Outlier Preachers

I had the opportunity to take some time off this morning to recover from a developing cold and a busy week at college mission, and what better way to kick back than with good book in hand. So I picked up Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers off my shelf after not really cracking it open since Book Depository delivered it to my doorstep (thank God for online shopping!). It’s a fascinating and engaging read, and I highly recommend it! I believe Dr Hershel York from SBTS noted it as an excellent book for finding sermon illustrations, and perhaps that subconsciously led me to this book rather than others today.

I particularly appreciate Gladwell’s attempt at helping readers redefine our standards or perceptions of success by breaking down the concept of ‘self made’ men or women and by encouraging us to instead consider the conditions that allowed these individuals to succeed (or as he would call them: outliers).

One of these conditions he underlined is the well-known ‘10,000 hour rule’, which  convincing suggests that human beings need approximately 10,000 hours of practice (some educational theorists emphasize 10,000 intentional hours) to be considered ‘professionals’ in a particular skill. He highlighted that the Beatles clocked up their hours before they became famous for who they are, so did Bill Gates (which partially explains why he could drop out of college because he had all the skills that college was training him for already), so did Mozart, and so did many countless other athletes and musicians.

As I thought about that, I realized that the same principle applies to preaching. I understand that preaching is primarily dependent on the work of the Spirit and the power of God’s Word, but surely the effectiveness of the vessel has a role to play. As a young preacher, the constant question I ask myself each time I prepare for a sermon is: how can I become a better preacher? And because I know that the primarily way God grows his church is through faithful exposition and application of God’s word to his people, I really want to do that well and grow in both my faithfulness and fruitfulness. And the answer from Gladwell’s proposal is clear: time. Intentional hours of ‘hard yakka’.

There appears to be no short cut towards good preaching. And upon reflection, it’s clear that the preachers I admire most are men who have preached for decades, and I guess that’s what makes them outlier preachers.

Now, I do think that God has and will continue to raise exceptional preachers who can just do it well. But for mere mortals like me, I believe that we will grow through preaching sermon after sermon and 20 hours after 20 hours of weekly preparation. And when you think about it, it really is a joy to know that God is not only shaping his people through our attempts at expounding God’s Word but he is also shaping us (both our hearts and our skills) as we faithfully prepare and preach. Our sermons won’t be that of the men we admire and it may not even meet the standards we expect of ourselves, but in a sense, that’s okay. God is still shaping and forming us and I gladly submit myself to that process for his glory and for my joy.

So I want to take this opportunity to thank all my mentors and trainers who have given me the platform to start ‘logging’ my hours early on. I’ll never forget Reverend Alan Best who allowed me to start preaching at the young age of 17 and just encouraged me along the way, or Reverend Peter Ko who allowed me to preach from his pulpit even though he could have done a job 10 times better than I could, and for Reverend Eugene Hor who gives me more opportunities than I deserve at Gracepoint even though he can not only preach better but also has more than enough qualified pastors and elders to preach instead. But perhaps more importantly, I would like to thank all the men and women who humbly sit under my preaching. It must be at times a  bit of a downer when the rookie student pastor gets up to preach, so thank you for trying to stay engaged, thank you for walking up after to give a word of encouragement, and thank you for putting up with my mistakes and flaws. Thank you for allowing me and giving me space to grow to be better a preacher and teacher of God’s Holy Word.

So my hope and prayer is that I will be a more fruitful preacher 10,000 hours later and an even more fruitful one the 10,000 after, all the way till Christ returns when preaching will no longer necessary because all will see and worship God for who he truly is.

* Note: I received some very encouraging feedback by email and social media after posting this entry on Facebook. Among them, one pastor in particular helpfully emphasized the need for constant improvement as opposed to doing the same thing for 10,000 hours. These are his words ‘sometimes someone can claim 15 years’ experience in something when what they really mean is 1 year’s experience repeated 15 times. Ie. as handy as the 10,000-hour rule is, it is predicated upon constant never-ending improvement. Otherwise, it’s just 1 hour, repeated 10,000 times…’. I absolutely agree,and I was trying (though clearly didn’t try hard enough) to allude to that as I underlined what theorists call intentional practice. Musicians know this best because practicing the wrong thing 1000 times won’t help you improve, but practicing the right thing 1000 times will. One of the ways that I’ve found helpful is to ask trusted friends for feedback. I have a few really good long-time friends who I know I can approach for real ‘no-holds-barred’ constructive feedback ( guys who won’t dance around to tell me what they liked but will be honest with what needed to be worked on), and because we were initially trained to preach by the same pastor, we all have similar categories to work from, which makes it incredibly helpful. Now, I understand this will become increasingly difficult as the years progress, but I imagine trusted elders, a godly (bonus if theologically trained I presume) wife, and of course friends would go a long way.

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