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Friday, June 29, 2012

Why No One Listens to Preachers

Preachers have the job of speaking the truth of the bible into the lives of people. But, for the most part, no one is listening. The truth remains unheard.

What's the solution?

Some preachers seek to say it more loudly - then the truth will be heard. If they can just turn up the volume, people will listen to the vital message of scripture.

Some preachers try to say it with more style. They adopt the language, dress and actions of popular culture. They think that if they can just be cool enough, then people will listen to the message.

Some preachers try to say it with more logic. If people aren't paying attention, it must be because they just don't understand the point.They think a will constructed argument will get people to listen.

Some preachers try to say it with more emotion. If people aren't paying attention, it's because they don't feel the power and heart of the bible. They think that using heart-wrenching examples and touching stories will get people to listen.

But people still aren't listening to preachers? Why?

Because preachers don't listen to them.

I remember the first time I sat in a counseling session. I was in college and the young counselor was interning from a local graduate school. I'd never met her before the moment I was supposed to share my deepest struggles with her. I guess she missed the class on rapport building, or I brushed past it in my eagerness to "fix" the problem that took me into her office. For whatever reason, we got about half-way through the session and I found myself profoundly not caring. It wasn't that she was saying bad or unhelpful things, but I just didn't care what she had to say to me because I didn't know her at all. I had no reason to trust her opinion over my own.

Why should anyone trust a preacher's opinion over their own? Not because of the volume - there are a million messages, every day, that are louder. Not because of the style - at best we're mimicking what's cool, which just isn't cool. Not because of the logic or the emotion. No. There's not really a good reason for people to trust preachers who are struggling to be heard.

But when preachers strive to listen, when they seek to understand what the audience needs to hear, when they make it a conversation instead of a lecture - then people start to listen.

When, as a preacher, you can point out examples of conversations you've had with people in the audience (after asking their permission first, of course), or even invite the conversations during the sermon, you offer a glimpse into your relationship with the people. When you use questions to spark discussion - and really engage, not just wait for the other person to stop talking. When you admit that someone else might be right. When you let yourself be changed by the words of other people. Then, you've listened and you've earned the right to speak.

Listen to be heard.

How can you practice listening to your audience?

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Leave a Trail for People to Follow

When Hansel and Gretel were led off into the woods to be abandoned, Hansel left a trail of breadcrumbs to follow home. Do the same thing when you preach. Leave a trail that the audience can easily follow.

If they don't know where you came from, how you got there or where you're going, then why should they believe what you have to say? The only reason they would have to trust you is because of your position as a preacher. Unfortunately, the role of preacher is far less revered today than it was in the past.

It used to be that preachers could rely on positional authority. This is the authority that accrues to a role or position, and doesn't rely on the person in the role. A sergeant in the army has positional authority, even if the troops don't like him, they still have to do what he says.

This used to be true of preachers too. The appointed position of preacher gave them license to speak into the lives of people. This still exists in some sub-cultures within the church, but most preachers don't have any positional authority anymore.

If you know everyone in the congregation, you can use relational authority to get your message across. This authority comes from knowing and being known by the people. They trust you because they've met you, been with you and found you trustworthy. Ultimately, this is the best kind of authority and leadership, because it has the most long-lasting effects and the deepest application.

But when new people come into the church, you don't have any relational authority to use. Nor do you have positional authority to assert. So, how is it possible to preach a sermon that will apply to the lives of your audience?

Give them a way to make the decision on their own. Leave a trail they can follow. Let them decide whether or not to trust you and what you have to say.

In preaching, this means you need to take some time to explain where you're starting from. You need to give an idea of how you got there and then spell out where you're going. I find this works best in a sermon series that's based on a book in the bible. That way I can point people to the text as the starting point. It's not my ideas, but me trying to shed light on what the bible has to say.

Start with the text and stay with the text. If you jump all over the place, you're falling back onto your positional and relational authority to get people to come with you. Instead, dwell in one text, one place in scripture and let the point come from there. It should be fairly obvious, when you're done, how you got to the point from the text.

