Forgetting the Audience


I’m afraid of you. And I hate to admit it.

I was just talking about this concept earlier today. I’ve been teaching each Sunday morning for the past (nearly) four years within the church we started in that course of time. And some people from our church community and I were discussing that, in those early days of the first year, there was a boldness and confidence (authority, even?) in what I would say compared to today.

Today is much different. Over the past few months, I’ve begun to ask “Is everyone with me?” or “Are you tracking with this?” I’ve become leery of saying certain things in fear that someone might disagree, sorry to say, and uncomfortable in my own skin as someone called to speak truth to the culture around me.

I hate this. I feel it as soon as I ask it on a Sunday – the inner feeling of self-doubt and the verbal asking for some sort of security or validation. I might as well just interrupt the sermon with, “Do you still like me? Please don’t turn me off! I’m still a good guy. Anyone?”

I ran across a quote courtesy of Jeffrey Overstreet which I am including below which speaks to this and I immediately thought of my own insecurities and missing those days when I was a little less concerned about how I would come across and more concerned about the truth I needed to proclaim:

“Catering to fears of being misunderstood leaves you dependent upon your audience. In the simplest yet most daring scenario, ideas are diluted to what you imagine your audience can imagine, leading to work that is condescending, arrogant, or both. Worse yet, you discard your own highest vision in the process.” – Art and Fear, by David Bayles and Ted Orland

I think this is true no matter if you are a painter, songwriter, storyteller, speaker, plumber, musician, salesman or cubicle-ite. There’s something that dies within us the moment we begin to think in terms of palatability for the audience – from the art we create to our Christian witness. Something within my own spirit dies when I reduce truth to something the audience wants to hear. Something within our own creativity dies when we edit the story or the song for a radio structure or store placement.

At the very least, I find it true for me. I need to forget any other audience and be true only to the greatest audience of one.

At least, I think so. Right? Anyone with me?

Matt Conner is a former pastor and church planter turned writer and editor. He’s the founder of Analogue Media and lives in Indianapolis.


  1. Nate

    I think you’re right. I dont think there is much to add to “I need to forget any other audience and be true only to the greatest audience of one.” Just look at Aaron and his golden calf. He gave the people what they wanted and it was certainly not the righ thing to do.

  2. Chris Slaten

    I am really interested to hear what every one else has to say about this too, because it is one of the most relevant issues in my work (as a songwriter not a claims adjuster). What I am about to bring up may not sound relevant at first, but I need to tell the whole story to really explain where the root of this struggle is for me and it may encourage some other communicators, artists and writers out there who are going through the same thing.

    I think I mentioned in one of your earlier posts on art that I have been a barren songwriter for three years now. I don’t doubt that being paralyzed by my fear of my audience’s reception is one of the greatest reasons for it, because three years ago I released my first full-length CD. For the first time all of the songs I had written in private were on permanent display. The night before the final product was sent out to be mass produced, the first batch of 1,000, I started to throw up in the driveway out of anxiety. That night I barely slept and had dreams of fundamentalist Christians accusing me of witchcraft. Why did I have so much anxiety? I knew that just about everything up to that point, writing the songs, fleshing out the instrumentation and recording them was done without much conscious regard for any worldly audience and now I was about to embark on the task of promoting a CD which I couldn’t imagine selling in churches because it was too quirky and often wordy/ ambiguous / mysterious/ without resolution and couldn’t imagine being well received in coffeehouses, pubs or any secular venues because it spoke openly, often naively and ineloquently about God. Since I was not with a label, had not signed any sales contract and the not-for-profit organization that funded the record had no marketing plan in place, I was without obligation to tour and promote. Out of the fear of its reception I did little to nothing to encourage its sales and am still doing the same.

    Three years later we are almost done selling that first batch of 1,000 copies, mostly by word of mouth, and with each CD that has been sold I’ve felt one more pair of eyes and ears on me. While I know that that perception is full blown narcissism and most of the people who have bought those CD’s could probably care less about what I do next, the imagined weight of their gaze, a mixed demographic with each faction holding different and often opposing expectations, rests upon me each time I prepare to create something new. I am a triple minded man, trying to create something beautiful, reflecting, conveying and magnifying the beauty of our Father and His good work in this world and in myself as excellently as I can while at the same time trying to cautiously communicate in respect to the expectations I have imagined many Christians to hold and which I sometimes hold myself: that art should be a clear lesson with a moral, designed to teach, uplift, sympathize and edify. While at the same time trying to mindfully communicate to those whose art and views on art I also love and respect who veer away from being didactic or preachy and instead simply portray what they see as they see it as truly as possible, in all of its ambiguity and mystery.

