I first noticed it in Malcolm Gladwell’s clever little book Outliers. In almost every area of human creativity and endeavour, when you come across an overnight success story, you can bet that behind it lies hours of practice. Hours. 10,000 of them to be exact. Gladwell charts it in music, writing, the sciences – there’s something about that ingrained, hidden habit of perseverance.
10,000 hours to achieve competence.
First thought – let’s apply that to preaching, and do some maths. If you preached 2 thirty minute sermons a week for forty weeks, how many hours are you up front in a year? So how many years of that would you have to put in to get to 10,000?
So, that’s not going to happen. Unless, when we’re starting out as preachers we take every opportunity we can to hone our craft. (Don’t laugh too lightly, because I’m not joking. Think of the preachers you admire – how many hours do you reckon they’ve put in over the years?)
But even then there’s a snag.
Those 10,000 hours can’t just be practice. The latest truism doing the rounds is that practice doesn’t make perfect – practice makes permanent. If I practice doing the wrong thing repeatedly, it makes it increasingly likely that the wrong thing is what I’ll do.
So what’s the key? Reflective practice. Observed practice. Coached practice. Practice which changes what you do.
Why do you listen to your own sermons? (And I hope you do – the rest of us have to!) Why do you do it? To improve, presumably. You spot that you’re not explaining things clearly, that you gabble, that your intended humour doesn’t work.
So get cracking. Let’s say you want to improve the way you tell a story. Just that. So, take the story you’re planning to use this Sunday and obsess over it. Write it, and rewrite it, until it’s the length and the interest you want. Go to the pulpit and tell it – and video yourself doing it. (Don’t want to look? The rest of us have to!). Now watch, and try it again. And again. And again – changing tiny things each time to get it better. Get a friend to watch the vid and give you feedback. And try again. Just the story telling.
And then get feedback after the actual sermon, and listen to what you did, and try it next time again.
Only purposeful practice makes – well, improvements.
This week, how many hours will you spend in preparing your sermon? And of that, how much is reading or writing? How much is actually practicing how the words come out of your mouth, in the room where you’re going to preach?
If you calculate that you have spent 10,000 in preparing sermons, what have you actually learnt to do in that time? Have you improved?
Do you listen to your own sermons? Do you watch your own recordings?
This week, take yourself as seriously as any professional sports player. Watch or listen to a rerun of your sermon, making careful notes of the good, the bad and just plain ugly – and then give it another shot in the empty building, trying to work on your weak spots. Don’t just do it again!