What Can Preachers Learn From TED Talks?

17 Jul

As we look at the ministry of the Word in the 21st century, I raised yesterday the popularity of TED talks (a popular lecture series from a variety of fields) as an indicator that the usefulness of a single person dialogue before an audience was not yet exhausted.

If the leaders in science and business and technology still rely on this method for communicating ideas, is it not likely that the eulogies that have been offered in some circles for preaching in recent years are perhaps a bit premature? In other words, there seems to be at least a significant segment of our culture that can benefit from listening to a speech. If this is so preaching, far from being irrelevant, could be a highly relevant way to communicate to our culture.

Now of course you could say I am stating the obvious. The Bible points to the value of preaching. We see it in Nehemiah, we see it in the book of Acts, we see it in Jesus’ ministry, we see it in New Testament passages like 2 Timothy 4. Preaching is a central aspect of the ministry of the local church, from a biblical perspective. Yet for many years I have been hearing that preaching is dead, that we need to move to new forms of communication to really get the truth of God into people’s lives. My use of the TED example was intended to point out that this method of public speaking was still a valid means of communication in our culture. So what can we learn from the TED approach which might help us in preaching more effectively?

The first thing I see is that TED speakers are passionate about their topics. A preacher’s passion may come through in different ways based on personality or other factors, but the bottom line is that preaching with passion is a high priority.

TED speakers are also highly knowledgeable. I may not agree with their conclusions, but I don’t deny that almost every TED speaker knows his or her topic thoroughly. This speaks to the need for preacher’s to be well-studied and knowledgeable. We should know what we area saying and give ourselves to study.

Third, TED speakers are focused. The topic of their talk is stated beforehand and the topic of their talk is actually the topic of their talk. Most TED speakers are excellent at distilling their ideas in ways that drive home a central point. Preachers have a tendency to follow rabbit trails in the text and miss the main point. We can learn a lot from the focus of most TED speakers.

Fourth, TED speakers say a lot in a little amount of time. The time limit for most TED talks is 18 minutes. I have seen a few that get close to half an hour but very few. Yet the breadth of ideas conveyed in a very short time can be quite amazing. I think the focus of TED speakers on a central topic enables them to communicate much in a small amount of time. We preachers must make sure that we don’t measure the value of a sermon by how long we preached. Sometimes we preached forty-five minutes not because our message was filled with essential insights. We preached for forty-five minutes because we got on a rabbit trail or because we were not as well-prepared as we should have been and so didn’t really know how to conclude or how to apply the sermon. Most preachers (myself included) could probably speak a few minutes less and say a lot more if they took more time in preparation to distill the central point of the passage and thought through more carefully its illustration and application.

Fifth, TED speakers do not talk down to their audience. It is true that most speakers avoid highly technical terminology but the ideas which are explained are most often advanced ideas and sometimes the terminology is central to a clear understanding of the topic, so it is included. TED speakers explain their ideas without being condescending. They have a certain level of respect for the intelligence of their audience. At the same time, they make every effort to be clear without watering down their content. This is such a good patter for us to follow as preachers. I don’t understand why we think we have to preach in baby words to church members when many of them have had to deal with complex language all their lives in the workplace or at school. We shouldn’t do away with all biological classification just because it is technical language. We need to understand that theological language is an effort to simplify and clarify, not obscure. As preachers, we need to embrace complexity where the Bible demands it and attempt to explain truth in a way that neither compromises Scripture nor questions the intelligence of our listeners.

Finally, TED speakers come in as many different styles as there are people. Some speak with quiet authority and no visuals whatsoever. Others are all over the stage, hand gestures everywhere, raising and lowering voices, all in an attempt to convey the passion they feel for their subject. Still others use all sorts of visual aids, from video to slides to physical objects, to communicate their ideas. People of all sizes and ages and races stand on that stage and deliver consistently compelling talks on all sorts of subjects and no two speakers are alike. This thought frees me from the idea that truly great preaching has to be of a certain style. God can use all kinds of preaching styles and different methods to accomplish his work.

These are a few of the ways TED talks help me think about preaching. Next time, I want to take a look at ways preaching is different from a TED talk.

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