by Thom Schultz
Here’s a guaranteed way to dramatically power-up your teaching and preaching. It works. But many teachers and preachers will reject it–before ever trying it.
I’ve used this approach–with great effectiveness–for 40 years. It’s simple and it costs nothing.
Here it is: Dialog. Occasionally engage your people in person-to-person interaction. Rather than holding the floor for 30 minutes straight, intersperse a few moments of guided conversation. Your people will learn more, grow more, be more involved, and will actually listen to you more attentively when they’ve been given opportunities to engage with your content.
It works. With any age group. With any size crowd. But I’m saddened by preachers and teachers who angrily resist anything that differs from “the way we’ve always done it.” I was reminded of this again recently when Joani, my wife and co-author, led a session on effective speaking for a large room of pastors and leaders.
After describing what we call “fearless conversation,” she invited the people in the audience to turn to someone next to them and respond to this question: “How would you say your life is different because of Jesus?” Everyone turned to a partner. The room filled with the buzz of engaging conversation. Everyone was fully involved. Everyone, that is, except for one. A young pastor in the back of the room.
There he sat with his arms folded and his face pinched into a wad. Finally, he began to grumble to his puzzled partner. He articulated what we sometimes hear from ministry leaders who will not relinquish their microphone for even a moment. I’ll share his objections, and share a few of my thoughts.
“This will never work.”
I’ve heard this before. But never before from someone sitting in a sea of people who are thoroughly engaged in the very thing “that will never work.” This guy’s pessimism and stubborn resistance to change overruled his own eyes and ears. He, and many other ministry people, become paralyzed because they fear even imagining something they have never tried. Guided conversation–within a sermon or talk–works with great effectiveness. In fact, several people in this man’s group later said that this brief conversation was the most impactful moment of the entire conference.
“How does she know if we’re on topic or not? She has no control over us right now.”
Yes, during guided conversation time some people may wander off your topic. But here’s the brutal truth. Even when you’re preaching you are not controlling your audience. Many of their minds wander off shortly after you turn on your microphone. It’s a fantasy to believe everyone in any audience is tracking with the speaker. But asking people to answer a good question offers each person the opportunity to individually engage. And it offers the Holy Spirit some space to act, perhaps leading some people to engage on a topic that you never planned. If someone needs to be in control, let it be God.
“Letting everyone talk is cutting into my time to connect with my people.”
Actually, using a little of your sermon time to let people dialog enhances your connection time. Since even adult attention spans last only seven to ten minutes, providing a brief guided conversation time helps to refocus your people and restart their attention clock when you resume after the dialog. Devoting a few minutes for conversation within your oratory time is a wise investment. Besides, Sunday morning is not “my time to connect with my people.” It’s not about you. It’s not your show.
If you’re ready to consider leading your people to deeper spiritual discovery and life application, here are a few tips for using guided conversation within a talk or sermon.
DO WHAT WORKS
1. Prepare great open-ended questions–questions that cannot be answered with a “yes” or “no” or a pat answer. Great questions will spark different, thoughtful answers from all in the room. Study the questions that Jesus asked. His questions made people think and search their souls.
2. Prior to posing a question, tell your people why you’re doing this. Let them know you want to give them a chance to participate, and to listen to others, and to dig into the subject in an individual way. They’ll gain from the experience, even though it may seem a little unusual at first. Reassure them that you’ve already observed that they’re good conversationalists.
3. At a key point in your talk or scripture reading, ask your people to turn to someone near them. (Talking in pairs is quicker and easier than talking with more people.) Pose your question. Let them know they’ll have a minute or two or three. Then let them go.
4. After the allotted time, ask everyone to refocus their attention back to the front. Then it’s often effective to ask if some within your earshot would be willing to share something from their conversation. You may take two or three responses. Summarize each person’s response so everyone in the room can hear and benefit from everyone’s contributions.
5. Move on to your next segment, perhaps incorporating some of what you just heard from the people.
Keep the goal in mind. The purpose of your sermon or lesson is not to merely deliver a soliloquy. The purpose is to help people grow closer to the Lord. When you find a way to double the effectiveness of your teaching time, do what works.