Aristotle, the Greek philosopher of the 4th century BC, wrote a ground-breaking work on communication theory called Rhetoric. In this book, he notes that it’s not just the logos, (content) of the speech but the ethos (character) and pathos (empathy) of the speaker that determines the level of audience receptivity to the speech. Aristotle highlights for speakers the importance of building rapport with the people to whom we speak. In a day when suspicions run high toward leaders in business, politics, and the church, rapport between the preacher and listeners has never been more necessary.

Whether you are the unfamiliar guest speaker at a community service event or the well-known pastor in a local church setting, there are a few practical ways you can build rapport with any group that you address.

Commend the Crowd: Parenting experts, perhaps an oxymoron, suggest that parents should be as quick to tell our kids what they are doing right as we are to correct what they are doing wrong. These experts say that commending our kids builds them up and opens them up to receive correction when we give it. The same is true for preachers when addressing a crowd or congregation. We should be as quick to commend as we are to challenge people with our message. If you are the guest speaker for an event this is especially important. Let the people know you appreciate, for example, their hospitality toward you, or the work they are doing in the community, or what they clearly value. If you are the pastor of a local church, find some good things to say about your congregation that relates to the message you are preaching. Remember to be honest (see below), creative, and insightful when commending a crowd.

Use Self-Deprecating Humor: One of the ironies of public speaking is that, more often than not, the less seriously we preachers take ourselves (within reason) the more intently the congregation listens to our message. The Apostle Paul was quick to admit his weaknesses, even humorously criticizing his lack of eloquence and poor eyesight, in order that the message of the cross of Christ might have prominence. The people to whom we preach are measuring our level of egotism. If they sniff out pride in us, it will most certainly diminish their level of receptivity to the message we proclaim. Self-deprecating humor, done naturally, wisely, and sparingly, gives the impression that we preachers see ourselves not as one above the people but as one among the people of God. Be careful not to overdo it. There is a line that can be crossed using self-deprecating humor that will actually diminish congregational receptivity to your message just as much as prideful egotism does. Our use of humor should not come from a position of insecurity but one of security in Christ.   

Be Brutally Honesty: While the Gospel of Jesus Christ is good news, it is bad news first. Before people even reach out for Christ they must face the bad news that we are sinful, broken, and needy and that life is often unfair, lonely, and empty. Unless a preacher voices the painful realities of life that humans know and endure, the hope stemming from the good news that God sent His son Jesus to redeem what was dead and to restore what we lost won’t be received with as much impact. If our preaching tends to sugar-coat the angst and suffering of the human condition, most people will quit listening to our message. They will conclude, “this preacher is living in la-la land and has no idea what it is like to live in the real world…my world.” Preachers are most guilty of this in funeral messages when we are so anxious to console the grieving that we never name death for what it is and say “death stinks!” Of course, the preacher must be just as honest about the good news too, even when the realities of the human condition attempt to veil the hope of the Gospel.

Demonstrate Passionate Conviction: One of the most essential ways to build rapport with the people to whom you preach is to communicate as if you really believe you have something important and life-giving to say. As our intimate connection to Christ increases, the more passionate love for people and for God surfaces in us. Some preachers can fake passion well; maybe they even write on their sermon notes “scream loud now,” or “pause and cry,” or, my favorite, “strain your voice and whisper so people think you have passion.” I confess there have been times when I got up to preach and felt my lack of passionate conviction about the sermon I developed. Those sermons, as you may know, are hard to preach and perhaps shouldn’t be. I have observed that the messages that incarnate good news worth living and dying for naturally creates the passionate conviction that builds rapport between the preacher and the congregation. Simply put, passion is stirred in the preacher when the sermon has obvious potential to both glorify God and liberate people in significant ways.

Scratch Their Itch: Harry Emerson Fosdick, pastor of New York ‘s Riverside Church, once said “No one comes to church to find out what happened to the Jebusites.”  Fosdick was humorously advising preachers to steer clear of our pet issues in order to address the deep questions that the people in the pews (or chairs) are asking. Preachers are often guilty of scratching in places people aren’t itching. When I ask my wife to scratch my back, she doesn’t scratch my belly. Yet, we preachers have a tendency to scratch where people aren’t itching. We commit this crime in two ways. First, we raise questions in the sermon introduction that people aren’t asking. Our rapport is diminished as people start day dreaming about stuff that really matters to them, like what they’ll eat after church. The second way the preacher commits this crime is by promising, usually in the sermon introduction, to scratch a certain human itch and then failing to actually do the scratching. This second form of the crime is worse than the first because it leads to a greater sense of disappointment in listeners whose expectations are built up and then let down. So, a word to wise preachers- make sure your sermon raises and addresses a significant human itch.

REFLECTION: Which one of the points above comes most naturally to you? Which one of these tips is most challenging for you? Why? What are some other tips for building rapport that you might list?

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