I’ll do better next time.

Last Monday morning, as I was reading the bible and journaling, I jotted down a few reflections about Sunday morning. I preach twice each Sunday morning and one sermon always goes a little better than the other. Sometimes it’s the first one, sometimes the second. Anyway, I noted that I left out an illustration the second time around, one that really helped me connect with that morning’s text. Of course, no one knew this but me. I’m the only person who heard the sermon twice that morning.

So I started pondering what I could do to do better next time. Should I have reviewed the sermon between Sunday School and the second worship service? Should I have practiced more the week before?

And then I paused and mused to myself, “After all these years, I am still trying to do better next time.” If I include some of my seminary field work and my vicarage, I’ve been preaching for over thirty-five years. One might assume I’ve got it down by now. But weekly a little voice in my mind suggests, “You can do better than that!”

I like to read articles, books and blogs, and watch videos about speaking effectively. I love to watch TED talks as much to learn as speaking as about the topic. My radar is always on when it comes to techniques that get people’s attention, how connect with listeners, the power of storytelling, and what people remember. I rarely learn anything new, for there is still nothing new under the sun. But it never hurts to reinforce what I’ve learned and remember what’s effective.

At the end of my journal entry, I wrote, “Don’t worry. If you forgot to mention something, it probably wan’t that important anyway. I’ll do better next time.” And I will.

Learning to communicate

So I’m learning how to communicate with someone who can’t communicate. I’m talking about my three-week old granddaughter. I’m fascinated by one who can’t speak or understand a word, yet can communicate so much.

Her face, cries and body language effectively communicate discomfort, curiosity, recognition, surprise, anger and contentment. She responds to voice, music, touch, motion, a breeze, and a smile. Without speaking a word, we communicate very well with each other!

In contrast, there are many adults I speak with who completely misunderstand my words. Or sometimes as I listen I have no idea what someone is talking about.

So one of my “blessings du jour” is learning to communicate – from someone who herself is just learning how to communicate! My granddaughter reminds me to watch the eyes, the mouth, the hands and the feet. Those parts of the body speak non-verbal volumes. She also reminds me to listen to the pitch, the timbre, and the volume of the voice. Or the silence. When I pick her up and she suddenly calms down, it’s clear that she just needed to be held. Words weren’t necessary. But human touch was. My nose tips me off to what she needs, too. (And you know exactly what I’m talking about!)

Much of my work as a pastor is communication. I preach the word in season and out of season. I proclaim the excellencies of the one who called me out of darkness into his marvelous light. I’m ready to give a reason for the hope I have. I teach. I listen as a person confesses their sin, and then speak absolution. I have ears to hear God’s word. And I not only call upon him in the day of trouble, but I pray, praise and give thanks.

I am still learning how to do all these things, from someone who is also learning to communicate!

“What are you talking about?”

marcos-luiz-photograph-292698In the introduction to my sermon yesterday, I referred the HGTV show “Fixer Upper.” I knew that many in attendance were fans or had at least seen or heard of the show. Of course, you never hit the bull’s eye every time. There were some there who leaned over the person next to them asking, “What’s he talking about?”

It is so energizing to make a pop culture reference and watch as faces light up with familiarity. It is equally nauseating to see puzzled looks on faces who have no idea what you are referring to. It is humbling to either take the time to explain it, or discard what was a wonderfully powerful way to illustrate your point.

When you are speaking to an audience that ranges in age from two months to ninety-two years, with different experiences, tastes and interests, it is very hard to find that idea or image that everyone is familiar with. There are some who have never seen a Star Wars movie, don’t know anything about Jerry Seinfeld’s defective girlfriends, don’t read the newspaper, own flip phones, don’t Instagram, got a D in world history, only order wine by it’s color, and can’t name any of the Paw Patrol. I’m not saying that’s bad, I’m just saying you better remember that dynamic when you’re speaking.

