Offer What You Know & Make Your Listeners Work: Lessons from Yo-Yo Ma & Bach

Michael Stern interviews Yo-Yo Ma about his third release of the Bach Cello Suites (interview runs approx. 4:30 minutes).

For the third time in his career, Yo-Yo Ma, the famed cellist, recorded the Bach Cello Suites (2018).

He first recorded them in his twenties, then in his forties, and now again in his sixties.


Why record the same set of music again when there is so much available to him? Why spend his time, energy, and precious touring days on music he's done twice before?

For the same reason we might revisit a book in our thirties that we read when we were twelve, he says:“It’s a different book.”

We are different people who bring different experience and perspective to the same material, illuminating it in a new way.

“Now that I’m sixty-two, in the remaining time I have, I’m kind of assessing…‘Well, what do I know? What is it that I can offer that’s different than what I was trying to do twenty years ago?’”

But it’s not just an exercise in curiosity. His performance, he hopes, is in service of something bigger.

"As a performer I exist to do something hopefully useful. Look, I found a certain truth with the cello, and this is it. That's the gift I can bring because I’ve been doing it for fifty-five years…but I want to do it in a way that’s actually accessible to everybody in the community."

He sees that something happens within this shared experience of music, and he credits Bach for intentionally crafting these pieces in a way that actively engages, and thereby heals, the listener:

"There's something about this music that actually makes things whole, and I'm grateful to Bach for being the scientist-composer that he was, and like Shakespeare, to take all of what he knew about human nature, and say, ‘Here it is: tragedy, comedy, joy, sorrow’—and presenting it to us.

The completion part is, to me, the secret of the Bach Cello Suites. He knows the instrument. He wants the instrument to do more. Now, the actual genius part: he says, ‘I’m going to make the listener’s ear subconsciously, implicitly work to fill in the gaps.’ That, to me, is the secret of why people feel, where they’re in need, they are being helped. It’s because subconsciously he is eliciting action from the listener’s part to complete." 

Wow. There's so much Yo-Yo Ma says that applies to our preaching, and I commend to you his fantastic, four-minute interview with Chris Stern from August, 2018 (linked to image above).

But I want to focus on two ideas:

  1. Offering what we know

  2. Leaving space for the listener to fill in the gaps

How can we, as preachers, approach our craft with the wisdom of Yo-Yo Ma and the genius of Bach in order to better engage and help our listeners?

Truth Revealed: Offer What You Know

Yo-Yo has played the same pieces over and over again.

But each time he returns to the music, he's different. New experiences reveal new truths and create new perspectives.

And as he ages, he feels new urgency to share what he knows. 

Like Yo-Yo Ma, each time we return to a text, we are different. 

As you revisit a text, ask yourself:

What do you know now?

What have you learned about human nature?

What have you witnessed of tragedy, comedy, joy, and sorrow?

What do you see in the text that your younger self not only didn't see the last time, but couldn't

What is different about your perspective? 

Tap into the urgency of time. You have so few Sundays to preach on a Sunday's text.

What truth do you know that is urgent for you to reveal? 

Leave Space for the Listener to Make Things Whole

Yo Yo Ma has seen time and time again how listening to music within a gathered community creates a unity of spirit.  

People come to the music in need. A community becomes whole through their shared experience of truth, beauty, and the exploration of human nature.

The listeners become part of the music, part of the action—thanks to Bach’s intentional creation of space for the listener's ear to do the work (implicitly and subconsciously).

In this subtle work, listeners discover the help they need. 

We can do the same thing when we preach. 

A community is made whole by gathering together for a common experience to hear the Word. We are made whole by the gift of Jesus Christ who makes us one by revealing himself. 

People come to the Word in need, often not even knowing what that need is. 

When we create space in our sermons for the listener to think, connect, question, and answer, the listener becomes part of the action. 

The Word asks something of them and offers something to them.

How do we create space in our sermons? How do we invite our listeners to become part of the Word's actions?

We allow the energy of our preaching to rise and fall, like the cello suites do, bringing listeners with us on an emotional arc.

We pause between thoughts to create the space of silence.

We pause at the end of the sermon before continuing with the service.

We do not offer answers.

We don't soften God's difficult, forgiving, justice-seeking words but allow words or phrases to linger.

We ask questions of the heart about how—whether—we are truly loving neighbors as ourselves, and God above all other loves.

In these ways, the listener becomes part of the sermon. They find the help they seek. By grace, the Word, and the words the Spirit gives us to offer, our listeners are made whole. 

I commend to you the entire interview: "Yo-Yo Ma–The Making of Six Evolutions–Bach: Cello Suites."

How to Preach with the Intention of Bach & the Skill of Yo-Yo Ma

No professional arrives at performance-level without significant practice.

And coaching.

And feedback.

It is this investment of resources that brings Yo-Yo Ma to world stages and enabled Bach to create music we still find relevant hundreds of years later.

Backstory Preaching recognizes that while preachers are expected to perform at a professional level, beyond seminary, little support exists for preachers to hone their craft.

The Backstory Preaching Mentorship was created to fill this gap.

This intensive program provides:

  • techniques for engaging your listeners

  • support in exploring your backstory so you’re able to preach what you know and have learned

  • 1:1 coaching for deep, personalized feedback

  • sermon appraisals of your sermons and others so you can pinpoint areas of strength and needs for growth

  • craft talks for improving not only your sermons but your sermon prep process

  • a community of preaching committed to supporting each other in achieving their goals for the program

If you know you want more from your preaching life and desire to engage your listeners in new and joyful ways, head to our Mentorship page to learn more.

Applications will be accepted through Thursday, June 27th.

Don’t miss this opportunity recommended by 100% of participants.