Preachers are in the mind-changing business. Every time we preach we hope that the Lord will see fit to use our sermons to effect some God-desired change in our hearers. Hence what Howard Gardner says about mind change for larger audiences caught my eye.
Large audiences are affected chiefly by powerful stories, rendered by individuals who embody their stories in the lives that they lead . . . (Changing Minds, Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 2004, 210).
Two points here for preachers. First, we need to use “powerful stories” impact our hearers. No wonder Jesus used parables as a key way to communicate when He preached and taught (Matthew 13:34). The second point that Gardner makes is that speakers must embody their stories by their lives. We cannot separate the sermon from the preacher.
Christopher Witt makes the same point in his book Real Leaders Don’t Do Powerpoint.
Who you are is inseparable from what you communicate. I don’t mean that your actions speak louder than your words. Of course they do. I mean that your character — who you are, what you’ve done, what you value — shapes the message your listeners hear. (Real Leaders Don’t Do Powerpoint, London, GB: Piatkus, 2009, 11.)
Paul understood this principle. That is why he tells his disciple Timothy:
You, however, know all about my teaching, my way of life, my purpose, faith, patience, love, endurance, persecutions, sufferings — what kinds of things happened to me in Antioch, Iconium and Lystra, the persecutions I endured. (2 Timothy 3:10-11 NIV)
Paul’s legacy to Timothy is his teaching but his teaching is exemplified by the way he lived his life. For Paul, things like purpose, faith, patience, love, endurance, undergoing persecution and sufferings for the faith, were not just theological terms to be memorised. They were truths that Paul modelled.
Paul was able to model what he wanted to teach Timothy because they had a close relationship. There was no other way Timothy could have seen how Paul lived his life. Life-changing teaching is not just instructional. It must also be personal and therefore also relational. When Paul teaches in this way he is just following the example of Jesus. Jesus spoke to the crowds but He poured His life into His twelve disciples. They heard His teaching but they also saw His life. They were His friends.
I am therefore concerned for much of Christian preaching and teaching today. Communication technology means we can now hear the best teachers and preachers in Christendom, through podcasts, YouTube film clips, DVDs, etc. This is not all bad of course. Some of us live in places where we have scant access to educational resources and modern communication technology helps us access good teaching and preaching. This is helpful but it is not teaching and learning that is personal and relational. I really do not know the lives of these disembodied voices that I hear or the lives of the speakers I see in the film clips.
Even live preaching and teaching is not much better. If you are part of a church of any size, you sit in the congregation listening to a speaker up there behind the pulpit. He or she may be an excellent public speaker but we really have no access to the degree he or she lives out what is being taught. The Christian way of teaching is teaching that is modelled by the teacher. Jesus and Paul understood this. So do modern writers like Gardner and Witt.
Recently I accepted the invitation to be teaching pastor in my own church community. Time-wise it is a half-time position but that does not change the fact that I am once again back in the pastorate. I have been preaching regularly in my own church but most of my ministry in recent years has been itinerant. I have had the privilege to speak at different churches and groups. As a visiting speaker I am always warmly welcomed and people are appreciative that you have taken time to minister to them. Since I am with such groups for only a short period of time, I can be on my best behaviour. But such groups do not see how I live over an extended period of time. That means they have little opportunity to see if or how I live out what I teach.
As a pastor of a congregation, I am once again rooted in one community. They will be folks who have more access to my life. They are the ones who know how far short I am of the Christlikeness that I talk so much about. Hopefully they will also see some evidence of Christlikeness in me. Ministering as a member of a community may not be as good for the ego as being an itinerant teacher, but it is a context that helps to keep me rooted and real. I hope my church will be blessed by my pastoral ministry. I know I will be blessed. It is a humbling context that may just save my spiritual life because the challenge before me is not just about being a good teacher and preacher. It is primarily about what kind of person I am.
Again, quoting Witt:
Bombarded with signals, your listeners make judgments about what you stand for and what, really, your message is. The words themselves are meaningless unless the rest of you backs them up. (Real Leaders Don’t Do Powerpoint, 16.)
A timely word for all of us who teach and preach.