How to Write Talks in Order to See Changed Lives
Doug Schaupp 9/98 UCLA Team
You all are taking tremendous risks to grow in teaching the Word. You are listening to God, and he is putting his Word on your heart for his people. You are stepping up to speak the truth, and you are calling for changed lives. You are trying stuff that you never knew you could do. Well done! In turn, I want to do all I can to help you learn how to be faithful teachers of the Word. Growing in this ministry is very hard work. But God’s Spirit is in you, and He will guide you into maturity in your teaching. Under His guidance, you will each develop your unique style according to your personality, your gifts, your ethnicity, your gender, etc. You have my total permission to experiment and grow and evolve in your teaching. To help that process, I am writing down some things that I have found helpful both in my own development and also in helping others grow in teaching. However, if these recommendations are not helpful for you, please rip this up and throw it away. Don’t give it a second thought. The danger of writing down these ideas is that they become some kind of sick legalism that we have to stick to, even when it doesn’t work for us. (By the way, these ideas are just for speaking to generally Christian groups. I change some of these guidelines in my evangelistic speaking.)
Teaching the word well is a huge gift of servanthood that you are giving to God’s people. I hope that this ministry that you are embarking upon becomes a life-long commitment and joy. God is investing in you for the long run. So please get used to teaching the Word in season and out of season. God is very motivated to develop this ministry of the Word in you (I Cor. 12:28,31). Please also have complete confidence in God’s power to work through his Word. He longs to regenerate people’s hearts and to sanctify them through his Word. Even as much as you want the Word to go out in power, how much more does God value his word going out in power! The burden rightly belongs on God to make the teaching powerful.
As teachers, let us strive to be like Ezra. Ezra didn’t just want to teach the scripture. He wanted to wrap his life around the Word. “For Ezra had set his heart to study the law of the Lord, and to do it, and to teach his statutes and ordinances in Israel.” (Ezra 7:10) We must be consumed by the Word, putting it into action before we call others to obedience. As we find our joy in studying and doing the Word, others will want to emulate our love for the Word. A very high regard for the Word will get passed on through our teaching. We want our community seeped in the Word, and we have the honor of raising the bar high in terms of how much we should love the Word.
I The Power of the Word
There is nothing that we will ever get our hands on that comes close to being as powerful as the Word. The Word has the power to bring a dead heart to life. Once the Word penetrates the heart, it regenerates and starts a fire. It literally creates a revolution inside of people, and they often don’t know what is going on. They just know that something amazing is happening, and that they are changing. That is the good news.
The bad news is that Satan is the ruler of this earth, and he is hell-bent on keeping people from internalizing the Word. He knows how powerful and revolutionary the Word is, so he snatches it every way he can. He is an expert in keeping people stuck in self-deception, spiritual numbness, and general depravity. James 1:22-25 is an excellent depiction of what we are up against. We humans love to forget how broken and needy and disobedient we really are. We get convicted from the Word how much we need to live it out, and then we quickly forget any feeling of conviction. Satan snuffs it out. So as we teach, we are trying to serve people who have an intrinsic tendency to ignore application of the Scripture. “I’m doing pretty well in that area of the Kingdom”, is one of the most pleasing thoughts that can go through the self-deceived Christians’ mind.
The Word is still more powerful than Satan and our self-deception, but sometimes we only notice Satan’s work, not God’s. Here’s how I think about it as I prepare a talk. People are pretty open to God deep down at the core. But there are layers of barriers, defenses, and armor up between our hearts and God’s Word, some put there by Satan and some that we have put up ourselves to protect ourselves. There are elaborate rationalizations in place as to why we don’t need to change. There is sin and unbelief that God would even want to work in my life. I like to think of my challenge as a teacher as getting under one layer armor after another, so that in the end, the Word has hit them in their softest spot. Then lives change. I cannot change anyone’s heart, but I can serve the congregation in every way possible to make the word accessible and relevant to them.
Because our challenge is so complex, we must make it as compelling as possible to live out the Word. We must persuade, exhort, motivate, and even twist arms to get people to live out the Word. We must not allow ourselves to play into people’s natural tendency to merely enjoy the Word and not live it out. Don’t be pleased just because people complement you after you talk. Wait and see if people live it out to know if you have succeeded.
