Publishing / Writing / October 21, 2011

Congregation vs. Audience

When I receive proposals for books or book ideas from pastors I often get something like this as an accompanying comment: “I am the pastor of a X,000-person church, and based on their response to this message I think there is a large demand for this material.” This seems like a reasonable assertion. 80% of the congregation loved the messages, therefore a large percentage of like-minded Christians will also like the message.  Unfortunately there is almost no correlation between what a pastor’s congregation thinks of his sermons and the audience size when that is turned into a book. 

There are a few reasons for this.

1) Pastors have a relationship with their congregations. There is trust, familiarity, and warmth that allows for a sort of impact that doesn’t carry over to a “cold” audience like book readers. An average or unskilled preacher can still be an enormously effective one because he loves and is loved by Christ and his congregation, but a good book requires skill to create.
2) There is often an enormous difference in the dynamism or effectiveness of the spoken word versus the written word. Many Pastors use scant outlines or basic notes to preach powerful sermons. Many pastors are skilled story tellers and can weave a verbal tapestry or paint a verbal picture with ease. Others have the talents of an orator and can use verbal variance to engage an audience. And for others it is the sheer passion and devotion that carries the sermon. Translating that same powerful preaching into powerful literature is no easy feat, and one that many aren’t prepared or equipped to do.

3) Worship services are multi-sensory experiences. The pastor’s sermon is both carried by and carries the worship in song and prayer. It is a cycle of worship experiences that builds itself up. There is no easy separation of song, prayer, scripture, testimony and sermon in the transformation of people’s hearts, nor should there be.  Books are information on a page. Their power is in the words themselves with no other sensory engagement, so to take an effective sermon and publish it might be like taking a fish out of water.

4) Pastors are in a context whether it be denominational, racial, generational, or social. Maybe this means they communicate in a certain style to connect with their congregation. Maybe it means they are addressing particular issues or needs that have arisen in that context. But whatever it means the net effect is that the voice and message are uniquely suited to that context and not necessarily to a broader audience.

I do not write this to say that pastors should refrain from writing books. Rather I want to encourage awareness and research. I also want to express thanks for pastors who have impactful ministry within their contexts.  I encourage pastors to write and to consider how their messages might impact a broader audience, but getting from congregation to audience is not a simple numbers game. 


Oct 26, 2011

Brilliant post! As a literary agent I see this problem every week from books proposals that cross my desk.

The ones that understand what you have written above stand out above all the rest.

The Steve Laube Agency

Oct 26, 2011

Those are also some good things to keep in mind for those of us in the reverse position– going from author to orator.

Sometimes it’s much easier to write. We have the luxury of time, no stage fright, and the ability to hone our words until they’re just right. At a speaking engagement you have to get it right the first time! Very nerve-jangling :0)

Oct 27, 2011

I hope my book, Making Sanity Out of Vanity, based on a sermon series on Ecclesiastes will be an exception. So far it’s been well received and has gotten good reviews. I’d love to have you review it, Tim. I know EP Books sent you a copy.

Oct 27, 2011


My post isn’t to say that sermons shouldn’t be turned into books, but rather that it isn’t as easy as gauging the reaction of the congregation. Selling books is a tough business, and it is a difficult calculation to determine what content by what person will move copies. That said, pastors do the most thinking and writing from a Christian perspective out of almost anybody, so many are well-equipped to write books and SHOULD do so.

Mar 07, 2012

Well said!

Feb 25, 2016

[…] Congregation Versus Audience – Barnabas Piper talks about a common problem converting spoken words into written ones. […]

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