Preach Like Ted

It was an awkward venue, and the speaker might have whispered “tough room” under his breath, if he hadn’t been standing outside on a hill. But the speaker was determined to succeed. He looked into the eyes of those in his audience. What he saw was indifference. Everyone’s body language seemed to be saying, “Go ahead, we dare you. Just try to get our attention.”

But the speaker nailed it. He established rapport. He was brief. He even quoted a few lines from an obscure poet familiar to his audience.  He made the points he wanted to make without compromise. He even changed a few minds.

The scene was 2,000 years ago on a hill in Athens, Greece. The audience was a group of men known as the Areopagus. And the speaker was the Apostle Paul—passionate convert, zealous preacher, expert church planter—and the man who was the first to share what we would likely describe today as a TED TALK centuries before they became a cultural phenomenon. TED is an acronym for “Technology, Entertainment, and Design,” and every second of every day seventeen TED TALK videos are opened on the internet. The subject matter is broad, from science, to engineering, to psychology, to philosophy of living, to humor.

A hundred and fifty years ago in America, people encountered public speakers at political rallies, or on the lecture circuit—or in church. That was great for preachers. In those days, the pulpit was a major source for wisdom, information, history, and even entertainment.  The preacher never had to compete with Sunday sports, Netflix, 24/7 News, or seemingly endless political campaigns. Back then, preachers were high-profile. In fact, the most famous man in America, Henry Ward Beecher, was a preacher.

In those days, people who went to church, did so several times a week—even more often when there was a revival campaign. Sometimes those would go on and on. And so would the sermons.  People endured lengthy and dramatic messages, usually well over an hour in length. Sometimes two. But what else did they have to do?

Today, the average preacher has only a few minutes to capture the attention of a congregation. People want fast-food. The preacher’s job is to make sure it’s good food.

Maybe we can learn from TED.

There is, of course, real danger when we take cues from culture. We risk compromise, not to mention watering-down the message. And, yes, most preachers today have at least a fleeting fantasy about how cool it must have been when a sermon could last as long as a feature film and the pastor was a bit of a celebrity in town. But those days are long gone in this age of the sound-bite, Twitter—and TED.

Why are TED TALKS so popular? More important, why are they so effective?

Be Passionate about the Message

In his book, TALK LIKE TED: The Nine Public-Speaking Secrets of the World’s Top Minds, bestselling author Carmine Gallo analyzes the phenomenon, and I see four of his “secrets” that easily apply to preaching as a unique communication form. First, Gallo suggests: “You cannot inspire others unless you are inspired yourself. You stand a much greater chance of persuading and inspiring your listeners if you express an enthusiastic, passionate, and meaningful connection to your topic.”

Steve Jobs was an unlikely model for preachers, but in his last major public presentation he said, “It’s the intersection of technology and liberal arts that makes our hearts sing.” Well, that’s not quite my song, but I get the point. What makes me sing? What pushes my passion buttons? Want to see pictures of my grandkids? Want to talk about Churchill? The ’68 Detroit Tigers? Don’t get me started. We all have passions, but our first passion must be for Christ and His Kingdom. Have you ever tried to preach on “empty? It’s not pretty, nor is it effective. And when that happens, we need to take a cue from Christ’s admonition to the church at Ephesus. The one about what we need to do when we have lost that loving feeling.

John Wesley understood the place for passion in preaching. He drew massive crowds in the most unusual venues and at the oddest hours. How? He said, “I set myself on fire, and people come to watch me burn.”

