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The following are acceptable expressions that I have heard:

"Preaching to the choir"

"Preaching to the converted"

To me, both mean essentially that you are trying to explain something to someone who already understands it. So you are wasting your time. (Edit: Although GEdgar's definition is better: "Arguing a controversial subject only with those who already share your opinion")

My friend is suggesting that there is a subtle difference in the meaning between the two. Is he right?

Edit: He suggests that the former has the implied context that very few people are listening- preachers normally preach to a congregation. The latter does not.

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Sounds like you two aren't reading from the same hymn sheet... – Matt E. Эллен Jun 27 '12 at 8:42
Instead of: "explaining something to someone who already understands it" I would say: "arguing a controversial subject only with those who already share your opinion". – GEdgar Jul 18 '12 at 18:18
@GEdgar Ooh I like that. I've added it to the question. – Urbycoz Jul 19 '12 at 7:41
NB: I found the US expression very confusing when I first encountered it. In the chapels at my University the choir was generally the least religious group in the service since it was made up of people who liked to sing but might be atheists or at least without interest in religion. I think in many English churches it would be unusual to assume the choir was more religious than everyone else and in many cases less so. When I first heard "preaching to the choir" I assumed it meant the opposite of what it is intended to mean. – Francis Davey Dec 16 '14 at 15:42
up vote 3 down vote accepted

They are essentially synonymous, but some could read some subtlety.

Both a choir and the converted are "true" believers, and therefore don't need to be preached to. But the converted are those who did not believe before, and believe now, whereas the choir could be those who always believed.

I don't think this is necessarily a big difference, but you may choose one over the other depending on your exact context.

Also, the OED notes a geographical difference:

  • to preach to the converted and variants: to advocate something to people who already share one's convictions about its merits or importance. Also (orig. and chiefly U.S.) to preach to the choir.
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Hmm. But no one could have "always believed" something. There must have been some point in his life when he was convinced. He wasn't born believing anything. If you take the words literally, I suppose being in the choir implies some level of commitment to the cause: you're actually doing some work, standing in front of a crowd and proclaiming your beliefs, etc, while just being converted, you could sit silently at home and be converted. But it's not always meaningful to parse an idiom that closely. – Jay Jun 27 '12 at 16:09
@Jay: Well, many people have been brought up in a religious family and may not question their belief, and may not be able to pinpoint the moment they were convinced. And the converted may also show commitment in having made that conscious decision to convert and possibly are more enthusiastic than the "already-believers". But I agree too close analysis doesn't always help. – Hugo Jun 27 '12 at 17:26
I keep reading 'convinced' as 'convicted'. – Mitch Jul 18 '12 at 17:25

They are synonymous in their intended epigraphic meaning of 'exhorting people who are already convinced.

But there are some nuances.

  • 'choir' is 'Christian'-centric (part of many Christian services which is a special section of the congregation is the choir).

  • 'the converted' have a tendency to be more gung-ho than the life-time nothing-is-new members of the believers.

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I've always seen the difference as being that "preaching the choir" represents targeting people who have a stronger level of belief than the converted (with the congregation somewhere in between); since they've gone beyond simply being members to having made a commitment to attend regularly and participate in a more visible manor than the rest of the congregation.

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In most churches I have been in, the choir is behind the preacher so someone preaching to the choir has their back to their intended audience. Of course, I don't seriously believe that anyone uses the expression with that meaning in mind. Also, preaching to the converted is probably what normally happens in a church. Very few, if any, people at a church service are there to be converted but rather are there to enrich their conversion. So I would say that while the literal manifestation of "preaching to the choir" describes behaviour that would involve the preacher (inappropriately) turning his/her back on the audience (congregation), and "preaching to the converted" describes what normally happens in church services, neither really describes "to advocate something to people who already share one's convictions about its merits or importance" and the idea should probably be expressed a different way.

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But I'm probably just proselytizing the monks. – Jim Jun 15 '15 at 19:30

I've long understood that this idiom referred to the architectural meaning of "choir", namely the part of a church where a group of singers would perform. Thus "preaching to the choir" (occupied or not) meant to have no significant audience for one's argument, whereas "preaching to the converted" meant to try to convince those who already share your opinion.

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Do you have any evidence that your long understanding is commonly held? – deadrat Jan 3 at 13:17

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