Eight Ways Thinking like a Coach Can Improve Your Sermon

Photo by  Kevin Maillefer  on  Unsplash

I was once working with a personal trainer at a gym.

We noticed another member (not one of his clients) lifting weights in a way that risked the member's joints, muscles and ligaments. I asked the trainer whether he ever intervened when he saw people lifting in ways that could get them hurt.

He smiled ruefully and said, "I tried a few times. I learned pretty fast that no one wants advice they didn't ask for, even when it's free and from an expert."

Adults rarely like to be told what to do, even when what they're told is genuinely good for them.

As preachers, even though we know the Gospel is the most liberating and life-giving way to live, if we tell adults that that's how they ought to live, we'll watch many a spine straighten and jaw clench in response.

Why? What's going on here?

Perhaps it's some residual resistance to having been told to do a certain thing a certain way at a certain time when we were kids. Having spent eighteen years at the mercy of adult authority, many grow up to resist commands or that claustrophobic feeling of being told we should.  

Maybe it's our free will or need to express our autonomy.

Whatever the case, adults learn differently than children. That means, if we want to be heard from the pulpit, we need to put different teaching principles to work. There's even a word for teaching adults: "andragogy" (as opposed to pedagogy).

The coaching relationship may best capture the nuance of these distinctions. You can learn to think like a coach with these six take-aways from the article "Transformative Learning: Another Perspective On Adult Learning" by Connie Malamed.

Tell Them Why

"Need to know why. Adults need to know the reason for learning something. This is often thought of as the need for helping the learner understand 'what’s in it for me.'"

Coaches connect conditioning, training exercises, and scrimmages to game days.

It's clear how every rep, sprint, and drill contributes to better performance on the field. Players know their why, and this understanding gives them discipline to make the sacrifice necessary for growth.

To take God's word to heart or consider making a change, our listeners need to have a sense of why.

Why is this Scripture relevant? Why does this command matter to my life? Why is it important to apply this idea outside church walls? And yes, sometimes, what's in it for me?

The Gospel issues an invitation to a better life, to a life that leads toward and builds a Promised Land. The more clearly we can articulate how the sermon message helps usher in God's kingdom on earth as it is in heaven, the more likely listeners will be to open their hearts to the invitation.

Sacrifice, humility, and repentance may not entice on their own, but in the context of God's why, they become worthy paths to the restoration and healing of both our listeners and the world.

Respect Their Autonomous Nature

"Self-concept. Adults have a self-concept that they are self-directing human beings. They resist or resent instances when others impose their will on them. Think of the resistance to compliance or other training that is forced on them."

Do you like to be told what to do?

Probably not. I know I don't. 

Unless I have a goal I don't know how to reach. Then I'll happily enlist the help of an expert and gladly follow their directions.

Without a vision for what's possible, and curiosity about how to get there, our words will likely meet resistance.

We must preach sermons that look beyond symptoms to root causes. Rather than preach a to-do list or offer folks a bunch of "shoulds" or "oughts," get to the heart of their desires, fears, or insecurities. Focus less on their behavior and more on their heart.

Then preach the ways God speaks to their pain, questions, and doubts. 

When they see in your sermons that God meets them in their deepest longings and offers a way to life abundant, they will be more open to your preaching.

Tap Into Their Previous Experience

"Role of experience. Adults enter a learning situation with a wealth of experience. This may serve as a resource to make learning meaningful."

To be effective, a coach needs to know what a student knows and doesn't know.

By understanding the strengths, weaknesses, and previous experiences of their players, coaches can build upon existing skills to help them grow. 

Likewise, your listeners come to you with a wealth of life experience—professional, personal, and spiritual.

Though we may know more about the bible (perhaps not), our listeners arrive with a history that informs their view of Scripture and our sermons. They may have been "coached" by someone else before arriving to your pew. 

Learn about your people. When you're having conversations with parishioners, ask them about their life experiences: where they've traveled, what they've learned, what they feel best at. 

Honor this experience. Touch on their previous knowledge of a well-known story to build a mutual foundation, and then expand the perspective—or blow it apart to offer an alternative. 

Your listeners may know finance, car restoration, firefighting, or opera. They may watch Stranger Things or This is Us or Fixer Upper or documentaries on the History Channel. They may spend their weekends coaching their kid's soccer team or building furniture in the garage or hosting neighbors for dinner.

