Preaching only vaguely resembles the process of teaching a college course or Sunday School class, both tasks that I’ve performed for decades. There are obvious similarities: in both preaching and teaching one is in front of a group of human beings and words are coming out of your mouth. But that’s where the similarity ends, because teaching a lesson is not the same as giving a speech. In teaching, there is often interaction with the audience: they’ll ask questions; you’ll wander off on bunny trails. It is a different environment, with different goals.
But with preaching, you’re essentially giving a speech of around 20 to 30 minutes. It must have a beginning, middle and end. It is designed to engage the audience and to effect some sort of change in them.
In order to get better at preaching I’ve done a few things—besides just the practice I get doing this week after week. Doing the same thing over and over again means I get better at whatever it is I’m already doing, but real improvement, really getting good at preaching—I needed training. So, the first thing I did—being an academic sort of person—was to get books on the topic. There are several textbooks that are used in seminaries that pastors in training read in their preaching classes, so I read five of them.
But simply reading about preaching was not enough; nor has it been enough that I’ve spent a lifetime watching and listening to preaching as a pew-sitter, since I had not listened to sermons with the thought of analyzing them and trying to figure out what worked and why. So I turned instead to some of the best, most interesting examples of public speaking that I could find. I started watching TED talks.
TED (which stands for Technology, Entertainment, and Design) is a set of conferences run by the nonprofit Sapling Foundation. Their slogan is “Ideas Worth Spreading.” Speakers are given a maximum of 18 minutes to present their ideas in as interesting and dynamic a way as they possibly can. Past speakers have included Richard Dawkins, Billy Graham, Bill Gates, Mike Rowe, Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Bono, Jane Goodall, and Bill Clinton. Educators, entertainers, scientists, artists, and Nobel Prize winners have been among the presenters. The talks are available to watch on their website (www.ted.com). More than 2400 talks are currently available for free viewing. By 2012 the talks had been viewed more than a billion times.
So, after having watched a few of those talks on a variety of topics, I learned that Tim Urban, who writes and illustrates the website “Wait But Why” had been tapped to do a TED talk—and he wrote an entire, very long entry on his website going into what it was like to do a TED talk, how he struggled to put it together, and what his methodology on doing it was, what worked and what didn’t. And then I got to watch his TED talk, so I could then see how it looked in the finished product.
The combination of the books on how to preach, combined with watching TED talks and learning how Tim Urban did his were very valuable to me. In the last two months I’ve become much better at preaching. Each week after I finish my wife and I discuss how it went and the feedback I get from her has also been very helpful.
As with getting better at anything one does in life, one of the keys is recognizing that you are not perfection on a plate, that you have flaws, and so you need to figure out what you’re doing wrong and fix it, and also to learn what you’re doing right and continue doing that and enhance it. When you approach any new task you need to have perseverance, a thick skin, and keep your ego out of the thing as much as you possibly can; you need to never take criticism personally, but instead use it to make yourself better.
I’m told that listening to yourself speak can be helpful, but for whatever reason I really, really do not want to watch myself. This, despite the fact that my wife has been recording each and every sermon I’ve done. In my own head, I fear that doing that might wind up being paralyzing for me; I’m well-enough acquainted from the inside with what I’m not doing right; I’m not sure I could actually stand watching it. I know that most professional actors and speakers really don’t like watching themselves and I seem to find myself with a similar attitude. So far, the methods I’ve used to improve have been enough; I’ll put off watching myself as long as I possibly can.