So what’s a preacher to do? First of all, it helps to know your audience. When I preach, it is almost always to a congregation I know well. I know many of their interests, tastes, occupations, hobbies and families. I’ve been to their homes, talked over coffee, taught them in classes, and have a pretty good idea of what they are familiar with.

Second, you can’t just depend on one illustration or example. You need to throw out a bunch to catch the attention of pre-adolescents, young parents, millennial, baby-boomers and those of the greatest generation. It helps to hang out with and get to know people from all walks of life.

Finally, a lot of it is just trial and error. Thankfully, a swing and a miss one week can be redeemed the next, because Sunday and the next sermon comes around at least once every seven days. I got on base yesterday. We’ll see what happens next week.

Can we be better speakers and listeners?

the-climate-reality-project-349094

Photo by The Climate Reality Project on Unsplash

So I am sitting at a conference, watching the other attendees, fascinated at all the other activity going on. Yes, there are a few people sitting, listening and taking noted. But there are many more people who have come well-equipped to do other things. A few still bring books and newspapers, but many more do their reading on a phone, tablet or laptop. One person is preparing slides for a presentation. Another is catching up on email. Of course, some are scrolling through their Facebook newsfeed. Some have brought their breakfast with them. There is plenty of texting going on. Me? I admit, I was doodling on the back of the conference agenda as I listened.

It’s tough to listen. It’s tough to just it there and listen. It is hard, hard work. Which puzzles me a little. I have two ears that hear naturally, involuntarily receiving lots of sounds. But it is still hard to listen.

That got me thinking, when I was supposed to be listening, about those who listen to me preach each week. I can’t see everything everyone is doing, but I know there’s a lot going on. There are people on their phones, and I know they aren’t all using their Bible apps to follow along with the sermon text. I see a few of the weekly church newsletters in people’s hands — well, at least they will know about upcoming events. The congregation always includes a few note-takers, snackers, dozers, draw-ers, sneezers, whisperers, and nose-blowers. Some need to visit the bathroom, a few need a drink, a couple have to go back to the car to get their glasses, and who can help but watch the babies?

I know it’s different. I only have to keep their attention and they only have to keep their focus for fifteen to twenty minutes. But whether it’s a scheduled hour-long presentation or a blessedly-brief twelve minute homily, I believe there is a shared burden by both speaker and listener for effective communication.

For the speaker at the conference (or in church):

  • Do not read your powerpoint slides to me. I can read them myself, thank you very much.
  • Tell me stories, get me to laugh, paint some word pictures and engage my attention before you get to the weightier part of your presentation.
  • Make sure you haves a point. At some moment, give me something that will stick in my mind. It can be a phrase, a 140 character summary, a slogan, something to take with me.

For the listeners at a conference (or in church):

  • Don’t bring a diversion. Instead, come prepared to listen.
  • Take notes. Write down a few words, a phrase, a summary, something you can take with you.
  • Visit the facilities before the speaker begins.
  • Commit to giving the speaker some kind of useful feedback. By useful, I mean beyond the generic, “Thanks, I enjoyed that.”

I do not offer the above advice as an expert speaker or listener, just as someone who wants to learn to do both better.

 

 

Huh?

At Adam’s first homiletics (preaching) class this semester, the professor, ┬áDr. Dale Meyer, said, “Just because you said it doesn’t mean they heard it.” That’s a good thing to keep in mind. Communication seems simple enough. Preach the word, and watch the Holy Spirit work, right? Well, kind of. Jesus told that story about the different kinds of soil. Sometimes the word takes root and changes lives. But not always. Rock, weeks, birds, and whatever get in the way. Even for Jesus.

It reminds me a little of watching a movie or some TV, when someone leans over and says, “What did he say?” There’s a lot we hear that we don’t understand. We don’t understand what was said, or we don’t understand what the words mean, or we don’t understand what the speaker is talking about. I don’t understand everything I hear. I often ask, “What are you talking about?” Wouldn’t you like to ask me that question sometime? Feel free. You have my permission. How about if I leave my phone out on the pulpit and you can text me, “Huh?”