Capitalize on this knowledge. When your sermon touches on details they recognize from their life, your sermon will become meaningful.

Make Sure Your Message Helps them in Real Life

"Readiness to learn. Adults become ready to learn when the experience will help them deal with life situations, such as performing tasks relevant to their social role."

Coaches preview how new skills will be applied in game situations.

Preachers can do the same.

What difference does Scripture make, anyway? Yes, loving our neighbors as ourselves is a laudable idea, but many Sundays, our listeners are just trying to steady their heart rate from the argument they had on the drive to church.  

How do these platitudes and truths apply right now?

When your listeners head to dinner at the in-laws that evening, is there something in your sermon they can hold onto as conversation veers to a loaded topic and tensions rise?

When the bill comes and there's not enough money in the account to pay it, does your sermon still mean something?

Unless a sermon offers something for our families, neighborhoods, and work, it doesn't go very far.

Define the Problem

"Orientation to learning. Adults are life-centered or problem-centered in their desire to learn. They are motivated when they see that learning will solve real-life situations."

Coaches identify the places where players struggle to succeed in games. Whether it's a lack of strength, speed, effective strategy, or teamwork, coaches target the problems and offer training specific to those weaknesses. And players, having experienced struggle on the field, listen to this feedback so they can improve.

In the same way, sermons that relate the Gospel to real-life problems appeal to adult's desire to learn and grow.

Real-life situations include cancer, alcoholism, domestic violence, layoffs, racism, family discord, explosions of temper on social media, and a nation whose political divides seem unbridgeable.

Let's be honest, though. The bible and church are not the only ways to solve real-life problems. Many real life problems can be aided by a variety of therapies. Advances in science, close friends who listen, and a dog who loves you unconditionally can work wonders.

Is it any surprise, then, that many people are perfectly content to solve their problems without ever darkening the door of a church?

Yet the Gospel insists there's a difference between these solutions and God's help.

What is this difference? And does your sermon articulate it, or does it simply offer Jesus-branded self-help? If relevant sermons are ones listeners relate to because the message can be applied to real life—their life—how do you ensure your sermon connects in a way the self-help shelf at their local book store can't?

Look for the humanity in Scripture and your illustrations and anecdotes, and bring it forward. The particular real-life situations we mentioned above are underscored by deeper problems like fear, insecurity, despair, trauma, and grief. 

Our circumstances are all different, but our struggle for love, belonging, forgiveness, and redemption are universal. The characters, setting, and details of particular conflicts may vary, but ultimately, we're going to connect to authentic human struggle and God's role within it. 

Help us see the ways God is making all things new. Show us hope. Show us love. Show us healing. Shine a light we can follow through the valley of the shadow of death so we fear no evil.

That will give the Gospel real-life meaning.

What else Can We Learn from coaches?

build trust with your students.

The most successful teams trust their coaches. They trust their experience, knowledge, support, and intent.

If we want our listeners to trust our sermon, they need to trust us. They need to know we know and understand their gifts and their struggles. They need to know we are for them. They need to know we believe in God's ability to heal, transform, and work through them.

That trust is built by listening to them both inside and outside of church, taking in and relying on their life experiences, and respecting their capacity to make their own decisions, even when we disagree with them. That trust is built by our acknowledgement that God is at work in their lives, whether we see that fruit or not.

Offer to discuss learning to help students integrate new ideas.

One sermon often isn't enough to learn something new about the Gospel. Regular post-sermon discussions, regular pre-sermon discussions, and adult education series about a sermon topic are just three ways to help our listeners reflect on and integrate Good News.

Offer opportunities to apply ideas.

Go beyond discussion to fully integrate what our sermons teach: do something, and do it together.

Preacher and congregation might make a pledge to learn how to dialogue on a difficult subject, or agree to a common Lenten discipline to abstain from social media incivility, or decrease the "us" and "them" mentality by taking on a letter-writing campaign of hope and prayers for each member of your denomination's governing authorities.

By taking the posture of a coach, and by understanding what motivates adult learners, we ensure our sermons connect with the adults in our midst.


From: "Transformative Learning: Another Perspective On Adult Learning" by Connie Malamed. http://theelearningcoach.com/elearning_design/isd/tranformative-learning-another-perspective-on-adult-learning/

Backstory Preaching offers coaching to help you preach more effectively.  

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