Remember Stephen? He put his life on the line when he poured his heart out to the Sanhedrin, bearing witness to the law, prophets, and Jesus. The Bible says, “None of them could stand against the wisdom and the Spirit with which Stephen spoke.” (Acts 6:10 New Living Translation)

The great expositor, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones wrote much about something called “unction.” He believed that unction produces greater clarity, power and boldness in preaching. It is more than a merely human expression of urgency. It is being lifted up by God’s power as the Word preached is going forth. Lloyd-Jones believed this unction has a mysterious element to it, and it is something to be desired above all other aspects of the preaching. He described it this way:

It gives clarity of thought, clarity of speech, ease of utterance, a great sense of authority and confidence as you are preaching, an awareness of a power not your own thrilling through your own being, and an indescribable sense of joy. You are a man “possessed,” you are taken hold of, and taken up. I like to put it like this—and I know of nothing on earth that is comparable to this feeling—that when this happens you have a feeling that you are not actually doing the preaching, you are looking on. You are looking on at yourself in amazement as this is happening. It is not your effort; you are just the instrument, the channel, the vehicle: and Spirit is using you, and you are looking on in great enjoyment to this. That is what the preacher himself is aware of.

Tap Into the Power of Stories

Bryan Stevenson is a successful civil rights attorney and the executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative. He gave a TED TALK back in 2012 and holds the record for the longest standing ovation in TED history. His audience was so moved that they donated more than $1 million to his nonprofit organization. Sixty-five percent of his 18-minute talk involved two stories, one about a janitor, and the other about his grandmother. Her name was Rosa Parks. He had, what the Greeks called, pathos—the ability to produce an emotional response.

The late Don Hewitt, creator and producer of the CBS news program 60 Minutes, was often asked about the success of the longest running program in television history. His standard reply was: “Four words. Tell-me-a-story. It’s as old as the Bible.”

Sometimes I think too many of us regard story-telling as good preaching’s homiletical step-child—something not quite on par with heavy-duty exegesis. I don’t know why this is, because so much of the Bible is narrative. Television interviewer Charlie Rose recently said, “What sets TED TALKS apart is that the big ideas are wrapped up in personal stories.”

When Jesus was asked to define the concept of “neighbor,” he told a story about an unlikely man of mercy. When he wanted to teach about the virtue of mercy and the sin of self-righteous pride, he told a story about two sons. When he wanted to teach his followers about the frustrations and vicissitudes of ministering to people, he talked about a man who went about planting seeds. Stories. Truth connected to tale.

Stories are everywhere. Life-changing stories. The Bible is full of them. Our lives are full of them. Our churches are full of them. We watch. We read. We imagine. And we tell stories. Kipling was right, “If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.”

Stories are everywhere. Life-changing stories. The Bible is full of them. Our lives are full of them. Click To Tweet

Include Elements of Novelty

This is where we come back to the Apostle Paul—the man who gave the first TED TALK. His audience was a group of people interested in ideas. “For all the Athenians and strangers which were there spent their time in nothing else, but either to tell, or to hear some new thing.” (Acts 17:21 New King James Version)

I don’t think I have to spend any time trying to prove how similar twenty-first century Americans are to first-century Athenians. The new—the novel—tends to fascinate us. Does this mean that too many people in this day and age are averse to depth? Certainly. And this is a challenge to the preacher. In some of his final words, Paul talked about a future time when people would not “endure” sound doctrine. His prophecy is being fulfilled before our eyes each time we approach the pulpit. We are aware that many church-goers want to be entertained and, as Paul said: “Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.” (II Timothy 4:3 NIV)

How does the preacher manage to capture and keep the attention of people whose ears are begging to be scratched? Do we simply ignore them as beyond help and move on to those who appear to be more studious? If so, we may be missing an opportunity to transform ears that itch into ears that receive and hear.

One key to success might be to actually find something new in the old text. You may be familiar with the story about one nineteenth-century student at Harvard. His professor brought a fish to class and told them, “Look at the fish and let me know your observations.” After a mere ten minutes of observation, the student thought that he knew all there was to know about the specimen. So, he went and sought out his professor. The professor had left the building and would not return for some time. So, he returned to the smelly specimen. After many more hours of study, the professor returned and asked what the student had learned about the fish. After reeling off numerous amounts of data about the structure of the fish, the professor became upset and told him that he had missed the most obvious point about the fish. He was told to look harder. After thinking about the fish night and day, the student had an “aha” moment and finally told the professor that the fish has symmetrical sides with paired organs. The professor was quite pleased with his response.

