Preaching From Weakness

This is Kevin Powell. I don't know anything about him, and he's not on here for any reason other than because he's a handsome fellow.

If you read my post on CEO Jesus, you know that I have a minor obsession with the strengths-based, leadership culture.  And since I’ve recently begun preaching a lot more often, I’ve been reflecting more and more about my own strengths.  If you know me, you know that I struggle with pride, which in a lot of ways is a quest for affirmation/approval from other people.

And whether they’re just being nice or not, a lot of people tell me I’m an excellent communicator.  And I take pride in that because I work hard on crafting my communication pieces – both in the study and the proclamation.

And there’s my greatest temptation to pride.  The gathering I’m leading right now, EPIC, was formed to communicate the truth and power of the Gospel to persons who are (in our vernacular) “dechurched” and “unchurched” – that is, those who have had negative experiences with the Church and those who have never been exposed to Jesus and his Church.  When I craft a piece of communication (whether it’s a small group study, a discussion gathering, a prayer, responsive reading or teaching/preaching piece), I keep in mind that I’m speaking to these persons – using language that, while full of meaning to the believers who are gathered to worship, is also understandable and accessible to a person who is unfamiliar with what’s happening.

My problem is that it’s really easy for me to forget that and prepare talks that are meant to impress other Christians.

I can actually do this in real life. What's that? No, I'm not going to show you. I'm not your dancing monkey.We have a lot of visitors to EPIC week in and week out, and a lot of them are ‘church-shopping’ – they’re already believers and are trying to find a church that ‘meets their needs’.  These are also the people who are most likely to come talk to me after our gathering, to tell me what they thought of my communication.  And, God help me, I get (a sick) pleasure when they tell me that I’m better than another minister.

And not only do I feel pressure to entertain, I want to because deep down inside, I want to be the best speaker in town.

Of course that’s fed by the celebrity culture that’s developing in the Evangelical Church at large – we want to find a pastor who’s just like Rob Bell or Erwin McManus or Andy Stanley or Mark Driscoll.  But now consider Paul’s words to the Corinthians:

When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom.  For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.  And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling.  My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God. – 1 Corinthians 2:1-5*

Paul was (apparently) not a very strong speaker, at least compared to some of the other guys he was up against.  And the Corinthians (apparently) were being swayed by other speakers who presented their version of the Gospel more eloquently.  But Paul reminds them in this portion of the letter (beginning back in chapter 1) that the Gospel doesn’t rest on human excellence – quite the opposite in fact.  The Gospel is for the poor in spirit, the broken, the humble, the least of these.  We shouldn’t rely on our skills to proclaim the mystery of Jesus – to do so is to negate the power of the Gospel.  Our communication needs to be full of our own journeys towards (and with) Jesus.  We need to be communicating from places of weakness, where God is working in us, changing and transforming us.  If we’re not, then we’re no better than the so-called super-apostles Paul condemned.

I’m afraid this is a tension I’ll always feel – I desperately want only to do the best job I can, utilize the gifts and talents God has given me to share the power of the Gospel in the clearest and most compelling way possible to those who do not know Jesus.  But I’ll always be tempted to start thinking more about becoming a preaching celebrity and putting on a show for the Christians who are evaluating how well I stack up.

At the end of the day, I don’t want to be concerned with what church shoppers think of my talks.  I want to spend my energy proclaiming the mystery of Jesus’ death and resurrection to those who have not heard.

Am I alone here?  Sometimes I feel like I’m crazy thinking these things.

*For the record, I don’t have room here to discuss how this passage has been abused in recent years by certain super-apostles in the contemporary Church.

Practice Makes Perfect!

For the record: I was way better than this kid.Clichés become cliché for a reason, and “Practice makes Perfect” is no different.  I grew up playing baseball, and you could always tell the teams that practiced from those who didn’t.  My team usually had brutal (to a 10-year-old) 2 hour practices that included such glamorous activities as running laps, playing catch and fielding ground-balls.  Over and over and over.  And over.  But of course we became a better team for it.  Activities that first required concentration and effort became second-nature.  We gained more endurance, became a stronger, more focused team for it.  This is the beauty of practice for a sports team.

I’ve found the same is true for speaking as well.  When I first began to give talks, I did not practice.  I thought that somehow that made my talks inauthentic.  Of course, that’s a real danger of being well-rehearsed.  We can become slaves to the practice, let ourselves become locked into the structures and styles we practiced.  But that is an abuse of practice.  It’s serving the system rather than making the system (the practice) serve us.

Good practice makes for a better talk.

Going over your material, organizing it and understanding its flow is essential to good communication.  Some of what you have in your notes will not translate well into an oral delivery.  If you use any sort of alliteration or physical examples, working through your presentation a few times will help you to get your flow right, so you don’t end up with dead, Listen to yourself.  You'll be amazed what you hear!awkward space in your message.  Running through your material three to four times out loud before you deliver it can smooth out your transitions and work out any kinks you have in the structure you have built.  I often rearrange whole pieces of my talk after running through it a few times because I can hear a better way to communicate it.