To think of it another way, you should create a repeatable experiment. In science, an experiment is only useful if it can be replicated by others. The same is true of bible study. If you, as the preacher, come up with a biblical application from your study, then the audience should be able to repeat the experiment. They need to be able to see the text, put the pieces together and come to the same place you did.

If they can't, there's no reason for them to care about what you have to say.

How do you lead people through scripture? What authority do you use when you preach?

Monday, June 25, 2012

Create Intersections, not Cul-de-sacs

Cul-de-sacs are intentional dead ends. They provide nowhere else to go, and that's the point. People who live in cul-de-sacs do so because there is no through traffic. It might be nice for a family with kids, but it's a terrible idea for preaching.

Cul-de-sac Sermons are intentional dead ends. They provided a pointed destination and then stop. There is no through traffic, only the people who already live there truly belong.

One destination for a sermon assumes that there is only one way to approach an issue or one way to answer a question. Not only is that prideful from the perspective of the preaching, it's also usually wrong. Jesus was the master of bringing up new alternatives and creative answers. Often his opponents would try to trap him in either/or dilemmas - his response was often both/and.

A dead end sermon means that the thoughts lead nowhere else. They close off options. A cul-de-sac is the end in itself rather than a means.

No one new belongs in a cul-de-sac, just the people who already live there. The cliché "Preaching to the choir" refers to this kind of sermon. They don't need to hear it, you don't need to say it, because you already think the same thing.

Intersection Sermons intentionally provide space for other options. Like a busy freeway interchange, an intersection sermon is full of possibilities. It's nearly impossible to stay in the same place after an intersection sermon, but the destination isn't predefined.

Many destinations are possible when you start from an intersection. In fact, there's no real limit on where you can go. You could even circle back around to where you started from. It's not the job of the preacher to define where people end up.

An intersection is a means to get somewhere else and a sermon serves the same purpose. It moves the congregation from where they are, but it doesn't define for them where they're going. Rather the end is defined by them, not the preacher. Jesus opened up a world of possibilities, offered a light yoke and an easy burden. But he never laid out the specific rules and regulations that defined the world of the Pharisees.

Everyone is welcome in an intersection. The locals, tourists and people who are lost on the road can all come through the intersection together. It gives a place to meet, space to move and possibilities for the future.

How can you make your sermons more like intersections and less like cul-de-sacs?

Friday, June 22, 2012

Projected Text is Evil

Don't project text in your PowerPoint presentations. It's evil.

Edward Tufte has famously said, "PowerPoint is evil." Which isn't far off the mark. It's kind of like the oft misquoted bible verse, "Money is the root of all evil." Well, it's close, but the actual verse says: "For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil." The shortened version is close, but misses the real meaning and confuses the point.

I think the same is true of what Tufte said. I don't think PowerPoint is evil (you may have guessed that). But I do think that projecting text is. What's worse is reading the projected text while your audience silently reads the same words. But I'm not the only one who thinks this.

Dr. John Medina, author of Brain Rules, points out that in an oral presentation you can expect the audience to remember about 10% of the material. If you add a picture to the oral presentation, the retention goes up, 6 1/2 times. But, if you put up text while you give the oral presentation, the comprehension and retention drop by about the same amount. So if you project a PowerPoint slide with the same text you're reading to your audience, they'll only take away about 4-6% of it.

It's not PowerPoint that's bad, it's the way people use (i.e. abuse) it that's evil. The neurological research proves it. A projected picture helps, but projected words hurt. If you want your audience to remember anything that you've said, use pictures that support your oral presentation. But, if you want them to promptly forget 96% of everything you said, go ahead and project text.

Edward Tufte would know just what to say.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

What's Next?

I'm going to be done with the series "How to Share the Good News without being Evangelistic." You can get caught up by clicking that link and seeing all the posts in the series. Ultimately, I plan on turning that into a book, and that means I need to stop putting it online and start refining what I have. I just wrote a chapter that goes after the introduction - it makes sense for the book, but it would seem out of order for blog posts.

