5 Tips for Building Rapport

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?

  • Bob Whitesel

    Great insights Professor Luchetti.

    Your thoughts remind me of one of our Wesley Seminary graduates, Steve Wallace (MA in Ministry Leadership) of Baton Rouge, LA. Before he enrolled in our seminary, I had studied his emerging, organic church in Baton Rouge and wrote about it in a book. I found that his sermons were one of the strengths of this church, and he exhibited many of the things you have noted in your posting. Below is my case study analysis of his preaching. I thought some blog-readers might appreciate seeing how your principles are reflected in a student’s preaching practices. Bob W

    Baton Rouge, Louisiana

    Making Cultural Connections in Baton Rouge

    Through films, television, books, and the like, history and past experience are turned into a seemingly vast archive ‘instantly retrievable’…. The postmodern penchant for jumbling together all manner of references to past styles is one of its more pervasive characteristics.
    – David Harvey, author

    First Encounters:

    The road that a young organic church called Freeway took me down was not what I expected, for the sermon careened in a surprising direction. The first half was an analysis of film-clips from young comedians and their perspective on modern culture. Often stopping the playback Steve asked attendees to yell out the next line from the movies, and a rousing chorus reminded me that these people were well acquainted with the philosophy these young comedians espoused. But Steve didn’t stop there, he soon juxtapositioned the message in these movies with the Word of God, and thoughtfully demonstrated where they converged and where they diverged.


    Church: Freeway
    Leaders: Steve Wallace (pastor), David Loti (worship leader)
    Location: Prairieville, Louisiana; a suburb of Baton Rouge
    Affiliation: Nondenominational
    Size: 65 +
    Audience: Artists, post-moderns, multiple generations, and pre-Christians – people who are spiritually sensitive.
    Website: http://www.freewaybr.com

    A Fusion of Rhythms:

    Shared Rhythms

    The Rhythm of Place
    The environment at Freeway reminded me of many other organic churches. The auditorium was lit only with candles, and refreshments were available and enjoyed throughout the evening. Informal gatherings of young people milled around the auditorium enjoying one another’s fellowship so much so that few save your author noticed that the worship service started 25 minutes late. An unhurried, but communal feel pervaded this church even before the worship celebration began.

    The Rhythm of Worship
    The worship also mirrored what I had seen in many organic congregations. The worship leaders eschewed all sense of artificial and synthetic trappings, commencing worship with an earnest and humble song of spiritual longing. In the low light of a myriad of candles, the simple words of spiritual yearning, hunger, and need pierced my heart as deeply as the song leader’s plain if put irregular vocalization. His vocal interpretation accompanied by a simple guitar rendered the words even more poignant and piercing. Within minutes this worship celebration led me into an encounter with my own fickle heart, and with a generous God who looks beyond my inadequacies.

    Inspired Rhythms

    Inspired Rhythms of Discipleship and the Word
    Steve Wallace’s topic that night was “Why do we laugh at other people?” and his message began with a look at what he called “the four voices of our generation.” Expecting to hear homilies by poets, philosophers or lyricists, I was surprised when on the screen appeared the faces of comedians Jim Carrey, Ben Stiller, Adam Sandler and Will Farrell. “These are the people who are telling you what to think” continued Steve, “and I want you to understand what they’re saying.”
    For the next 25 minutes Steve dissected some of the funniest scenes I have ever witnessed. Steve pointed out that though hilarious, each scene depicted a way that people often heap ego-driven humiliation upon less fortunate people. After a few minutes I was embarrassed to laugh at these depictions, even though they brimmed with hilarity. Steve had helped me see something deeper, that these scenarios were often crafted at the expense of the less fortunate and were creating a the youth culture less sensitive and compassionate.

    Launching into a lesson supported with biblical texts, Steve argued that Jesus stands in solidarity with the disenfranchised. Steve skillfully turned the topic from the comedic vignettes of urban legend, to the lasting principles of God’s Word which call us to demonstrate compassion and action toward the disadvantaged.

    At the conclusion, I wondered how the message might have been driven home had Steve not commenced with film clips. In fact, his choice of comedic clips had led me to be subtly swept away by my more impious desire to laugh at others’ expense. As a result, the lesson came home more convincingly than I expected.