The lesson for the preacher should be obvious—look at the text. Then look again. Then look again. Just when you think you’ve exhausted a phrase, you can always trust the Spirit of God to show you something new. An insight. A breakthrough. Something that excites you enough to say, “that’ll preach!”

Another way to include an element of novelty without compromising might be to find a new way to tell an old story. Change the “point of view” (POV)—maybe explore trying to tell a story from the first person perspective—be the Prodigal Son, or Elijah by the receding brook.

And there is always the option of teaching something familiar, but applying it in a new way. A while back, I preached about Elijah and the ravens God sent to feed him and how odd it was that God should seem to violate so many clean/unclean standards to help this man of God. I made the application that God will sometimes use the most unclean and unlikely source to teach us or help us.

Accept the Value of Brevity

Probably the most well-known fact about each TED TALK is that, although the subject matter covers a broad spectrum, there is one area requiring strict conformity: no talk is to last more than 18 minutes. I may have lost some readers at this point. “Are you suggesting that we cut our sermon time back that far?” Not at all. But I do think, like it or not, we must be better time managers. Most pastors today have fewer opportunities to preach to an entire congregation, and we should be aware that our congregants have decreasing attention spans, for a variety of reasons. Sure, the Puritans delivered three-hour sermons. But I think they had bouncers, too.

I began having my messages transcribed word for word. Reading the transcrpts was painful, because I realized how many words were simply unnecessary. Click To Tweet

Back in the autumn of 1863, when a cemetery was dedicated in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania—a place to honor those who died in an epic battle on that same soil a few months earlier, a man named Edward Everett was hired to deliver a speech. He was the most famous, not to mention eloquent, public speaker in the nation. The next day, the complete text of his two-hour oration, all 13,000 words, was widely published.

President Abraham Lincoln was invited to the dedication almost as an afterthought. As he shared a few thoughts that day, he talked about how what he had to say would not be “long remembered.” He spoke for less than three minutes and shared about 270 words—we know it as “The Gettysburg Address.”

Did you know?

* Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech lasted less than 17 minutes?

* When JFK said, “Ask Not…”, it was part of a 14 ½-minute address?

* When Franklin Roosevelt talked about “fear itself,” his speech came in at less than 18 minutes?

* When FDR asked congress to declare war after Pearl Harbor, the speech lasted 4 1/2 minutes?

* When Churchill offered “blood, toil, tears, and sweat,” it was during a 5-minute speech?

The late Miles Davis, a legendary jazz trumpet player, used to say: “I’m always looking for notes to leave out.”  But most preachers are more like the Apostle Peter on the Day of Pentecost and his “many other words.”

To be clear—I’ve seldom preached a Sunday message that lasted only 18 minutes. But over the past few years, I’ve made a conscious effort to trim 10-12 minutes off my previous average. I even installed a backwards clock that only I see—similar to what I use in radio. Some weeks I have it set at 22 minutes, other weeks, 25 minutes, but never longer.

But doesn’t brevity sacrifice content? Not if we adjust rate of speech a bit—and not if we look for words, or ideas to leave out. Some years ago, I began having my messages transcribed “word for word.”  Reading the transcripts was painful, because I realized how many words were simply unnecessary. As a young preacher, I heard the admonition: “Stand up. Speak up. Shut up.” But I’ve always had a hard time with that third one.

Not everything in the world of TED TALKS transfers neatly to the preaching context, but it’s a phenomenon worth exploring.

This article first appeared in Preaching Magazine and appears here with their permission. DAVID R. STOKES has served as the Senior Pastor of EXPECTATION CHURCH in Fairfax, Virginia since 1998. His fifteenth book, a thriller set against the backdrop of Winston Churchill’s funeral in 1965, will be published in 2017. David’s personal website is: