I just returned from speaking at a youth retreat. I really enjoy speaking and teaching and feel that God has gifted and called me to do that. I also feel like God has placed some important people in my life to shape the ways that I approach study, preparation, prayer and speaking. I have taken courses in public speaking and preaching at both the undergraduate and seminary level. I have read lots of books about this. God has given me a lot of opportunities to speak and teach. I am so thankful for all of this and consider it all grace.
However, there are many dangers in speaking that I’d like to talk more about, as well as some of the ways that I’ve tried to deal with these dangers.
First let me identify the selfish dangers in speaking:
– Relevance – There is an incredible temptation to be seen as relevant, as having something significant of yourself to offer, of being somehow important or worthy in and of yourself to be heard. This of course is garbage. I am a dork. I am so far from perfect. Most of what speakers share is what we hope to be and hope to live into and hope that God gives us the strength to do and become. These are important things to share to be sure, but the temptation is there to pretend that somehow we are those things. One of my favorite quotes from Heninri Nouwen’s In the Name of Jesus reads, “…I am deeply convinced that the Christian leader of the future is called to be completely irrelevant and to stand in this world with nothing to offer but his or her own vulnerable self.”
Some ways that I battle this temptation is to bring someone with me who knows me. Sometimes its someone from my family or a colleague or a student. (This weekend I traveled with a recent graduate who was helping to lead worship.) This keeps me from telling too many tales and beginning to believe the hope that others have in me to be perfect is somehow true. It also helps to tell on yourself in your speaking, relating stories of your failures, errors and blunders. Another huge help in this area is preparing well, which leads me to my next temptation…
– Rely on your talent – Yes, I do believe some people are talented speakers. This is usually why they began speaking in the first place. Someone recognized this in them and encouraged them to do it for the Kingdom. But what begins in that talent can become a trap that leads us to not prepare as we should and to instead lean on our talent or past preparation. What’s even more difficult about this is that oftentimes a talented speaker can “get away with it”. We can do a good enough job in our time to get some attention and praise, to connect with people and scratch an itch, but we are not truly connecting out of overflow of the heart.
Some of the ways that I battle this temptation is through developing a plan of preparation for every opportunity. This begins with prayer and lots of it. Prayer for myself, prayer for humility, strength and grace. Prayer for wisdom, discernment, and love. Prayer for more of God and less of me. Prayer for those who I will be speaking to. That God would somehow prepare a way for what He has for all of us. Prayer that the true teacher, God’s Spirit, would be the one connecting here. Prayer over the Scripture and preparation process. The preparation process also requires a lot of listening – yes, to God in prayer, but also – to the leaders of the group to whom you’ll be sharing. What are the issues that the group has been facing? What is the group like (demographics and personal anecdotes)? What are the kind of things that have seemed to resonate in the past? Not? What are the things you are hoping will happen when things are finished here? Are there any things you don’t feel like you can say, but you’d like me to? And so on. There is also then a listening to the Scriptures that you will share from. This is the development of the actual messages, but is important. There are a lot of other resources on this that I’ll defer to here.
– Pride – There is a temptation to take pride in what you do, the results of what you may see God doing, or the praise that you get from people when you are done. And why shouldn’t we be proud? We could say that it was us who did the work, who developed the message, crafted the presentation, formed the word choices, framed the questions, etc. But that would be foolish. Yes, we need to be faithful and hard workers at the craft we are given, but let us not forget who gives us these opportunities, these words, this text, this voice, these relationships, etc. The only one who ever exceeds the hype every time and has true integrity is Christ, so let’s get over ourselves and move on.
I battle this one through prayer and accountability. I also work hard to turn all conversations praising me away from me and towards God and towards that person. I ask them about themselves. I pray with them. I praise God for any good that comes from anything that I ever am involved in.
Finally, let me confess another important danger in speaking: emotional drain. I can’t speak for everyone else, but I know for me speaking and teaching is an incredibly emotionally draining process. Not because I don’t like it; I love it. Not because it is some secondary effort or anything else less than what I feel I should be and want to be doing. It is emotionally draining because you are working to connect people to your very inner heart, your journey, your learning, your stretching, your vulnerabilities, your passion, your dreams, your failures – and specifically God’s work in all of you. When I speak for three times in one day – teaching or preaching – I am exhausted. Not just tired – exhausted. When I am preaching like that it is a true pouring out. I am working hard before and after to refill so there is something better than me to pour out.
I think this is important to recognize because when you are that emotionally drained it opens you up to all kinds of temptation and selfishness. I don’t think it a coincidence that Jesus modeled this continual rhythm of filling up in prayer and time alone and the pouring out in miracles, speaking, etc. I once had a good friend ask me why we pastors didn’t just share and copy each others’ sermons like we sing other people’s worship songs. I asked him if he’d ever take someone else’s autobiography and put his name on it.
For those you know who preach or teach regularly, let me encourage you to pray for them, and make sure they are filling up regularly. This is an emotional process.