    In addition, I had been guided by this sermon into a deeper look into the intersection of culture and God’s Word. The topic reminded me that a cross-cultural communicator must cautiously study and sift culture, being wary not to be corrupted by it, but engaged enough to understand it as a missionary might a foreign way of life.

    An Interview with My Tour Guide

    Steve Wallace (pastor)
    Why do you utilize film-clips of young comedians?

    I was trying to connect with young people in my sermons, to make an intersection. And, they all know these films. I don’t mean to offend, but Adam, Sandler, Ben Stiller, Will Farrell, and Jim Carey are the four evangelists of our time. There is a reason why the young people know whole passages of dialogue from their movies; because they are addressing the big issues of life, death, purpose, and the future. If we are going to explain Biblical truths to young people, we must understand their beliefs and where they came from.

    What was the result?

    My research into these movies led to a 12 sermon series that dealt with loyalty, friendship , leadership, trust, family, stress, anger, the future, and God. Adam, Ben, Will and Jim often produce, write, and direct; and what they present is their take on life. We have to sift though this, and not just accept everything. And we also have to understand and affirm the stuff that is valid.

    What did you find applicable in these movies?

    Movies such as The Majestic, the Truman Show, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind are disturbing films that cause you to look hard at spiritual issues. For example, Ben Stiller’s film “50 First Dates” with Drew Barrymore, has a powerful closing scene that demonstrates unconditional love. Drew has brain damage and can’t recall short-term memories. Ben Stiller falls in love with her, but each day has to reintroduce himself. She is an artist and one day takes him to her studio which it is full of portraits of him. She realizes that though she can’t remember it, he has been an integral part of her life and essence. What a wonderful picture of how God paints knowledge of Him into our lives.

    Any parting advice?

    Yes, I don’t think you should take film clips out of context. I personally find it offensive when people take scriptures out of context. So I make sure I let my audience know I understand what Adam, Ben, Will and Jim are trying to say. This gives me a degree of integrity with my audience. I’m not there to trash their stars. But I am there to make a point, and that is the Word of God has the answers to many of the questions that these comedians are asking.

    3 Lessons to Consider

    Lesson 1:
    Carefully investigate and examine elements of a culture. Since modern culture is constantly adjusting and metamorphosing, the task of translating the Good News without surrendering its truth or disfiguring it is paramount and ongoing. This arduous task begins with thorough and careful examination of a culture. Anthropologist Paul Hiebert described culture as, “an integrated system of learned patterns of behavior, ideas and products characteristic of a society.” Scrutiny of such an elaborate system is not for an immature Christian, since it requires investigating and evaluating a culture without being tainted by its more sordid elements.

    However, a failure by Christian communicators to sufficiently investigate modern culture can make us look irrelevant. In an earlier book I interviewed Larry Osborne, pastor of North Coast Church in Vista, California. Larry told me the phenomenal growth of the church was in part because he regularly studies modern culture by perusing secular business, entertainment, and lifestyle magazines. “If I don’t understand the business world, when a businessperson talks to me about his or her world, its like were using two different dictionaries.” The use of disparate dictionaries can also dilute an exchange of ideas with the young culture.

    Therefore stay current with today’s youth culture by cautiously scrutinizing their books, music, movies, music videos, computer games, web-sites, web-blogs, etc.. While the truths of the Good News must never be sacrificed nor altered, connecting and contrasting it with today’s youth culture can make it more comprehensible.

    Lesson 2:
    Sift happens! Sift elements of a culture. There is a tension between Christ and culture that must be examined. Richard Niebuhr in his classic treatise Christ and Culture suggested that there are several ways to look at Christ’s interaction with culture.

    One is “Christ against culture” a view embraced by the early church father Tertullian. In this view culture is seen as evil, thus requiring Christians to withdraw and insulate themselves, resulting in a monastic response. Charles Kraft exposes three fallacies in this view, demonstrating it is not in keeping Paul’s view that “nothing is unclean of itself” (Romans 14:14).

