We preachers are supposed to be teachers. Not only teachers, I grant you – we preachers are also supposed to exhort, and encourage, and challenge, and counsel, and evangelise, and comfort, and model, and praise, and a whole host of other things. But each of those is connected in some way to teaching truth. So it’s worth thinking about what we’re doing as we teach.
Because the longer we’ve been doing it, the less likely it is we think about it. We’re in a rut without realising it.
There are four standard steps to knowing something, or being able to do something, as you’re probably aware.
- 1. Unconscious ignorance. I have no idea that I don’t know something, nor does it trouble me. Until I typed this sentence, for instance, I had no idea that I do not know the Icelandic word for ‘orange.’ I’d never asked myself the question, ‘What is the Icelandic word for ‘orange’? I was unconscious of my ignorance. All of us are unconsciously ignorant about almost everything, when you think about it.
The people in front of us on Sunday are probably in that position with regard to most Christian doctrines, heresies, history and books. That’s not an insult – it’s a reality. It’s why we give page numbers as well as bible references, isn’t it?
2. Conscious ignorance. This is where all learning has to start – ‘Whoah! I need to know that! Where do I start? Help, there’s a ton of Wiki-Staff here! Who knew? I’m drowning!’
That’s the look of panic when you announce that today you’re preaching from Zephaniah, and could they please turn to it in their bibles.
3. Conscious competence. ‘I’ve learnt how do do this. I can ride a bike/drive a car/knit/make a decent coffee. Knowledge and skill have become fused in me, and I’m away! Just as long as remember how to say, mirror, signal, manoeuvre.’ (Yes, I know you don’t make coffee by saying ‘mirror, signal, manoeuvre,’ just track with me).
I can find Romans, I know how Mark’s structure works, and I can put Moses, David and Judah in the right order.
4. Unconscious competence. I’ve got so used to knowing how to do this, that I don’t even think about it. I drive a car for miles while never thinking about where to put my feet or hands.
Pas me a bible, any bible, and I can turn to Psalms without even coming close to hitting Proverbs by mistake.
This last step is thought to be the desirable place. It’s also called ‘mastery’, and it’s what makes you a good driver, or a fluent Icelandic speaker. It’s what makes you a competent and trustworthy bible teacher too, because you know this book very well indeed. Which is a good thing.
But there’s a danger or two lurking there for us preachers.
First, think about that word ‘Unconscious.’ That means you’re so used to preparing a sermon, that you know longer really think how you do it. There’s a process, sure (and I’m willing to bet that it’s pretty much the same process each time), but if someone one came up to you and asked, ‘How exactly did you go about writing that sermon?’ you’d be momentarily stumped.
If you have an intern or apprentice who wants to learn how to preach, mumbling something like ‘Oh, I don’t know – I just talk about the bible passage a bit and try to make it clear,’ really doesn’t help.
And the reason that’s a danger is not to do with idle curiosity or a fan at the back of church. It’s to do with teaching others the ‘how’. If you have an intern or apprentice who wants to learn how to preach, mumbling something like ‘Oh, I don’t know – I just talk about the bible passage a bit and try to make it clear,’ really doesn’t help. They want to know the routines and steps that you go through. They want to hear you say, ‘mirror, signal, manoeuvre.’ Do you spend three hours on your knees, staring at an open bible, or do you have a desk covered in books and A4 pads? Do you make up those stories (maybe?), or do you have books of them (ugh), or Google them (ugh, ugh)? Is it useful or plagiarism to listen to other people’s sermons?
You can’t teach what you don’t know you know.
You can’t teach what you don’t know you know.
One of the great gifts that teaching at seminary gave me, was that I was forced to say out loud, in a copyable manner, the route I take from text to sermon. In fine detail. It forced me to become conscious of what I knew and did.
And that helped me with the second danger.
If you’re in a position of ‘unconscious mastery’, you’ll never be able to improve. You’ll never reflect, deliberately, on how you can challenge yourself.
You’ll just stay in your rut, unaware of its limitations. Particularly when we’ve reached a time in ministry when we’ve learnt how to cut a corner without anyone noticing. Or at least, without saying that they’re noticing.
Think about the top sports people – they still use coaches, sometimes multiple coaches. Tennis players have ‘service coaches’ and backhand coaches’. Golfers have ‘putting coaches.’
Malcolm Gladwell made famous the idea that 10,000 hours of practice is needed to make you an ‘expert’ in an area. What other have pointed out is that 20,000 hours of mere repetition teaches you nothing. It’s a much smaller number of hours of conscious, focussed, reflective practice.
20,000 hours of mere repetition teaches you nothing. It’s a much smaller number of hours of conscious, focussed, reflective practice.
So, preachers, where do you need to improve your level, and raise your game? Think hard, about the parts of the sermon that feel too easy to do, a bit too glib. Or the bits that never quite ‘land’, for some reason. Or the bits that are just wearily predictable (like the preacher I heard about earlier this month, who had ten – and only ten – jokes as introductions, which he used in rotation).
Challenge yourself. If you’re a verse-by-verse preacher, challenge yourself to preach the whole of Jeremiah in one sermon – and make it Christ-honouring, fresh, interesting, memorable, and life-changing in the process.
Wait, that’s too hard? Then it’s time to work hard on just one of those. If you find it hard to preach Christ from the Old Testament, give yourself a year to read up on biblical theology, to find a dozen faithful ways to do it. Or do a course in biblical counselling. Or brush up your story-telling skills.
But focus, intently, for a season, on improving just one aspect. And keep worrying at it until you have.
It’s appelsína, by the way, in case you were wondering.