    Every time I sit down to pursue a new idea the three way tug of war takes over about midway through the process. The song splinters and falls to pieces. Sometimes I try to push through it and end up with more piles irreconcilable fragments and sometimes I just move on and try the same thing all over again on a new idea.

    Matt, I think you are dead on in your statement of primarily taking regard your audience of One. I also think that there is a little more which is still a part of that that I am sure you probably believe to, which is that our increasing love for Him is not increasingly myopic, but instead expands our vision, love and awareness for our neighbors and enemies. Whether or not people are following you and agreeing shouldn’t be your primary gauge, but it is can be a very loving and considerate thing to ask, particularly if you actually pause to listen if someone asks you to clarify.

    In terms of being a loving artist and entertainer, AP had a really good perspective on during a conversation I had with him about the Christian performer’s role to one’s audience. He said something like, “I just imagine someone, a friend, who has had a terrible day and I write and perform in a way to be a balm, bring laughter or just say I can relate.” (I know I botched that Andrew but you might be able to chime in and expound a little more clearly in your own words.)

    I had a bit of a breakthrough with this issue last night and got further into a song than I have in three years. I might talk more about that later, but I really need to get back to work and am interested to see what other types of struggles people have with the issue of audience.

  3. Peter B

    I think there’s a balance here, because while we certainly don’t want to fall prey to the fear of man rather than of God, we also want to make sure we’re making the truth accessible (being all things to all men). Of course that doesn’t mean we water down the message to make it more *attractive*, but then again, a tongue is useless without an interpreter…

    Then again again, I’m as guilty as the next guy when it comes to paralyzing narcissism, so take that for what it’s worth.

  4. Andrew Peterson


    Wow, what a great conversation. Thanks for the post, Matt, as the head-games you’re describing are waged at Olympic levels in my mind almost every time I take to the stage. I’m guilty of letting my fear of being disliked or disagreed with dictate my approach to speaking or writing, though there’s a lot of wisdom in sometimes choosing to be silent.

    In the last few months the opportunities to speak have been increasing, and with them my anxiousness about speaking. Thanks for your thoughts on this, Peter, Chris, and Nate. It was good for me to hear today. If I can find the time I want to add my two cents’ worth, but I’m swamped today. I was up until 4 am meeting a writing deadline, and my brain is scorched.

  5. Ron Block


    “Catering to fears of being misunderstood leaves you dependent upon your audience. In the simplest yet most daring scenario, ideas are diluted to what you imagine your audience can imagine, leading to work that is condescending, arrogant, or both.”

    This is mass market music at its worst right here.

    Matt, you speak of the early days of boldness and confidence. I had that in my early years of playing.

    All that has to break down, because it is (at least partly) founded in self-confidence. All that self-confidence has to break down in some way, to be eradicated, in order for real confidence to manifest.

    In the early years, in my teens and twenties, I had a real confidence in music. I was good, really good, and was only going to get better. All that broke down in the mid nineties. Only recently am I finding a really deep confidence – a confidence that isn’t based on me, my talent, or my ideas, but based on the mission and the indwelling power to fulfill it that God has given – Christ Himself. We have to become weak in order to become truly strong; we (our false ideas of “Who I Am”) have to die in order for the new Me in Christ to become fully operational.

    What I’m finding lately is an increased power, discipline, creativity, desire – because I’ve given up on that old musical me that was confident in my own ability. God smashed the idol of self-confidence to bring forth a new confidence that is seated solely in Himself. As I learn to walk in this confidence my real dreams become apparent, dreams which have risen out of the ashes of the fantasies of the false self – the satanically-driven self.

    To anyone who is self-confident, this will likely sound like gobbledy-gook, and at worst, some kind of self-righteousness. But it’s really the death of self-righteousness because in the crash of self-confidence I’ve found something that doesn’t fluctuate and that actually works.

    Another thought – not everyone is going to get your sermons. Those who are ready to hear in the place of brokenness will hear; those who aren’t won’t “get you.” The same goes for music or art of any kind as well. Someone who has never been broken isn’t going to get “The Silence of God” except in an intellectual way. But for me – that song makes me weep because I’ve pounded the floor with my fist in inner agony at the silent God.