    Another view Niebuhr called “Christ Above Culture” which he divided into sub-categories. “Christ Above Culture in Synthesis” was held by Thomas Aquinas and views Jesus as the restorer of institutions of true society. This view believes that Christianity will one day totally transform culture, perhaps into a millennial peace. In another sub-category, “Christ Above Culture in Paradox,” Christ is seen above but in such tension with culture that a messy, muddled relationship results. Martin Luther grappled with this perspective, as did modern writer Mike Yaconelli who called this “messy spirituality.”

    However, a more valid sub-category may be “Christ Above but Transformer of Culture.” Embraced by Augustine, John Calvin, and John Wesley this view sees culture as corrupt but convertible. Kraft built upon this his position called “Christ above but working through culture,” explaining that “God chooses the cultural milieu in which humans are immersed as the arena of his interaction with people.” Eddie Gibbs further elaborates that “such an approach represents a deliberate self-limiting on the part of God in order to speak in understandable terms and with perceived relevance on the part of the hearer. He acts redemptively with regard to culture, which includes judgment on some elements, but also affirmation in other areas, and a transformation of the whole.”

    If the “Christ above but working through culture” truly defines the tension and nexus between Christ and culture, then the job of the Christian communicator becomes challenging if not precarious. Therefore, our strategy must not conclude simply with step 1, investigating and examining culture, but also must continue through step 2, sifting and judging its elements. Here the prudent communicator must make qualitative judgments based upon Scripture, ethics, personal belief and the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

    Lesson 3:
    Reject or affirm elements of culture. The end result of this examination or sifting, must be a rejection of elements in conflict with Christ, but also an affirmation of those elements that are not so. I found that leaders of the organic church usually sift carefully through the movies, television shows, music, games, online resources and literature of young people. And they routinely explain in their sermons how God judges some aspects of postmodern culture, accepts other elements such as an emphasis on helping the needy, and has as a goal the transformation of the whole.

    The Christian communicator wishing to make the Good News relevant today must carefully examine the media barrage engulfing young people, understand its messages, while at the same time sifting elements that are opposed to Christ and identifying touchstones that can make connections with unchurched peopled. Freeway’s use of comedic film clips to underscore or juxtaposition God’s Word and contemporary culture has helped this organic congregation connect the Good News to unchurched young people.


    1. David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change (London: Blackwell Publishers, 1989), p. 62-63.

    2. Paul Hiebert, Cultural Anthropology (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 1983), p. 25.

    3. Bob Whitesel, Growth By Accident, Death By Planning, op. cit., p. 26.

    4. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (New York: Harper and Row, 1951), pp. 45-229. The second view is beyond the scope of our discussion. Labeled by Niebuhr “Christ of culture,” it was embraced by early Gnostic heretics. They interpreted Christ through cultural trends, rejecting any claims of Christ that conflicted with their culture. Counter to this, Isaiah 55:8 reminds us that God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, or our ways his ways.

    5. Charles H. Kraft, Christianity in Culture, (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1979), pp. 105-106.

    6. Kraft, ibid., pp. 108-115 sees five subdivisions of the “Christ Above Culture” position. However, for this discussion only three are required. The reader seeking more exhaustive insights will benefit from a careful exploration of Kraft’s work.

    7. Mike Yaconelli, Messy Spirituality (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2002). Yaconelli’s viewpoint has been popular among postmodern Christians, And, before his untimely death, Yaconelli was in demand as a lecturer. Young people often saw in his perspective one more in keeping with their untidy journey towards discipleship. To understand the angst and anxiety many young people sense today between their Christian understanding and their vacillating demeanor, see Yaconelli’s insightful volume.

    8. Charles H. Kraft, Christianity in Culture, p. 113.

    9. ibid., p. 114.

    10. Eddie Gibbs, I Believe in Church Growth, (Grand Rapids, Mich,: Eerdmans, 1981), p. 92.

    11. In my travels through the organic church, I found it’s leaders usually approached the rejection or affirmation of cultural elements in a circumspect and serious manner. Whether it was the “discothèque clubbers” of England who had to decide at what point youthful fashions became lewd, or the film clips that Freeway employed to illustrate a point; young organic leaders typically see the rejection of base elements of culture as not only required, but judicious.