What separates the best communicators from the rest? Is it simply God-given talent? A spiritual gift of teaching or prophecy? Is it personality? Or is it something else?
These were the questions beginning to swirl around in my head as I read Geoff Colvin's fascinating book, Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else.
And maybe even more than that was a more foundational question: does what he is arguing apply to preaching? And if so, how far does it go?
Colvin's work is backed by research. It's not just a thought-leader book. It's a research-based argument for a very specific way of seeing the development of the best "performers" in any industry. And to take it a step further, what he shows is how any of us can adopt the same tactics and work toward improving what we do in any industry.
Is Preaching Talent Overrated?
Our common belief about talent (in any area of life) is predominantly the idea that someone who performs at a "world-class" level was simply born with that kind of innate talent - that whatever that thing is that they are "world-class" at came easy to them.
But what if that's not exactly true?
Colvin argues convincingly that anyone who is great at something didn't just stand up and let their talent take over. No. There's something far less exciting going on.
But then again, the more I think about it the more I realize that it IS exciting news. Especially for us preachers.
If the research shows that no one - not Tiger Woods, not Mozart, not Jack Welch or any other uber "talented" person - just simply arrived as a great performer in their industry, what made them become what they became?
It took years and years of what Colvin calls deliberate practice.
It takes time to develop into a great "fill in the blank" no matter how we fill that blank in. The answer is the same. It takes deliberate practice to approach the status of world class in anything.
And here's where some may get upset: the same is true for preaching.
Do I believe that God gifts us with spiritual gifts? Absolutely!
Do I believe that He is the one who gets the glory? Absolutely!
Do I believe that the preaching moment belongs to the Holy Spirit working through a broken piece of pottery - you and me? Yep!
At the same time, I also believe that we must develop those gifts in order for them to manifest fully.
I believe that we have a responsibility to fan into flame the gift God gave us.
I believe that we must work to improve in the art and craft of biblical preaching,
An acorn has the potential to become a large oak tree. But in order for it to grow, it has to be cultivated and cared for.
The same is true for our preaching.
Think about it: are you a better preacher today than you were the first time you stepped into the pulpit? Of course, you are. By simply getting reps, over time, we can improve tremendously.
But what Colvin shows is that there is a way to maximize our development - even as preachers.
Elements of Deliberate Practice
If we want to become better preachers, it requires us to engage in deliberate practice. So the question is, what is that?
I'm glad you asked.
Colvin outlines the following elements of deliberate practice:
It's designed specifically to improve performance
Colvin advocates here for the utilization of a coach.
He also says, "deliberate practice requires that one identify certain sharply defined elements of performance that need to be improved and then work intently on them."
It can be repeated a lot
Feedback on results is continuously available
It's highly demanding mentally
It isn't much fun
Here's his overarching point: "Practice is designed, so it can be designed well or badly."
Avoiding Auto-Pilot Preaching
One of the greatest benefits of engaging in the difficult task of deliberate practice is that it helps us avoid the third stage of development where the task at hand becomes automatic.
For example, do you think about all the mechanics of driving? Probably not. You do them automatically. But this isn't a good environment for improvement. It's a great environment for a slow decline.
And the same can be said for our preaching when we don't engage in deliberate practice. When we don't intentionally work to improve how we deliver messages, when we don't look for ways to prepare better, when we don't stretch ourselves when we sit down to write a message, we are setting ourselves up for a slow decline over time instead of constant improvement over time.
This is Good News, Friend.
This means that any of us, no matter our personality, no matter our experience level, you and me, friend, we can improve in our preaching.
And if we want to get serious, we can improve tremendously.
But it won't be easy.
It will be difficult.
It will stretch us.
We'll have to be intentional.
We'll likely need a coach to get us going.
But it can happen.
I'm convinced that our best preaching days are ahead of us.
Do you believe it?
If you're with me on this, let's get into some specific ways we can improve in our preaching.
5 Great Ways to Level-Up Your Preaching
1. Watch and Learn From Comedians!
Think about it. In our day and time, there are only two consistent places people will go to simply listen to someone talk: church and a comedy club.
And here's the thing: comedians are master communicators. They have to be. They stand up and talk for an hour about nothing in particular and yet they are able to hold people's attention while simultaneously giving them an ab workout from their gut-busting jokes.
We could learn a lot from comedians if we took the time to pay attention.
So one of my best out-of-the-box recommendation for developing as a preacher, specifically in the area of delivery, is to watch and learn from comedians.
If you want to deliver the sermon better, you can expect to learn this from comedians:
How to use facial expressions to communicate more than words
How body language can be used intentionally
How to use your voice to communicate with more thrust
How to harness the power of the pause
How to powerfully tell a story
How to notice everyday life's teachable moments
There are certainly more things we can learn from comedians, but those will give us a start toward what to watch for when we go to them to learn.
2. Record (Preferably Video) Your Sermons Then Watch, Dissect, and Critique Them!
This is something I've intuitively done since I began preaching. In fact, it was instilled in me from my first preaching class taught by Dr. David Ray at Cincinnati Christian University. If you want to improve, then make sure your preaching is recorded so that you can go back and watch it with a purpose.
Yes, I'm big on getting your sermons on video so that you can better extend the sermon past Sunday by utilizing social media, but what I'm advocating here doesn't require a setup that would necessarily even go out to the public. You could just have someone record it on a smartphone. Why? Because the goal is for you to simply see what happened.
As you are watching yourself, here are ten questions to consider:
Is my focus more on my notes or more on the congregation?
Am I bringing energy and passion or am I lacking either one? Both?
Did I preach the Bible faithfully?
Did I weave the gospel throughout the sermon?
How well were my illustrations? How could I improve them if I were using them again?
Was the application of the text natural and faithful to the text and life today?
How well did I use the power of body language and movement?
Did I let it all go in the hands of the Holy Spirit or was I depending on my own strength?
Did I portable-ize the big idea of the sermon?
How well did I land the plane at the end? What could have been better?
3. Listen to more preaching from a variety of preachers!
If we want to constantly improve as preachers, we must be students of preaching. And one of the simplest ways of doing that is to listen to more preaching. But one of the things that will help even more is to not just listen to a few of your favorite preachers, rather listen to a wide variety of preachers.
If you're not sure who to listen to, here's a list of preachers to listen to (who you may not have heard of).
Recently, I got a new phone (rejoined team iPhone, WOOT!) and that meant I had an opportunity to completely reset my podcasting subscriptions. I added Epiphany Fellowship (Dr. Eric Mason), The Rock Church (Miles McPherson), Transformation Church (Derwin Gray), and Calvary Church (Skip Heitzig) to my subscriptions.
I highly recommend you listen to pastors who don't fully align with you theologically or methodologically. We can learn from anyone.
So let's be students of the craft. We'll be better for it.
4. Read more Scripture and theology!
In order to continually develop as a preacher, we must continually develop our ability to think well. We must be in the word. We must constantly go to the feet of Jesus and listen to Him.
If we want to have better content, we have to cultivate our hearts and minds with the word of God.
As far as theology books, I typically opt for reading authors who are already in glory with the Lord, but one of my favorite books in the last year or so was The King Jesus Gospel by Scot McKnight. So good!
Read widely. Read systematic theology and biblical theology. Then read books on specific theological topics. Read apologetics and books on public theology. Read authors you're not familiar with and ones you are. And read authors you disagree with and ones you agree with.
5. Get a preaching coach!
Everyone could use a coach. Because a coach can show us things we weren't thinking of. A coach can point out things we weren't noticing. A coach can put us through a process that will develop us.
A coach could be a retired pastor who attends your church.
They could be a Seminary professor teaching a preaching course you're enrolled in.
They could be a pastor who wrote a book on preaching that you're reading.
Or they could be a pastor (or a couple pastors) who put together an online preaching course (much cheaper than Seminary, just FYI).
As we've already seen, deliberate practice is the best way to develop your preaching skills. And when that deliberate practice is designed well, it will take you much further in your development than you would have been able to go without it.
Open enrollment is happening now for Sticky Sermons Academy and we couldn't be more excited.
In the academy, you'll learn how to:
Develop an efficient and effective sermon prep process that is unique to your context and your wiring
Take your preaching calendar to the next level
Building a sticky sermon week in and week out
Hook your congregation with the power of storytelling and how to tell stories well
Deliver your sermons in an engaging, compelling, and powerful way
Preach the gospel in every message
Build your own sermon research and preaching teams
Give your sermon life past Sunday by leveraging technology
We really believe this is one of the most complete solutions out there. Enrollment is currently open, but not for long.