Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Being Interesting 05 - The Value of Mystery

There is an old bit of advice that I've heard from a lot of places. One surprising place was on Conan's show, where he mentioned that Jerry Lewis gave him this advice as the key to success in show business. The advice is this:
When performing for a crowd, (1) tell them what you're going to do/say, (2) do/say it, (3) tell them it has been done.
For a juggling or sword swallowing trick, this is probably just fine. But I've also heard people say this is what you should do with your sermons. Begin with, "My sermon is titled: _____. Today I will give you 3 reasons why ____." Next, give them your 3 reasons, clearly identifying each point, one at a time. Finally, recap all three reasons, letting them know you have done it. In other words: Tell them what you're going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you've told them.

This method is clearly organized, but I also think it can become boring and predictable if the speaker doesn't have some good material to keep the listeners interested. I've really had to watch myself in this regard when I listen to other preachers. If you tell me what the title of your sermon is, I already think I know part of where you're going with it. If you give me point #1 and I agree with it, I tend to go ahead and shut my ears off, and often find myself reading through a biblical text or daydreaming until point #2 comes around. Depending on whether I agree or disagree with point #2, I feel free to tune in or tune out. If your audience is capable of mentally jumping ahead of you, a lot of times they will (or at least, INTJs like me will).

David Fleer once compared this approach to walking through a house, pointing out every time you encountered a wall, door, window, or stair. "This here is the living room door that we're walking through." "These here are stairs that we're going down." We don't do that in real life; we just go through the door, or walk down the stairs. It isn't necessary to always explain what you're doing because if you do it well enough, your audience will stay with you. There are certainly sermons more information-driven where clarity is imperative and this is the better approach. But much of the time, I'm convinced other approaches are more captivating.

I say all this to say that I believe there are few things more intrinsically interesting than mystery. At this point, I do not use title slides in my sermons at all. I do not introduce what I'm going to be speaking about, and I certainly don't tell them what all to expect. I don't even spend 3 or 4 minutes on the niceties of "So glad you're here today," or "Good to see so many visitors." I try to get down to business fairly quickly, and it is often my goal that for about the first ten minutes, my audience is thinking, "Where exactly is he going with all of this?" Hopefully, by the end of the lesson I have succeed and they can see how it all fit together (I do eventually try to make some clear points). But I want them fully engaged with me during the entire process.

I think there is a lot of wisdom in Fred Craddock's inductive method. Rather than giving a point and saying, "Here are a few reasons I believe it to be true," like a lawyer, it is better to work like a detective. Gather clues as if you are encountering them for the first time. Think out loud. Let them discover the reasons with you along the way, and by the time you get to making your point, they'll be wanting to help you make it, because they have discovered the same thing in the process. Fred Craddock is even bolder than I am in that he often never even states his main point, trusting the audience to reach it on their own.

If you can give people something to try and figure out, you'll hold their attention. Don't be too quick to lay all your cards on the table.


  1. As with most things, I think the right path is one of balance. There are times when traditional rhetorical methods are good to provide structure. I can think of sermons where the preacher just wandered aimlessly and I longed for them to have three points and to tell me what they were going to tell me.

    Deductive reasoning and inductive reasoning are tools we can use to communicate and connect, but they are never the whole of the sermon. Rather than seeing how a passage fits a three point structure or an inductive structure we should be seeing how the passage fits one of the tools we have. Maybe in preaching on the way that the sermon on the mount parallels the law of Moses we should be more explicit and deductive because most people aren't going to make that leap on their own, but when preaching the Good Samaritan we should be inductive letting people apply the point of the parable on their own before we (if we) get to it.

    Great blog series, by the way.

  2. Thanks, James.

    I agree that balance and textual consideration are both key. There are lessons where I'm much more revealing about what I'm doing. I think my purpose of this post is to try and provide some balance, as I generally don't see this approach as much as the 3-point approach.

    I also think it's possible to blend the approaches. Rather than make a point and offer 3 proof texts, it can be a point, followed by an inductive process of reaching it.

    Thanks for weighing in.


  3. I wouldn't have exactly pegged you for an introvert, but it does make sense since you enjoy going off by yourself and being all think-y. A friend posted this on Twitter and I thought it was interesting:

  4. Oh, and the classic "tell, say, tell" format worked for me really well in school. Once I got Dr. Rummage's formula right (and quit abusing comma splices), I got sick of it.

  5. Brad, this entire list describes me really well. I don't fear people or crowds, but if I don't get some alone time to recharge, I become absolutely miserable. There's nothing I hate more than being expected to speak when I have nothing to say, or inadequate time to decide what I want to say. This is part of why I really thrive in online classes more than regular classes.