I still remember the first TED Talk I ever watched. And when I say I remember, I mean I remember specific things the speaker said.
“Jillian’s not sick; she’s a dancer.”
I can’t forget that line. You need the talk’s context to understand why it was so memorable. (If you haven’t seen it, I definitely recommend Sir Kenneth Robinson’s talk about schools killing creativity.) But as I reflect on why it sticks with me, I can’t help but wonder if our churches should take note of a few things.
Equipped to Teach?
I recently spoke with a church leader who shared some alarming statistics from research within his denomination. About 50% of all their lead pastors said they felt equipped in seminary to teach but not to lead. Their attrition rate for ministers was even higher, and growing.
I was surprised by one part of the research, and not by the other. That pastors feel like seminary fails to train them in how to practically lead a church towards growth and health… not surprising. The Unstuck Group has a role largely because of this very fact. One thing I love about our process is how it equips churches with the tools they need to lead change — tools they usually tell us they have little to no experience with before engaging our team.
But that these pastors felt secure in their teaching/preaching did surprise me a bit. Here’s why: Most churches still teach in decades-old formats that are increasingly abandoned by innovators in teaching methods. For instance,
- A 40-50 min. lecture by one person on a stage to a crowd of passive listeners.
- Messages, even when connected topically or by a single Scriptural text, that build one upon another, released one-week at a time at a certain time of day on a certain day of the week.
- Few or no visuals, technological assets or other creative enhancements.
- Lack of emphasis on captivating storytelling.
NPR released a short quiz you can take to see what learning myths you are buying into.
How equipped are pastors, really, to teach in our current culture?
I don’t ask this question to point fingers or assign blame. I just think there’s a lot of room for our churches to innovate, and perhaps, to better spread the message of the Gospel and better equip our people to take steps in their faith.
How do people learn today? A few things that immediately come to mind; you can probably think of others…
- Online courses
- TED Talks (live events, online videos and TED Radio Hour podcast)
- YouTube tutorials
- Netflix series
- Hands-on lab work
- Service learning/volunteering
Research shows students don’t learn by hearing or seeing, they learn by doing, a model often called active learning. The Traditional Lecture Is Dead. I Would Know — I’m a Professor via Wired.com
Here are a few questions I’m wrestling with:
- Is a church’s standard 40-minute sermon once a week the best way to help people gain knowledge or take a next step? If not, why can’t we break the mold?
For example, what if pastors preached for 18 minutes on a Sunday and released a podcast episode or short video on Monday that offered deeper study into the topic? Could we at once be more compelling for the masses and more effective at offering on-demand ways for people to go deeper?
- What if we made planning visuals and stories a key component of sermon prep?
Jesus used visuals all around Him to teach key truths. What if we put a higher emphasis on telling a great a story every time we communicated? I recently heard Andy Stanley point out the fact that Jesus was constantly answering questions with stories. We have no better model.
Think back to the best sermons you’ve ever heard. I bet you remember a story before a pithy statement or a specific Scripture verse.
- What can we learn from popular “lecture-style” events like TED?
People sign up in droves and pay money to sit through a full day of talks. (Shocking?) I’ve only been to a few events like this, but the best ones, kept me on my toes. A 10 minute talk followed by a 3 minute video. Then a 3-song set by an interesting musician, or a short comedy act, or another visual art performance of some kind. Then another 8 minute talk, etc.
The exact format isn’t the point, but we have the ability to think outside our traditions. Jesus taught while walking down the road, hanging out by a lake and from a fishing boat. Why are we so stuck in our routines?
Where Do We Go from Here?
I’m not saying we throw out Sunday morning teaching. Not in the least. But we can push ourselves to innovate.
I asked a creative lead pastor on The Unstuck Group’s team, Gabe Kolstad, to share some practical thoughts for how pastors could start thinking about the future of teaching and preaching. Here were his suggestions:
- Carve out more time to think and pray.
Senior leaders, no one can prioritize this for you. And you know from experience that people will push back and crises will always vie for your time. Great ideas start when you give yourself space to have them.
- Reevaluate how you structure your environment and your spaces for creativity.
Where do you think best? Where do you feel most creative? If being at desk under fluorescent lights drains you, it’s not where you’re going to have your best ideas.
- Invite creative people in.
Most churches have some highly skilled members who would be willing to volunteer to help make church content more engaging, if you cast vision and create the right systems.
- Invite wise people in.
You most likely have people with wisdom who like to study Scripture or like to teach Bible Studies in your church. How could you engage them to support you in digging into topics for extra content and sermon prep?
As Peter McGowan recently wrote,
“Until the Industrial Revolution, the church was a cultural leader for centuries in the arts, technology, and science. The modern printing press that printed the Gutenberg Bible was an invention of the church. But we’ve allowed history to be rewritten. We’ve lost touch with our creativity and individuality. We have stopped intentionally and strategically thinking through our story and how it impacts our brand and culture.”
What if we could get our minds around the cultural implications of how content outside the Church is delivered – and most importantly, received? I think we’d find ourselves more willing to try something new. I look forward to seeing how the Church continues to innovate to advance the Gospel.