Where do you practice?  I usually use my office or living room, though I know that some people try to use the actual space they’ll be in.  I’ve also found it very helpful to run through my material in front of other persons (my awesome wife usually hears a sermon I give at least three times) so they can give me constructive feedback – what was confusing, what worked well, etc.

Practice done well frees us to live in the moment of the delivery.

I find that the more I’ve practiced a talk, the more free I feel when I am delivering it.  I can respond to my audience more comfortably.  I can improvise without being afraid that I’ll lose my place.  Because the material has become second nature to me.  The message has become a part of who I am.  So as a consequence, the hours I put into practicing my delivery help me to become more authentic, not less.  And I’m not saying that it’s perfect, but it’s at least a heck of a lot better!

Do you practice for your talks?  What does it look like for you?  If you don’t, why not?  What does your process look like?

Your Flair

What do you think of a person who just does the minimum?Last week, I wrote about using specific, concrete examples to help your audience better grasp your point.  Today, I want to explore that further.

The best content in the world won’t change your audience if they can’t connect to your message.  That’s why the crafting of your talk itself is as important as the crafting of the content.  With a little practice, you can add flair to your talk that will engage your audience and help them to connect to your content in transformational, worldview-shifting ways.  I want to focus briefly on three:

  1. The words you use are key.  As Mark Twain said, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.”  Using (but not over-using) alliteration can add a touch of poetic artistry, improve your audience’s ability to assimilate.  If you can sum up your talk in one clear, simple point, repeat it as often as you can in the talk (while it still feels natural).
  2. Be aware of how your body is moving.  Are you walking?  Are you sitting?  What are your arms doing?  Does the way your body moves emphasize or detract from your point?  A great, quick read on this is Malcolm Gladwell’s article “What the Dog Saw”, available in his book of the same name.
  3. Finally, can you use your environment to your advantage?  I gave a talk about Jesus as the light of the world in John 1 and its connection to Genesis 1.  We used the lighting in the worship space to illuminate my point – shutting them off and turning them back on in sequence at specific points throughout the rest of my talk.  It proved to be quite effective in cementing my point in the audience’s mind.  Another time, in a talk on Jesus’ third temptation, I used Guitar Hero as an example.  I used a Guitar Hero guitar on stage and had our worship pastor come out and play some songs to help me make my point.  Don’t even get me started on the adultery smoothie.

The point of all of this is not to create needless spectacle.  Rather, it’s to connect our audience to our content on more than just the aural level.  The more points of contact we created to our content, the more likely our audience is to take what we communicate to them home with us, to make our message a part of themselves.

What concrete examples have you created in your talks?  What strategies have you found most effective?

Speaking of… Concrete

In this series, I’m exploring some of the techniques I’ve learned to make a speaking presentation more effective.

Looks like a delicious pudding... or a DEADLY one!

I am very much a ‘big picture’ type of person.  I don’t like to focus on the nitty-gritty, the practical, the ‘application’ of a talk.  Unfortunately for me, that’s where – in my experience – most of my listeners camp out.  So over the past couple of years, I’ve been working on making my talks more tangible, more down-to-earth (and, for the record, I’m blessed with a wife who lives in that world, so she’s been a fantastic teacher).  Here’s what I’ve learned:
Your audience isn’t going to be able to grasp a lot of the less tangible, big-picture ideas without some help.  It’s not because they’re dumb.  It’s because they are – more than likely – novices compared to you.  If you’re speaking, it’s most likely because someone thought you had something new or fresh to bring to their worlds.  You’re the expert.  And you’re afflicted with what Chip and Dan Heath (in their incredible book Made to Stick) call the “Curse of Knowledge”.

You can’t remember what it’s like not to know.

I study New Testament.  I’ve know what the Synoptic Problem is for so long, I can’t remember what it’s like not to know that Matthew, Mark and Luke all read like basically the same story, that they use a lot of the same phrasings, and that Matthew and Luke have all this extra material Mark doesn’t that we’ve labeled Q.  But introduce a person who’s grown up in Church but never studied the Gospels scholastically to that concept and s/he’ll only see a big, scary mess (which, to be fair, is how most of us feel about the Jesus Seminar).

One key to overcoming the Curse of Knowledge is using concrete, tangible examples.

Is this too busy?  I like numbers and shapes!Dr. Steve Friesen is a master at this when it comes to New Testament.  I taught under him for two years, and the first year we taught Mark, then Matthew, then John then Luke-Acts, and introduced the Synoptic Problem during the Matthew section.  Students struggled to understand how Mark and Matthew were so similar – all they could see were the differences (Mark has no birth or post-resurrection narratives, almost no parables, etc.).

The next year, he switched it up – we did Mark, John, Matthew, and still introduced the Synoptic Problem with Matthew’s material.  But this time, the students themselves noticed the ‘problem’.  After reading Mark and John, they immediately noticed how similar Matthew was, and began asking questions!  It was really incredible.  I’ve also noticed that graphics like the one over there <— help more visual students to understand the relationships among the Synoptics.  In fact, the more methods of communicating you can use, the better.  Repetition is the key to memory!

