What is conversational preaching? What does it look like to preach in a conversational tone? There are many different styles and methods to use when we preach – proclamational, authoritative, narrative – to name a few. And we may employ any number of these styles throughout a preaching career and even in a single sermon. But the tone that, I believe, should pepper our messages is a conversational tone. This article will explain the importance of conversational preaching and how we can utilize it. But first it’s important to define it.
Preaching conversationally is not about having a light-hearted, folksy cadence to your speech. Rather, it’s more about how you place yourself in the seat of your listeners and make them feel heard. To preach conversationally, anticipate what your listeners are thinking and seek to give them a voice when you preach. If preachers seek to speak in a conversational tone, they will empathize with their listeners and become expert at demonstrating that they understand where they are coming from. I’ll unpack how this is accomplished in this article, but first I want to answer the question of why.
Before we dive into how to preach conversationally, I want to touch on the reasons why you would seek to preach in this way. Conversational preaching is important because it’s disarming, it demonstrates that you understand your audience and it allows you to speak authoritatively.
One of the best tools we have in preaching is a paradox between disarming and engaging. Many people come to church with apprehension and doubts. They are apprehensive about the people they don’t know, they wonder if everyone is judging them, they wonder if you are judging them. They need to be engaged with the truth of Scripture, but before that can happen they need to be disarmed. Without being disarmed there is really no way they will be open to being engaged. So this is where the paradox comes in. If you can disarm them it opens them up to engagement. Conversational preaching, done well, is one of the best ways to disarm people so that they can uncross their arms and hear your message.
Because conversational preaching involves you putting yourself in the shoes of your listener and giving them a voice in your message it is one of the best ways to demonstrate to your audience that you understand and relate to them. People need to feel heard and understood before they will be open, and when you speak conversationally it can show them that you’ve sought to understand where they are coming from and you care. When people feel heard they are more likely to listen.
One objection to the idea of conversational preaching goes something like this: “Conversational preaching should be avoided because pastors are to preach the Word. They should preach the Bible authoritatively and let people wrestle with God’s word.” This argument is unfortunate because it sets up a false dichotomy. In this thinking the preacher is left to either preach with authority or preach conversationally but they can’t do both. My contention is that if you preach conversationally it allows you to speak authoritatively. Consequently when this is the sequencing – conversational approach with authoritative truth from scripture – people trust you enough to listen.
Consider a conversation with a good friend who’s struggling with a particular sin. Because you are friends and you’ve listened, in the context of a conversation, you can speak into your friend’s life and call them to more. You can speak authoritatively because you have the relational equity. Conversational preaching allows you the same equity when done well. This brings up the question of how do we preach conversationally.
At this point we’ve seen why conversational preaching can be such a powerful tool, but now we need to see how to use it properly. I’ve developed a three-step method that I use for every sermon I preach to ensure that I am giving my listeners a voice and preaching conversationally.
When you prepare, think about the obvious (or maybe not so obvious) questions and objections people will have when you preach. Really put yourself in the shoes of someone who does not believe like you, think like you, feel the way you do, or share your background, and consider what questions they may have in response to what you’re saying. To do this well is incredibly difficult because most of us have a hard time understanding and empathizing with others. This is one of the results of the curse of knowledge that heavily affects most pastors. This is where your preaching team is incredibly valuable to help you see your blind spots and relate to others. Discuss with your team how your content might land on some ears. Make a list of all the questions or objections that might come up.
For example, say you are preaching on forgiving others. What objections and questions will exist in people’s minds?
Think about how you would answer the objection if you were actually having a conversation with someone. You probably wouldn’t dismiss their arguments as ridiculous and stupid. You would probably try to see things from their perspective. You would probably make a point to affirm something about what they’re feeling. This is why preaching conversationally is so important. If your approach is simply to proclaim the truth in an authoritative manor you may be tempted to say, “Your objections are insufficient. This is what the Bible teaches. Do it.” The problem with that approach is it falls largely on deaf ears.
If instead you take a similar approach that you would in a conversation and answer their the questions with sufficient answers that show them how obedience, although difficult, leads to ultimate freedom it is far more effective. So in this step, think through how you would answer their objections.
Given that preaching is a one-sided conversation you have to bring up both sides of the argument. This is where your listeners truly feel heard and understood. Having considered the objections and questions your listeners may have and having thought through how you would respond in an actual conversation, now it’s time to put it all together. In this final step you will do something I like to calling “having the conversation in front of everyone.” You will present the question or objection acknowledging that it is how some in the room may feel. You’ll walk through their questions giving your responses in a way that acknowledges their pain, hesitation, doubt, frustration, apathy or skepticism and points them to the truth of Scripture and the freedom that comes from belief and obedience.
I have found that by simply stating the obvious and “having the conversation in front of everyone” people disarm and engage better with the content because it seems more believable and real to them. And you seem more real as a communicator because you’ve acknowledged real doubts and real fears that are actually beging experienced.
Preaching this way is not easy. It requires you to really dig deep into the hearts and minds of your listeners and feel what they experience, look through their eyes and think what they think. It is not easy but I believe you’ll discover it’s worth it. Your listeners will feel heard and be disarmed enough to open up to Jesus changing their hearts, minds and ultimately their lives.
Give it a try and let me know how it works for you. What are some other ways that we can preach conversationally in a way that relates to people and breaks down barriers? What have you experienced in your own preaching when you’ve attempted a more conversational approach?