This MTI blog series aims to help you and your readers sharpen your skills in communicating faith matters to secular readers – skeptics, seekers, and the spiritually disinterested.
John and Charles Wesley, the founders of Methodism, used British barroom songs of their day and substituted Christian words to reach the masses. If you want to reach people for Christ, it’s wise to speak their language…to connect with them in ways familiar to them.
People speak different verbal languages. They also speak different psychological, emotional and intellectual languages. And the language they speak and understand involves their thoughts, feelings, desires, upbringing, knowledge, education, life experiences, and more.
How can you analyze your audience so you can prepare content to reach them?
What do the people we want to reach think and feel? When my coworkers and I have trained Christian communicators, we have spent hours with them analyzing their audiences. Here is a link to an online Audience Analysis Chart from our training course that will help you think through characteristics of your audience and how to tailor your approach to reach them. This chart was written for public speakers in secular university classrooms, but it can easily adapt to writing and other communication. Consider a few areas of audience analysis:
- Religion: When your audience hears the word “God”, how do they feel? What do they think of? Do they believe that God is impersonal and distant? Emphasize that He is personal, that you can know Him as a friend, that He cares for you.
- Do they think God is harsh and judgmental, that He demands perfection to gain eternal life? Show them God’s love, His mercy and forgiveness. Do they fear losing His love if they befriend God? Emphasize the security He brings. Do they feel bound by traditions? Tell them of freedom in Christ.
- Intellectual: Where are your users – your viewers, readers or listeners (podcast, etc.) – intellectually? Are they well-educated? Then be intellectually stimulating. Present evidence to back up your claims. Do they resist being told what to do, as do many intellectuals? Sprinkle them with the salt of God’s truth to make them thirsty, but let them draw their own conclusions rather than trying to pour the entire saltshaker into their mouths.
- Are they less well educated? Then appeal to things that concern them most: perhaps relationships, emotions, work, neighbors, family. Use stories relevant to them, like Jesus used parables. Are they intellectually prejudiced? Quote sources with which they already agree.
- Psychological: Where are they psychologically? Are they apathetic? Emphasize that forgiveness is a free gift. Are they idealistic revolutionaries? Present Jesus the Revolutionary who can help them change the world. Are they self-centered? Relate what Christ can do for them – he can bring a good measure of peace and happiness. Do they want success? Show how God can help them develop a healthy self-concept, worthwhile goals and the discipline to persist.
- Note that your aim is not to distort the Christian message to attract and win converts. Rather you are analyzing your audience to learn their interests so you can discover good starting points to begin Gospel conversations with them. In John 4, when Jesus mentioned “living water” to the Samaritan woman, he did not stop there. Rather living water attracted her interest. She wanted to know more and he provided more.
- Needs: What needs do they have? Self-esteem? Stress their value to God. Friendship? Christians can be great friends and Jesus is the best friend of all. Do they need to be needed? As believers they can help spread the solution to life’s problems.
- Maybe they want meaning and purpose. Christ can help them understand what life is about and how they fit in. Do they lack hope? Jesus gives direction for the present and the certainty of eternal life. Are they insecure? Jesus will stay with them, help them, protect them. Tell them about it. Do they want love? Tell them how much God loves them. Use stories, testimonies, drama.
- Morality: What moral attitudes pervade your audience? Do people believe in absolutes? Appeal to the absolutes they already hold. Have they given up on morality? Establish that some absolutes exist (the fact of gravity, the certainty of death, etc.) and show that other absolutes may exist also.
- Issues: What issues consume your readers or users? Their own families? relationships? poverty? peace? racism? freedom? depression? health? Speak to those issues and you’ll engage your audience.
- Heroes: Who are their heroes? Sports figures? Rock stars? Politicians? Use testimonies of Christian celebrities.
- Is Karl Marx their idol? Remind them that Marx said that “Philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.”
- Do they admire Simon Bolivar, the great liberator of Latin America? Tell them of Bolivar’s admission later in his life: “I was all my life a slave to my passions. The essence of liberty is precisely that one can liberate oneself.”
Careful audience analysis is essential to good communication.
May I suggest that you now pause reading this article for about 10 minutes to briefly and prayerfully apply these principles to the audience you seek to reach? Open the Audience Analysis Chart. Highlight the characteristics of your audience that you see there, and the communication approaches it suggests that might be appropriate for reaching them.
Tapping felt needs
How can you design your presentations to tap people’s felt needs?
Everyone has both real needs and felt needs. Real needs are genuine necessities – food, air, water, health, Jesus. A felt need is something one feels is a genuine necessity, but which may or may not be. Some felt needs are not real needs: chocolate dessert, an extra milk shake, one million dollars, another chocolate dessert. Sometimes felt needs are real needs, too. Someone who is frostbit really needs a warm fire.
People most often hear and believe what they want to hear and believe.
Let that thought sink in for a moment. Do you believe it is true? I suggest that many communicators do not want to believe it or have not thoroughly considered it. If it’s true, it affects your entire communication strategy.
If people do most often hear and believe what they want to hear and believe, you need to start where they are. As noted, Jesus did this with the woman at the well who was tired of her daily journeys to draw water. He talked about living water from a well that would never dry up.
Appeal to people’s felt needs to help them uncover their real needs. Again, I’m not saying, “Just minister to felt needs to help people feel better.” Rather I’m saying that felt needs are a starting point to help get to real needs. To be an effective communicator, tell people what they want to hear before you tell them what they need to hear. Don’t compromise biblical truth; but agree at the start where you can.
A subsequent article will consider more ideas of specific topics you can consider to connect with the nonbelievers you want to reach, plus some practical ideas for transitioning from the secular to the spiritual and more.
But before we end here, I encourage you to take a look at another handout, our Analyzing Your Audience handout. It’s a two-page worksheet to help you record details of your own analysis of your particular audience and design tools to connect with them. You can log specific characteristics of your audience plus possible communication methods and topics that could appeal to them. Then you can map out a plan to design and create an article, program, publication, website, speech, etc. to reach them.
You might want to keep this planning tool handy as you read other articles in this “Reaching Secular Readers” series and add ideas as you progress. At the end, you’ll have a strategy to apply these skills to your own ministry situation.
Want to know more?
Gratis online resources:
- Communicating Christ to Secular Audiences. Could God use your talents, websites and publications to influence nonChristians for Christ? Learn how secular readers think and feel, what they want and why. Practical tools for analyzing your audience, tapping your users’ felt needs, grabbing attention, touching hearts and minds, and sensitively communicating spiritual truth. Online streaming video webinar (00:59:00) from Magazine Training International. (Simple free registration required.)
- (Same subject as above, but mp3 audio workshop file; 00:36:14)
- Communicating with Secular Audiences Outline. Note-taking outline for above presentation. Includes Speaking Your Audience’s Language table to help translate “Christianese” into Normal HumanSpeak. (Handout; 4-page MS Word document)
- Audience Analysis Chart. A companion resource to the above workshop filled with detailed possible audience characteristics and suggested approaches based on those characteristics. (6-page MS Word document)
- Analyzing Your Audience handout. A worksheet to help you record details of your own analysis of your particular audience and design tools to connect with them. Log specific characteristics of your audience plus possible communication methods and topics that could appeal to them. Then map out a plan to design and create an article, program, publication, website, speech, etc. to reach them. (2-page MS Word document)
(Much of the material in this article is adapted from the Communication Principles Training course developed by Rusty Wright and Linda Raney Wright.)
by Rusty Wright. Rusty is an author and lecturer who has spoken on six continents. He holds Bachelor of Science (psychology) and Master of Theology degrees from Duke and Oxford universities, respectively.
Copyright © 2023 Rusty Wright
Photo by M ACCELERATOR on Unsplash