their people on some level. And yet, over the years, I’ve found that there’s a difference between knowing something and naming it. When we name something, it takes shape and form. It exists in a way that we can observe it and evaluate it.  

Who is the intended audience?

I come at this question not just as a preacher myself, but also as a writer. Working with authors over the last 15 years, I developed a process that’s proven effective for helping writers move from knowing their audience to naming their audience. The best part is that it can be done in just a few simple steps by answering a handful of questions.  

  1. Define the demographic

This step is simple to do because demographic information is easy to observe and obtain. Ask yourself these questions about your audience: 

  • Who is the intended audience?
  • How old are they? 
  • Are they primarily male or female? 
  • What is their level of education, generally? 
  • What part of the country do they live in? 
  • Are they mostly affiliated with a certain political party, or nonpolitical? 

This will help reacquaint you with the most basic elements of your intended audience, giving them a general shape and form. Once you’ve named these elements, ask the final question: How might this demographic information influence and inform your sermon content and preparation?  

  1. Sketch the psychographic

The first step is usually where preachers stop when they are thinking about the audience they are preaching to, but this step is actually more important and helpful. Ask yourself these questions to determine who your intended audience is and what they care about: 

  • What do they want most in life? 
  • What are they afraid of? 
  • What wakes them up in the morning and keeps them up at night? 
  • What makes them cry? 
  • What makes them pound their fists in anger? 

This will help reacquaint you with how your audience thinks and feels and, by extension, this will help you better understand how you can motivate them, meet their needs, and touch their hearts through your messages. And now the final question: How might this psychographic information influence and inform your sermon content and preparation?  

  1. Name the audience

Your people will naturally vary in both their demographic and psychographic information, but they will tend to cluster around some characteristics. So in this step, you’ll put together a composite character that represents your intended audience. It is sometimes helpful to even sketch a face to get a picture of who your intended audience is. And I always like to give the audience an actual name. This will help you keep the process of preaching personal and rooted in compassion.

When I started writing and preaching 15 years ago, I named my audience “Thoughtful Tom.” He was a person in his upper-30’s who was politically centrist, maybe leaning slightly to the left, but definitely interested in political discussions. He was evangelical, but probably had mixed feelings about that title. Regardless, he loved the Bible and he loved the church despite its flaws. Naming Thoughtful Tom and keeping him in the front of my mind gave my sermons and articles and books consistency and intentionality.  

  1. Add a secondary if necessary

Because your audience is naturally varied, it can often be helpful to name a secondary audience. I have a pastor friend whose church is made up primarily of young professionals, but there is also a vibrant minority contingent of senior adults in the congregation. While they think about their primary audience as Working Wanda, they never forget the secondary audience: Senior Sarah. They keep them in mind too, and often speak directly to the secondary audience in sermons. 

  1. Always keep refining

Sometimes preachers resist this entire process because they are afraid they might mis-type their audience and suddenly find themselves blown off-course, preaching to the wrong people. If that’s your concern, it may ease your mind to remember that this is a process of approximation, not precision. You should regularly revisit your audience profile, altering it and changing it as needed. 

Sometimes you’ll realize you didn’t have the right audience profile, and you’ll tweak it. Other times, you’ll realize that your audience has changed over time—just as you have and just as the world has. 

Thoughtful Tom isn’t my target audience anymore. Honestly, I felt Tom changing for several years, but everything accelerated around 2016 with the election of Donald Trump. There was a seismic shift at that time, and so I traded Thoughtful Tom for Frustrated Philip. They are similar and also different. Frustrated Philip is no longer evangelical and leans to the left politically. He still loves talking about spiritual and theological matters. But his defining characteristic is his frustration—with the state of this country, the state of this world, the state of the church and many Christian leaders. Being able to write and preach directly to Philip instead of creating messages without a defined audience makes all the difference.

So take some time to go through this five-step exercise. You might just find it helps you to more easily cut through the messiness of this mad, mad world and become the kind of empathetic, compassionate preacher that your people need now more than ever.