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
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    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
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    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

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
  • I’ve always found the choir version to be rather odd – around these parts, if you ask the members of a given church choir, there’s a good chance the majority are non-believers who just sing in the choir for practice or money. In that vein, the possible distinction to me has always been that preaching to the converted is sure to be preaching to someone who believes, whereas preaching to the choir may not be. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Dec 25 '18 at 20:22

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 learned that "preaching to the choir" meant no one else was in the pews, so to speak. while "preaching to the converted" meant to those already reached.

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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 '16 at 13:17

I always understood "to the choir" to be a U.S. expression, "to the converted" to be English, exactly the same context, but dependent upon which an individual used would point to his own geographical origins.

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"Preaching to the converted" is essentially what it says, ie trying to justify something to people who already share your opinion, so the idiom is to express the point that there is no actual need to say anything.

"Preaching to the choir" is the United States version, which means exactly the same thing, and which several English people (ie Richard Dawkins) use, since his predominant target audience are Christians in the US (the UK is already quite an Atheist country) so he uses the American idiom.

As is common with American versions of English idioms, the American version does not actually make sense, since preaching to anyone in a church would suggest that they are already believers, so "preaching to the choir" would suggest that preaching to the congregation, or to the choir would somehow be different and it is this apparent ambiguity which is causing so much of the confusion in the above answers.

The English version is quite obvious as "the converted" would be people that you would not need to preach to. Much of the confusion in many of the answers seems to stem from this basic lack of clarity in the American version. The intention and meaning of both is identical - there are no subtle differences as people seem to be stating - but the American version just contains ambiguities and is just less clear.

Another example of such a poor American idiom is to say eg "I could care less" when the English idiom is "I couldn't care less", which actually means that I do not care at all, hence I couldn't care less. The American idiom which is supposed to mean the same, actually means the complete oposite, since if one could care less, then one must care some non-zero amount. In fact one could care a great deal and could still say "I could care less", so in fact the American idiom actually means the complete opposite of what is actually said.

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    This is not an answer, but a rant about how American idioms are inferior to British ones. And in fact, one that doesn't make any sense, because one assumes that the choir (who spend a significant amount of time practicing and come every Sunday) are more dedicated than the rest of the congregation, many of whom may just attend church on occasional Sundays. – Peter Shor Jul 28 '18 at 11:29
  • It is not a rant, but an explanation of why many respondents are claim subtle nuance where none exists. Indeed you do the same by postulating how choirs are more religious than the rest etc, which is complete nonsense - a choir need be no more religious than anyone else but are better singers. In cathedrals etc the choir are typically choir scholars from the local cathedral school chosen for their singing ability. The suggestion that they are more religious is plainly ludicrous. Your suggestion depends on interpretation, the English idiom does not. Dedication does not equate to religiosity. – jamspandex Jul 29 '18 at 13:33
  • If it's not a rant, why on earth do you bring could care less into your answer? The English probably use just as many nonsensical idioms, such as cheap at half the price when cheap at twice the price is the only version that makes any sense. – Peter Shor Jul 29 '18 at 13:45
  • Thanks, I included it as an example since many people seemed to be getting bogged down with nuance which simply did not not exist when discussing the American version because it was unclear - of course you are absolutely right about "cheap at half the price". I don't know of any american idioms which make sense where the English version does not, if you know any I would be genuinely interested to hear. Perhaps someone should post some questions for why some idioms (English and US) don't make sense. I would be interested in knowing why we say "cheap at half" rather than "cheap at twice". – jamspandex Jul 30 '18 at 14:49
  • In the U.S., cheap at twice the price is considerably more common than cheap at half the price. In England, it's the other way around. See Google Ngrams. – Peter Shor Jul 30 '18 at 16:53

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