Our challenge is two-fold: we must show them the goodness and attractiveness of the truth in the scripture, and then we must show them how to get this truth deeper into their own lives. Once they are honest with themselves with how much they need this truth, then they can get serious about changing. For me, every talk is an opportunity to help people into a paradigm shift in terms of how they see themselves, God, and life. I take my role as a teacher seriously. The Word wants to change people. I need to write talks and preach sermons with the expectation that each time I teach, I am helping people change their paradigm from the world’s perspective to the Kingdom’s perspective. Life is short, and there are too many paradigms that need to be shifted for me to mess around. Let’s teach so that people are compelled to change their lives. Amen?
Let us also commit to humility in our teaching. Though we take our role seriously and we think as hard as we can about how to serve people with the Word, we must always remember that only God can make the Word penetrate the heart. We can give the most effective and well-written talk in the world. But if God chooses to withhold his Spirit, no lasting change will come. We must always pray that God fills our teaching with his Spirit. Also, we need the humility to pray for God to guard our tongue from teaching heresy. Teachers face greater judgment (James 3:1). When we are teaching passages where the truth is clear and bold, we must be clear and bold. But where the scripture is vague, we should let them know that we are only offering our opinion.
In summary, we need to have total confidence that one little Word from God can make all the difference in someone for the rest of their life. We stand in awe, because the Word we are handling is radioactive. When God calls us to speak his Word, we step up in total obedience and let God speak though us whatever he wants to (Jer 1:6-10). He puts the Word in our mouth, and we speak it. We are not responsible for the results, only God is. This provides us total freedom from trying to get our affirmation and value from results.
II Visioning for your congregation
So how do we write the kind of talks that change lives? Let’s learn from Paul how vision for people before we write our talks and give them. Paul is one of the most effective teachers and preachers of all time, but we know it isn’t due to his eloquence. Instead, he labored in prayer and reflection over how to best serve people in every different city he visited. He masterfully constructed powerful and relevant talks that hit the nail on the head everywhere he went. He studied his audience, and honored them by tailoring everything to fit them perfectly. He adjusted his sermons to fit each new context. He didn’t just speak on a passage because he was given the opportunity. He sought out God and gave them the most relevant and useful message he could. He didn’t want to waste anyone’s time. When God gave him opportunities to speak, he spoke as if that was going to be his very last chance to speak to that group of people. This gave strong urgency and effectiveness to his preaching. For example, in Acts 26, Paul preaches to King Agrippa. He tailors his sermon in order to make it as compelling for Agrippa as possible. Then he shamelessly calls for response right there (v.28-29). Paul uses his sermons in order to see God change lives. He shamelessly expects repentance and response to his preaching. He is appropriately blunt and aggressive. We should be also.
If we don’t vision, we lose our focus and the sermon gets diluted. You need to have a clear focus and goal for your talk even before you begin writing it. First you need a sense of conviction from God about why he has you speaking to this particular group on this particular day. Once God hones you in on the precise target that he has in mind, you can keep track of whether your talk is hitting the bulls eye or not. If you keep your eye on this target, then you can avoid abstraction and vague teaching, which are two huge crimes in preaching. Practicals is where the rubber hits the road. Let’s not waste people’s time. If they are willing to give you an hour, you can vision for them and do all you can to help them grow and change. Satan loves abstraction. If your talk is abstract, Satan has protected people from the regenerating effects of the Word. For example, in playing darts, it is obviously better to hit the board than hit the wall. However, you will never win unless you hit the bulls eye. Similarly, when we teach the word, it is not enough to hit in the general right direction. We need to have a razor-sharp sense of what the exact bulls eye is so that we know if we have struck gold. Don’t be satisfied with a good talk. Only be satisfied with changed lives. (Occasionally in the process of writing a talk, God will change my focus. I see a new bulls eye that is more key to go after. However, normally if I drift to a new focus, it is because I am losing my way and I need to come back to the original vision God called me to.)
Our presupposition needs to be that God wants to help people grow and change and become more like Jesus. He wants them to take in more and more of his Kingdom. He wants to work through you to take people from point “a” to point “b”. Therefore, you need to ask, “God, give me supernatural discernment so that I can see exactly where folks are at (point “a”), and where you want them to be (point “b”), and what is blocking them from getting there.” Take time to think about them. Try to answer questions like these:
1) Who exactly are the people I’m speaking to?