  6. Dan K

    I think there’s the balance of spiritual milk/meat that is right to be mindful of. Look at CS Lewis with Mere Christianity (truth in plain language) and then read some of his other works which can get MUCH headier (yes, I just made up that word). I don’t view that as cheapening the truth or selling out on his talents/gifts/art. I’m pretty sure that’s NOT what your driving at though.

    I would often have conversations covering various issues with a pastor friend of mine. For some issues we could be completely in agreement and have sound theology or scriptural backing but they were not necessarily pulpit worthy issues. Iraq war, retirement plans, abortion, homosexual adoption, politics, etc. And I think he would be stretching his calling too much in trying to teach them from the pulpit. Not that sermons cannot be controversial or tough. May it never be so. challenge me, make me think. But some issues require a wise understanding and touch when being handled due to extra baggage (financial, theological depth, emotionally charged, politically heavy, whatever). I have often heard such topics (political canditates for example) mentioned but more as an example to illustrate God’s truth. And if these topics were the main point of the sermon I am usually disappointed. The pulpit is the mouth of the local church and needs to speak clear truth. Other issues can and should be discussed openly but IMHO should not be spewed directly from the mouth. It’s hard to illustrate that full train of though.

    I think seeking to preach a pleasing message everytime can fall into the same trap as trying to preach a controversial or confrontational message everytime; aiming towards a crowd instead of a crown. Preach the truth. Aim everything at the One.

  7. Nate

    “I think seeking to preach a pleasing message everytime can fall into the same trap as trying to preach a controversial or confrontational message everytime”

    I wholeheartedly agree. Good point. I will think about this more.

  8. jeremy byrd

    i think the balance that needs to be considered and weighed is the audiences perception and ability to understand what you are presenting. i must look for the “twinkle” in my listener’s eyes, shape my words and thoughts to meet them, and hope that i can bridge the canyon of understanding. yet sometimes, i can get lost in all this and as you said above become slave to “what are they really thinking?” thanks for you honesty.

  9. whipple

    Dan K, indeed you are right. Both the message weighted with agenda and the pleasant but cowardly message are missing something.

    What came to my mind was the art of a few folks. Hearing Pierce Pettis’s songs or David Wilcox’s songs or Phil Madeira’s lap steel playing takes me to a place that could never be reached by songs that are heavy-handed with agenda (even slightly). These art works still say something that is beyond mere self-expression or even expression. Wendell Berry’s poetry connects earth and sex and death and resurrection and work and sweat and weeping and laughing and anger all together for me, but Billy Collins’ poem “The Golden Years” feels a little like it has an agenda. It’s an agenda I have myself, and the poem isn’t that heavy-handed about it (and it’s a great and hilarious poem), but there’s no transubstantiation, if you will.

    I’m not sure why “The Mad Farmer Manifesto: Liberation Front” by Wendell Berry can say all the things it does and not feel like that, while “The Golden Years” seems to have a different feel. Perhaps Wendell’s got a few years on Billy. Perhaps a different motivation. “Perhaps his shoes were too tight.”

    The art that really takes me places seems to come from the older artists, though. Here again, not even all of them…

  10. Rick Stern

    I am sorry to come onto this entry rather late. But it strikes at the heart of what I have done most of my adult life: preach. The conflict is always present, in many ways and at many levels. The Word is presumably not my word, but it is delivered nonetheless through my words, each achingly chosen with as much care as I can muster. The tension comes in both discerning God’s Word for the moment in the biblical passage but also in the tension of how to recreate the intension of this text for a particular people in a particular place in a particular time. I have to speak the Word for them, the hearers, the people in the pew, not just for myself. As a preacher I am required to move outside my own interests. I am not a song writer but I suppose that one can write a song, or poem, paint a picture or carve a sculpture to please one’s self and for no other reason. But preaching is intended for hearing by others. And yet it must remain true to the Spirit which inspired it in the first place. Frankly, I have enjoyed this tension, this challenge, for more than 30 years, although it can be very tiring at times. It has kept me thinking, kept me praying, kept me working on being true both to the Spirit and to the people who gather to hear a proclaimed Word. I guess I could put it like this: Saying it in a way so that it can be heard is not the same as saying what someone might want to hear.

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