I'm working on writing several books all at once (five). You can find out more about what I'm working on over here. In fact, you can get a synopsis of the upcoming projects here. And read excerpts from them here.

But one thing that's been missing on this blog is a really good resource on how to use PowerPoint in preaching. I've covered all of it in separate blog posts, but now it's time to tie it all together and make something that can stand as a tutorial (and, let's be honest, another book).

This summer I'll be blogging about that (primarily). So, if you have any questions, thoughts or ideas, now's a great time to throw them my way.

Oh, and thanks for reading. I really appreciate it.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Learn to Talk about Other Things

Christians are boring. Not all the time, but too often. Church-goers talk about churchy-stuff to other church-goers. Boring.

It’s no different from going to an accounting convention (no disrespect to accountants). They stand around talking about accounting and it’s boring to anyone who’s not an accountant.

Remember that time when you met someone and they liked the things that you like? They’d seen the same movies. They laughed at the same TV shows. They liked the same sports teams. They had the same hobbies. It was great, I’d bet. It’s fun to talk about what you love with other people who love the same thing.

If you can’t talk about what you love with someone else who loves it, the next best thing is to talk about what you love to someone who’s interested. So, be interested in what other people love. If they love books, learn to talk about  books. If they love golf or fishing or cooking or travel, then learn to talk about that.

It might sound difficult to become an expert on every topic of conversation. It is. That’s impossible. But there’s a trick. Ask questions.

Questions are the key to any conversation. Learn how to ask good questions that draw people out instead of shutting them off.

You: Hi, nice to meet you.
Them: Hello.
You: So, how do you spend your week? (note: this doesn’t assume they have a job, so it’s good for people in school or moms who stay home).
Them: Oh, I’m a schematic engineer at Flondorian and Associates.
You: Huh! I don’t think I’ve heard of them. What does that mean?
Them: Well it means I . . . (I’m not going to go into too much of this, just enough so you get the idea).
You: Wow. That sounds complicated. How did you get into it?
Them: [History, School, etc.]
You: Oh, you went to school in [place] what was that like?
Them: [more history, experiences]
You: Wow I’ve always wanted to [experience] what gave you the nerve to do it?
Them: [more history, emotions, thoughts]
You: I never thought of it that way. That’s a really good point. (people like to be complimented – whenever you can offer a sincere compliment, do it).
Them: [connected thought, more history/experience]
You: How does that affect what you’re doing now?

I won’t belabor the point, but you should be able to see how questions can keep a conversation going and focused on what the other person is passionate about. You don’t have to be an expert in schematic engineering (whatever that is), but they are, so you can keep asking questions about it.

Our tendency is to be selfish and talk about the topics we already know (and love), but that limits the people we can connect with to our limited experience. If you want the chance to be friends with more people, you’ll need to learn how to have conversations about other topics than just what you already know. Asking questions will make it possible.

Come up with a list of ten questions that are good conversation continuers (not starters).

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Be Who You Want to Meet

They don't quite get the Golden Rule.

“Do unto others as you would have them to unto you.”

Jesus stated the Golden Rule, and it’s one of his teachings that has crept into nearly every person’s awareness. Stated more plainly – treat people the way you want to be treated.

How do you want to meet people?

For me, I don’t want people knocking on my door when I’m sitting down to dinner. I don’t want them sticking a clipboard in my face when I’m going into a store. I don’t want to get a phone call at 9:30pm when I’m trying to watch a movie with friends. I don’t want an impersonal mailer extoling the life-changing effects of something I’ve never heard of. I don’t want an email from a stranger with a deal that’s too good to be true.

I don’t want any of that stuff. So why would I do it to anyone else?

I want to meet people on my terms, where I’m comfortable and when I’m ready. So that’s how I need to approach meeting other people. Their terms. Their comfortableness. Their time.

Here’s the kicker. When you treat other people they way you want to be treated you end up sacrificing your preferences for theirs. The Golden Rule doesn’t mean you get to be selfish and have everything your way. Instead it means that you get to give up your way. You get to learn how other people like things and do that instead.

Jesus will mess up your life like that. 

Friday, June 08, 2012

An Excursus on Reading in Public

This is not an invitation to conversation.

Reading a piece of paper in public is, quite often, an invitation to conversation. You can take exactly the same words and the same action, put them on a screen, and suddenly it closes off any hope of talking. I don’t know if it’s a magical property imbued into every screen-based device, but it’s true. Pull up a book on your smartphone, iPad or laptop and read it in a coffee shop. People will ignore you. Even friends might hesitate to interrupt you.

Do the same thing with a print-book and you’ll have people asking you what the book’s about. They’ll feel compelled to inquire as to what you’re reading (if they can’t see the title) or how you like it. Read the news from a newspaper and people will ask you about the front-page story or discuss the weather with you.

Paper starts conversations. Screens kill them.

If you pop in to your local coffee shop and all you see are the logos on the back of screen-devices – it’s not too likely that you’re going to strike up conversations. Headphones will soon be out and myriad people will sit together, yet remain alone (probably posting on Facebook so all their friends can see). If you want to get the book read, or really dive in to the news. Stay there. Settle in, put up your glowing screen-armor and get to work.

What do you think? Overkill?
However, if you want to meet people, if you want to have conversations with other human-faces (in real life), then stow the screen and pull out your paper invitation. Grab a magazine. Flip open a book. Write in a journal. Read the comics in the paper. Dead trees make people want to talk. Go to a place where the screens are gone and the paper is out. Conversation will fill the air. You won’t get anything done, but you will be meeting people (eventually).

Which do you prefer? Paper or screen?

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Have Patience

When you go in to a coffee shop for the first time, you can meet a lot of people. Great. But you aren’t friends with any of them. Not yet. That’s not likely to happen for months and months. It’s not that you’re a bad person, it’s that they have no reason to trust you or like you. Friendship takes time. Remember that you need to form connections with people to move from acquaintance to friend. But you have to meet people before they can even become acquaintances.

It’s that process that seems to trip us up. The movement from meeting someone to becoming an acquaintance. Sure, it happens naturally when you work with someone, the daily routine quickly breaks down the barriers and gets you to know each other at a deeper level. If for no other reason than it’s uncomfortable to spend eight hours a day with a stranger. People are apt to put in at least the bare minimum of effort to avoid that awkwardness.

So, in a sense, your journey from being a stranger to being an acquaintance is creating awkward moments. I’m not suggesting that you walk around with toilet paper stuck to your shoe or a big clump of spinach in your teeth. Rather, create the moments were it’s more awkward to stay a stranger than it is to become an acquaintance. Ask questions about people. Learn what they like, what they’re doing and what they’ve done. It’s not hard, it just takes time.

Don’t rush the process. Sit with it. In fact, you may do a lot of sitting at the beginning. Go to a local coffee shop and bring a book (not a eBook on your iPhone, but a bundle of mashed-up dead trees), get your drink. Say hello to the barista. Ask a question (and keep asking questions until it gets awkward or someone comes up in line behind you). And then go sit down and read your book.

You can talk to people if they’re open to it, but don’t force yourself into other people’s conversations. Wait to be invited. It’ll take a while. Weeks, maybe months. Be patient. Keep going, keep asking questions and reading your book. Learn names, learn faces. Look people in the eye and smile when you see them.

Eventually you’ll get to the point where you won’t read more than a page or two out of your book before someone interrupts you with a conversation. Then you won’t even open your book. Then you won’t even take it anymore. But it all takes time. Be regular. Be patient.

How do you meet people? What works well for you? 

Monday, June 04, 2012

Share Yourself

One reason I’m not a big fan of traditional evangelism is that it feels phony to me. I know it’s not always that way, but it feels that way to me. It reminds me of a person I knew who was in the business of selling things. They would talk to me for three-point-five minutes about the weather or sports and then the conversation would suddenly shift to their product. After the second time this happened I realized that they didn’t really care about me, they just wanted to sell more. It’s not a very nice feeling.

When you talk to your friends for the sole purpose of finding a way to evangelize them, I imagine it’s the same kind of thing. It’s not a very nice feeling to be demoted from ‘friend’ status to ‘project’ status in the course of three-point-five minutes.

On the other side of things are those friends who genuinely love their jobs. They don’t try to sell stuff to me, but through natural conversation I get to know what they do. Because I like them, and they show real passion for their work, I want to buy something from them. Sometimes I want to buy something to help out a friend, but often it’s because I really like what they’re selling. They didn’t pressure me into buying, they shared their passion and, when I was ready, I chose the make the purchase.

See the difference?

On the surface it’s not very big. Looking at both relationships from a distance, it seems like things started off friendly and then turned to business. But that’s just from a distance, when you get into the middle of the process, the two are drastically different. In the first one, a friend becomes a project; in the second one, though, the friendship never stops. I’m confident that my passionate friends will still be my friends if I don’t buy from them. I’m not so sure about the three-point-five minute friends though.

Traditional sales, like traditional evangelism, is a numbers game. You can expect a certain percentage of people to turn you down (usually a very high percentage), so you just need to talk to a lot of people to get your numbers up. That’s the underlying principle behind the church growth movement and multi-level marketing businesses. More people, more rejection and more closing.

At church I heard someone lamenting that they didn’t know how to share God with their neighbors. The thought struck me that we don’t need to figure out how to share God. We need to share ourselves. If we’re filled with God, if we’re passionate about him and if he’s doing good things in our lives, then we just need to share ourselves.

Maybe people won’t be ready to talk about God right now, but if they see your passion and they know that it’s a part of who you are, they’ll seek you out when they are ready. They know that there’s no pressure; they’re confident that you’ll still be their friend, even if they don’t choose God. From a distance it doesn’t look too different from traditional evangelism, but on the inside if feels drastically different.

What has your experience been with sales from friends? How did it make you feel? 

Friday, June 01, 2012

Be where the People Are

It’s impossible to connect with people if you aren’t with people. I know that’s such a simple statement, but the truth of it is important. You must be around people to make connections.

If you’re happy with the number of friends you have right now and you just want to continue developing those relationships, that’s fine. You don’t need to create any more connections. But, if you want opportunities to share the good news, you need more friends and they need to be outside the church.

You won’t make non-Christian friends by going to church more.

In fact, at the risk of being labeled a heretic (or worse), I think it’s a good idea to go to church less. Look at Jesus – he prioritized people over religious services. He knew that meeting a woman at a well was more important than going to the Synagogue again or getting together with a doubting Pharisee at night was a better use of his time than going to the Temple.[1]

You won’t make connections if you don’t meet new people.

The odds of new people walking through the door of your church are slim. A few will, but not too many. And then the odds of you having a connection with those people is even less. Connections are often based on shared interest and you can’t know what the visitors are interested in. It’s absolutely a good idea to be warm and welcoming to visitors, but that’s not an ideal place to look for new connections.

Go to where the people are.

This doesn’t mean that you should go to the mall and hand out bible tracts. That’s probably the worst way to form connections with people. You’re immediately creating a relational barrier by challenging their belief system from the outset. What are the odds that you’d want to be friends with someone who met you and immediately told you that you’re wrong about everything you believe? I know I wouldn’t be too thrilled with that approach.

Be a ‘people.’

Be the kind of person you want to meet. Be the kind of friend you want to have. If you want to meet people, be a ‘people.’ Activities like handing out bible tracts or knocking on doors to invite people to a church event are barrier creators – you instantly set yourself apart from them. Instead, think about how you can be with them.

What are you already doing? You’re a neighbor. You might be in a club or a group. You might be a parent of students. You might be a business owner in the community. There are things you are already doing that give you connections with people. Talk to your neighbors. Make friends with the people in your club. Connect with the other parents. Join the local chamber of commerce.

How can you be where the people are?

[1] I know that Jesus wasn’t choosing people over the Synagogue or the Temple in John 3 and 4. However, he did consistently place people above religious observances and locations (i.e. eating grain on the Sabbath or the widow’s two pennies that led him to explain how the Temple would be destroyed).