Preaching for a Verdict: How Seeing Your Listeners as a Jury Can Make You a Better Preacher

We live in a skeptical age. 50 years ago preachers didn’t have to work very hard convincing church goers to believe their message. Today, many of our listeners, especially millennials, question everything they hear. We can’t assume all of our listeners will be on board with us. We must first persuade listeners to believe in our message before we can motivate them to act on it.

Recently I had a fascinating conversation with a sharp law professor who is a former trial lawyer. She shared that a preacher and a trial lawyer have the same goal: persuade a group of people to believe in a message and act on it. She also observed that effective preachers and trial lawyers use virtually the same persuasive strategies to make their message credible and compelling.

For your next sermon try seeing your listeners as a jury and use the following rhetorical strategies:

Promise to solve the case

Every jury is faced with a dilemma: Is the defendant(s) innocent or guilty? Trial lawyers prepare opening statements from the jury’s perspective. They realize that members of the jury have a problem to solve. Therefore, a good opening statement will validate the jury’s dilemma and promise to solve it. Effective opening statements clearly and confidently express why the argument is true and convey what’s at stake in the jury’s decision.

The introduction of your sermon should include the same elements. An effective sermon introduction should answer the following questions: What dilemma or problem will I be addressing? What is at stake for my listeners? How will I help solve their problem and why is it important to them? Right off the bat your sermon must validate your listeners’ experience of the problem and clearly and confidently promise to solve it.

Lay out the evidence

A jury is asked to make their decision “beyond a reasonable doubt.” A jury must firmly believe an argument before deciding on a verdict. Belief always precedes action. One of the things lawyers do to bring credibility to their argument is point to evidence. There is nothing more credible than solid evidence.

Solid evidence also brings credibility to your sermon so be sure to back up your message with statistics, quotes from experts, and content from credible sources. This not only applies to apologetic sermons that defend the faith but any biblical message.

Dispute counter arguments

A wise trial lawyer will anticipate questions and doubts from the jury and address them. “Some of you may be thinking, yeah but…” A wise preacher will do the same. Assume many of your listeners know all the angles to your message and can present a counter argument. You gain a great deal of credibility with listeners when they sense you have done your research and anticipate the questions they will be asking.

Appeal to emotions

Good trial lawyers know that pointing to evidence is not enough. They must also appeal to the emotions of the jury. Why? Logic leads to conclusions and emotion leads to action. Solid evidence may influence how a jury thinks about a case but to motivate a jury to act on what they believe (the desired verdict) a lawyer will aim for the heart. This is not manipulative. It is simply accepting that a jury is made up of human beings who have hearts as well as a brain.

Preachers must accept the same thing about their congregations. A reasonable and logical sermon may influence how they think but a sermon aimed at the heart will motivate your listeners to act on your message. So give more than logic. Stir the heart of your congregation by telling moving stories or illustrations and passionately expressing why your message matters.

Provide testimony

Every lawyer knows the power of testimony. When there is personal testimony or an eye, expert or character witness testifies it is extremely helpful to a case. The same is true for a sermon. When you give personal testimony or reference another person’s testimony it is extremely effective. It is hard to argue with personal experience. So share personal stories and testimonies that have a shared context with your listeners. It gives your message more credibility and establishes a deeper connection with your congregation.

Call for a verdict

In a closing argument a trial lawyer will review the evidence, repeat what’s at stake, and boldly ask the jury to make a decision about the case. This is their call to action or, in our language, the “altar call.”

Every sermon should include a bold and clear call to action. What do you want your listeners to do with your sermon? The gospel demands a response so don’t end your sermon without giving your listeners the opportunity to respond to your message.

Ready to take your preaching to the next level? Grab a copy of my new book from Abingdon Press, That’ll Preach! 5 Simple Steps to Your Best Sermon Ever.

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