2) What do they already think about this topic or passage?
3) What currently holds them back from obedience in this area? What are the internal blocks or strongholds that holds them back?
4) Where is their thinking wrong? What is God up against as he tries to help them change their paradigm in this area of the Kingdom?
5) What will be the hardest part of this teaching for their ego to hear?
6) Is God wanting to give them this Word in order to open a totally new Kingdom category for them, or do they already have this category but lack obedience in it?
Once God gives you good answers to these questions, you know with confidence what your job is: to take them from “a” to “b”. Then you can gear everything in your talk toward that vision. For me, this is just about the most important thing in writing a talk that changes lives.
Sometimes the congregation is at 3 or 4 generally different places with a subject. In application, it may be helpful to actually identify these distinct places in order to help each group personalize the Word. (I have been mocked for the regularity with which I say, “We are in three general places with this Word...”) This specificity helps me catch everyone and keeps people from letting themselves off the hook. I hate it when people say in their hearts, “Oh that doesn’t apply to me. I’m not that way.” So I try to dish out a little something for everyone present. And visioning is the key to seeing where people are at.
A helpful image for me as I struggle to vision for a talk is Samson near the end of his life. Until Samson got his hands on the pillars, he was useless. For me, if I speak without vision, I am very ineffective. Without my hands on the pillars, I am useless. But if you put my one hand on one pillar and my other hand on the other pillar, then I know where to push. Then the power of God flows through the Word, and the foundations shake. Lives are changed. Visioning is the process of figuring out what are the pillars that God wants me to push against. Once I have vision, I have freedom from God to push as hard as I can.
III Writing the Talk
1) GETTING STARTED: I find that I generally have one of two starting places when I sit down to write a talk: either I already have a topic, or I already have a text from which to work. If I have a topic, after praying, I get out a piece of paper and I start brainstorming. I do step II, asking where people are at and what they need to grow in. Then I generate a list of all the things I could say about this subject, in bullet point format. I list all the passages I could use. I list the stories from my life and other people’s lives that I might use. I also list possible practical applications that God might lead them to. From there, I pick the best 10% of what I have, and I organize it according with what will have the maximum impact on them. Since this is my one shot, I want to make this the best. In my opinion, the best topical talks have 1, maybe 2, main points. Instead of giving them 7 different things I hope they will remember, I try to give them 1 really important thing that will serve them for years.
When I am picking a passage, I take some time to study the various passages that I want to chose from. In each passage, I write down the points that I the scripture makes. Then I try to figure out which way each one points. It is very important to not bend a passage to make the point that I am trying to make. If it is not going the direction I want to, then I probably need to pick a different passage.
2) EXPLAINING THE PASSAGE: Once I have the passage picked, my goal is simple: I want the passage to speak for itself. I try to hold it up, get people to grapple with it directly, and I try to get out of the way. My calling is to be a servant of the Word, as Ajith Fernando puts it. When the Word is intense, I am intense. When the Word is encouraging, I am encouraging. In terms of how to handle the verse by verse explanation of the passage (exegesis), now we are in another tremendously important area of teaching. My goal is to bring to life the naturally intriguing, curious, and troubling parts of the passage. I ask the questions that the passage wants us to ask. I try to build tension around the places where the author intended us to feel tension. I want to help the congregation get into the passage as much as possible.
With parables or interactions, I try to paint the picture as much as possible. I want them to feel the story line, and to identify with the characters. However, it is very different from an inductive study. In a manuscript study, I hope for every detail to come out, even the small ones. In a talk, I only focus on several of the most important points of the passage. “How would I feel if I were in this scene?” is the question I try to get people to feel.
With the Epistles, it is harder to bring it to life. Good interpretation is usually more about the logic of a passage and the flow of the argument. So I try to emphasize the logical connectors and how the people being written to would have received this point. Again I try to bring the tensions to the surface, getting people to grapple with the text. One of my goals is for people to leave and say, “Wow, I didn’t know how interesting that book of the Bible is. I’m going to start reading that book all the way through tomorrow.”