Beautiful, is it not?  This is what your talk can look like.  Well, you know what I mean.Another friend of mine who is especially good at making abstract concepts very understandable is Henry Imler.  Henry teaches philosophy and religion in Columbia, MO.  He constantly uses all sorts of images – especially comics – to illustrate complex philosophic ideas to his students.  Check out his blog for some great examples!

So, here’s the bottom line: concrete, practical examples can draw your listeners into your core message.

Is this something you do regularly?  What are some of the best strategies you’ve found for overcoming the Curse of Knowledge?

Noteworthy Accomplishments (of Note)

Certainly if you only have one point, then keeping your talk organized is going to be a little bit easier.  But I’ve found it’s still a great idea to use some sort of notes to keep your thoughts in order and moving forward.

One of the biggest challenges I face as a communicator is the desire I have to over-communicate, to chase tangents.  It’s not a bad thing, necessarily.  We want to provide a fuller picture of what we’re discussing, so we jump from topic to topic.

Notes keep you focused on the simple point you’re making.

Post It

How do you decide what kind of notes to use?  I started out using an outline, but I’ve since moved to manuscript (where I type out my entire talk).  I’m more comfortable with the manuscript because – after I’ve practiced several times – I can follow it easily.  Even better, if I have a thought or point I want to express in a particular way, with a certain wording, I have it written (or sometimes bolded) in my manuscript.  If you’re a visual person, try the strategy another friend of mine uses.  He draws a series of pictures that illustrate the flow of his thoughts.

What matters is that you find an easy way to keep your thoughts focused.

Do you use notes?  What are some tips you’ve found for keeping yourself on track and on task when you communicate?

Speaking of… Conversations on the Road

How often do you speak or teach?  Or how often do you communicate ideas to someone else in the hopes that they’ll change their thinking or behavior?

I’ve been writing and delivering talks for about 6 years now in a pretty full-time capacity (on at least a weekly basis).   That means I’ve probably prepared over 600 little nuggets of wisdom that some poor souls were fortunate (?) enough to endure.

Because believe me, most of them have been pretty rough.  And while I’ve wrestled with the content of my talks/lessons/studies/sermons/discussions/etc. as long as I’ve been speaking, it’s only been in the past couple of years that I’ve really put much effort into the style of my talks, the way I deliver them.  And I have to say that as I’ve put more work into the style, the degree to which my audience absorbs and adopts my content has improved dramatically.

I’ve learned that just saying something true isn’t enough to change someone’s life.  We have to learn how to say it well.

So over the next few weeks, I wanted to reflect on some of the lessons I’ve learned in the past few years about speaking.  And whether you’re a speaker or not, I hope you find some stuff that will help you communicate better.  And share your tips with me!

Today, just this:

Who you’re addressing should affect what you say.

One of the study groups I put together in Guatemala in order to figure out where they were.When I prepare a talk, I look at it as a journey.  I am usually trying to convince you (my audience) of the truthfulness of an idea, or the worthiness of a practice to be implemented in your life.  So as I prepare, I think about what your thoughts and opinions are.  In most of my speaking engagements so far, I have been able to assume (rightly, as it turns out) that most of my audience are on the same basic journey that I had to go on, so I have been able to craft my talks so that they follow my own journey of discovering this particular truth or practice.

But one time…

Two of the youth workers with whom I got to bum around Quetzaltenango for two days. I was invited to speak at a pastors’ conference in Guatemala, and when they found out that I was a youth minster, they scheduled a youth rally.  They asked me to speak three times on youth ministry – once to the Guatemalan youth workers, once at the youth rally and once to the senior pastors about Youth Ministry.

I was excited, but also at a loss.  I had no idea what Guatemalan culture, Church culture or Youth culture were like.  What struggles they faced or what questions they were asking. 

We landed in Guatemala City and spent a day traveling to Quetzaltenango on the other side of the country.  Our driver, Carlos, was the head of the Guatemalan Baptist Youth Conference, so I was able to question him a bit.  But I really wasn’t able to write my talks until the following night, after I was able to share a room with the Guatemalan youth workers.  We spent a couple of hours just talking about how they do ministry and what their challenges are.  I learned that almost every ministry there faced two common problems:

  1. The persons they invited to their church communities didn’t come back.
  2. Their senior pastors would not let them implement creative, nontraditional strategies for sharing the Gospel.

I spent the first night, then, teaching on a model of community that encouraged return visits.  And the next day, I spoke with the pastors about creative, nontraditional incarnations of the Gospel in Guatemala (and that talk was followed by 45 minutes of questions and answers).

Because I learned their journeys, I was able to communicate effectively a message they needed and wanted to hear.

As I consider who my audience is and where they are on the conceptual journey I want to travel with them, I am able to craft my talk in such a way as to invite them on that journey with me.  My steps become their steps.

And because I invite them to engage my material this way, they are more likely to own my conclusions as their own.  They don’t just take my word for it; they have walked this road themselves.

So when you speak, who is your audience?  And what are you doing to lead them to your conclusions (as opposed to standing at the end of the road and yelling at them to catch up)?