In the last blog, I talked about the three kinds of audiences. In this blog, I wish to look at the traits that cause the audience to be the ideal audience and what we as ministers can do about it. In each characteristic, I will first examine why the audience has certain trait and then immediately suggest how ministers can create such an audience.
First, I notice the ideal audience loves to learn. Although this is simple and obvious, in practice, it is no means obvious. How often do we speakers hear, “But XXX (fill in any popular leader’s name) says this verse means …”? What the questioner actually means is that XXX just happens to agree with the false assumption, and there is nothing anyone can do to change that assumption. The fact is, XXX is not God. In a teachable audience, people would examine the issue for what it is. What can the minister do about it? In that large Toronto church where I spoke, the senior pastor came over after glancing at my book he bought and asked me to define some of the terms I used. Obviously, I do not expect this pastor to be as updated as I am in latest scholarly trend in Paul. What he showed me was a humility that said, “I want to learn more. I’m going to keep learning.” This spirit is admirable. After all, he pastors the largest … well, you get my point. My point is, because the congregation sees that the pastor is continuously bettering himself (and he does that also on his pulpit), they themselves also humbly learn. Leadership is a real key in creating this culture. I know many ministers however who fall into the other category of “Don’t tell me what I don’t know. I know what I know.” Without intending to sound harsh against my fellow ministers, such leaders will NEVER create a teachable culture because they themselves are not teachable. They’re just waiting for their retirement money.
Second, I notice the ideal audience prioritize truth over easy quick-fixes. I recall long ago when I spoke on a difficult topic on which I wrote. A questioner touched on another related and involved topic. I told him in private that perhaps he could read my other two books, both of which touched on this question. To my utter surprise, the questioner insisted that I would give my answer so that he would not have to read my book. I firmly said no not because I wanted to push my books but because the answer was just too involved. I’m pretty sure the questioner would go home and say, “Oh, that Dr. Sam. All he wants to do is sell books.” The fact is, most bad audiences are too lazy to look up the information for themselves because that takes efforts, time and money. Many would not hesitate to plop down 20 to 30 USD for a nice meal, but many would be hesitant to plop down the same amount for a book that may change their faith. In other words, the stomach rules the brain. What can ministers do about this? One thing ministers can do is to engage their congregation by showing an example of vigorous study in their own preaching. If they’re not preaching fresh and accurate insights, I’m afraid the audience would also follow a lazy and quick route in their own spirituality. You can’t force right the right priority, discipline, or diligence.
Third, the ideal audience is informed. This may also seem obvious, but in practice, once again, is anything but obvious. I have found many audiences with really nice spirit but are ill-informed. This has much to do with church leadership. A learning church will often prioritize diverse forms and content of learning. There are many ways to learn and a learning church will capitalize on those ways. Different people learn differently. Some learn by listening, others by reading, and still others, by doing. If a church can provide different modes of learning, the congregation can be much more well-rounded. The content of learning is much more challenging. I notice that most churches focus on need-based content of learning. For example, many places have weekend seminars hosted by “experts” in topics like “How to have a strong Christian family”. Certainly, these seminars may be packed full of people who want to learn the quickest way to make their children go to Ivy League schools (Oh, I’m only “half” kidding here). You can’t “specialize” in “How to have a better family.” Most Bible scholars can teach you a lot about family simply because that topic has been thoroughly covered in Scriptures. The church I spoke at has invited several scholars who were experts in their fields for a number of years to teach about Scriptures and theology. The ministers of this church sees that learning from other experts of Scriptures can take place besides Sunday mornings (and for that matter, Saturday nights because they have Sat night services also). When the ministers create an appetite in the congregation for solid food, then learning can take place.
Fourth, the ideal audience recognizes that learning can take place beyond themselves. I have gone to quite a number of churches that boast that they have “X number” of Bible studies and small groups. Usually, that’s a warning sign to me. What they really mean is that they have many groups that are ill-informed and quite often democratic in regurgitating what they’ve known for over ten years. These groups would be led by uninformed leaders who would use ill-informed materials that affirm many cliche beliefs from the Christian faith. Of course, there’re exceptions, but in my 20-year experience of speaking and traveling, there aren’t many exceptions. Thus, even after twenty years of doing their “bible studies” or “small groups”, the groups have repeated and shared the same old thing for one year times twenty. This is not learning. This is called “petting each other on the back.” Fresh learning must be systematically taken from the outside. Sometimes, the ministers themselves can facilitate such learning. In order to facilitate learning, the ministers themselves must be ravenous readers. I think it was the late Howard Hendricks who said that if you stop reading, you will soon stop teaching or something like that. Sometimes, ministers themselves can invite others to come teach. I’ve been to a number of churches where they have this regular event called “learning festival” a few times a year. I’m (and also a few other scholars) often engaged regularly in these churches to speak on the latest topic I’ve been researching and contextualizing, followed by worship and preaching so that the congregation can see that the material is highly relevant in their lives. One thing about these churches impress me: their ministers have humility. They do not feel threatened that I would somehow come and take their jobs. I don’t want their jobs. I enjoy what I do, and if what I do can enhance the education of the eager laity, I’d be as happy as a lark.
I firmly believe that each minister creates his own congregation. Although many ministers do not want to admit this, their congregations are the mirror of their leaders. If their leaders are humble and vigorous learners, the congregation will be also.