3) CHOOSING STORIES: Choosing a good story or illustration for a talk is harder than I first thought. First, the story needs to match the point that the text is making. Then, the story needs to connect to where your congregation is coming from. It needs to match where they are at in life. This is very easy for me to forget, because I connect with a passage in one way, but they may connect in a very different way. Plus, I may be at a very different place in life. So, a story I want to tell out of my current life may not be of any real use to them.
In telling a good story, dramatic tension is very helpful. Don’t give your story away until the end. Help them get into the tension. Also, give them appropriate and helpful details in the story. As long as you don’t go overkill on the details, the specifics can help people picture the scene vividly. I recommend writing out stories word for word on your paper so you can practice the telling of it and even get better at it. This may sound contrived. But story telling is an art that requires much practice. I still benefit much from writing out my stories and then changing them so that they flow better.
I think that telling personal and vulnerable stories is generally a very good idea. (Of course, you must exercise wisdom so that your details don’t cause people to stumble.) Vulnerability catches people off guard in a good way. They don’t expect real transparency from a leader. In sharing your life, you build trust by showing them your integrity and you disarm their ego and make them be honest with themselves too. Vulnerability in you generates vulnerability in them. It is no longer just some teaching time. It is heart to heart communication.
4) RAMMING IT HOME: I like the volleyball analogy for speaking: first you bump the ball, then you set it, and lastly you spike it home. I think that any good talk needs to have these three components, several times over. First you make your general point from the word. That is the set. Then you intensify the ramifications of that point: the set. Finally, it is essential to punch it home with the spike: “How about for your? It is essential that you do not fall into this trap!” This last mode of exhortation brings the point home to them in an appropriately emotional way. Some new speakers never get around to the spike. They just want to explain things, and never get up in their face. (Others may try to only spike their points again and again before they have built their foundation with a bump and a set.) In the spike, I do not mean “tell them exactly what to do”. With my exhortations and spikes, I prefer to be very straight forward, yet general. They still need to pick practical next steps for themselves. The spike is an art form. It is an excellent way of exercising teaching authority over a congregation and calling them to something new. It is a very effective way of exercising leadership over a whole community.
There needs to be a place in each well-written and well-given talk for expressing your passion about the topic. I often recommend to teachers that they find 2 or 3 places in their talk where they feel the most passionate about what they are saying. Then at those special points in the talk, they should cut loose and really share from the heart how essential this area of growth is. People see your genuine heart and really connect. By sharing your passion, you can move a whole group a little further into the Kingdom. This kind of exhorting can feel very abnormal for many of us, especially out of white and Asian culture. But Paul did it all the time. And it is very effective.
5) BEING THOROUGH: It is easy to make a quick point in a talk, but not fill it out. Then people don’t really take it in. I recommend that after you finish with a draft of your talk, you go back through and you write down on a separate piece of paper what the flow of the points are that you are making. Once they are listed like that, you can go back to your talk and ask yourself several key questions: 1) How hard will it be for them to accept this point? 2) Do I finish making my point clearly? 3) What might their objections to this point be?
Paul in his epistles interacts with his audience by guessing what his detractors might say about each of his points. By bringing their disagreements into the conversation even before they can, he takes the wind out of their sails and even wins them over. Similarly, it is crucial for us to sense when we have “won” our point with the group. What will it take to convince them? Have I stated my case clearly enough?
For young speakers, one of the most common mistakes is to move off a point before you have finished it. It is so easy to move on to a new point before you clearly finish laying out your previous point. “What is your point here?” is the question I most often write in the margin of young speakers. So I recommend that you go back on your own and ask yourself that same question on each page. See if you can tell if you have nailed the point you are trying to make, and if you have said your point clearly enough to “win” it.
6) A GOOD INTRODUCTION: At the end of my introductions, I like for people to have a strong felt need for what I am about to say. I try to whet their appetite for the topic or passage. I try to intrigue them. This can be done through an effective story that leaves them hanging at the end. I often like to tell them of a recent conversation which centered on the very topic which we are covering. Please don’t make the common mistake of writing a talk like you write a paper for a class. In a essay, the introduction merely explains what you are going to say. In speaking, you want to connect with people and engage with them immediately.