How I Learned to Preach–And What I’m Learning Still
There’s a simple process at work, one that people have been using in the Church for thousands and thousands of years.
This past weekend I get to speak at a fairly large worship service.
That’s not really terribly significant or novel, but more to the point, I hadn’t done this in over a year. Sure, in my work with 3DM I’m regularly teaching groups of leaders, but it’s not really content I’ve developed for a specific Sunday, from a specific passage, for a specific group of people. I really enjoyed it quite a bit and it was a reminder that it’s one thing I miss doing on a regular basis. That being said, I’m quite content with the season God has me in right now.
But it did get me thinking about how I learned to teach in the first place.
You see, like every pastor, there was once a time when I never regularly taught in front of large groups of people. But somewhere along the way I had to learn a skill set that was slightly unfamiliar to me, and over time it was one that I got better at (and hopefully continue to develop even now). But as I was thinking about it this weekend, a few things stood out to me:
I learned to teach by listening to one particular pastor quite a bit. This particular person had a teaching that did a lot in bringing me to faith and opened up the Gospels and the narrative scriptures in ways I’d never seen before. His rhetorical style was different. His diction was different. The way he told jokes, structured the sermon, even moved on stage…everything about it really captivated me. And this was the person whom I started to sound like when I began to teach.
The more I taught, the better I got. I know, this isn’t a terribly revelatory statement. But it’s really true. What Malcolm Gladwell says about putting in your 10,000 hours really does work. For the first five years I was a pastor (maybe even longer), I was teaching between 40-50 Sundays a year. The first teaching I ever gave, my sister stopped counting the number of times I said “like” at 46. (Yes, it’s humiliating even now, all these years later.)
People recognized someone else in me. The first few years I was teaching, people would often say, “Wow, you really sound like (insert name of person I was listening to a lot).” That got really annoying. But they were definitely right.
But I found my own voice. It took some time. It took a lot of practice. It took being exposed in large doses to a few other really gifted teachers. But eventually, I found a style, a structure, a process and a voice that were truly me. But funny thing: You can still hear the traces of that first teacher, even while hearing a teaching that is definitely “me.” And now…honestly…I don’t really care.
What I came to see is that a very simple process was at work, but one that people have been using in the Church for thousands and thousands of years to pass down certain skill sets.
First was information:
I read books on rhetorical theory. Commentaries. I asked lots of questions. Researched. Critiqued. Found out which people I thought were worth getting solid resources and information from about this skill set.
Second was imitation.
I found someone who truly embodied what I was looking for. I studied him. Listened to him. Practiced like him. Prepared like him. Read the same books. Copied his diction and style. Even used a few of his teachings, from soup to nuts.
Last was innovation.
After building a solid foundation, I got to a place of competence in the skill that allowed me to innovate on all that I had learned and imitated and I developed a voice that was true to me. And actually, the fact that there are traces of a few people in me that people can recognize every once in a while speaks to a lengthy process of healthy development.
But notice that the point of Information and Imitation was to get to Innovation. But there’s no short-circuiting the process.
So here’s my thought: If that’s what it took to learn to teach well…what would that process look like for other things? Like building teams and multiplying leaders? Discipling people? Reproducing missional communities? Planting churches? Starting reproducible movements?
We planted a church in Richmond, Virginia using a more missional, decentralized structure for church planting that’s proven incredibly significant in Europe, but is very new to North America. This community then planted another church in Denver, CO using the same DNA. I now am the Director of Content and Communications for 3DM, a training organization for leaders/churches who want their communities to embody this way of being the church.