How did Athens almost simultaneously produce the likes of Plato and Socrates, Pericles and Sophocles? How did 18th century Vienna witness the likes of Mozart, Beethoven and Haydn? How did Florence produce artists like da Vinci, Michelangelo and Donatello in such close proximity to each other? I’ve often wondered how the founding of the United States of America is attributed to so many great minds: Franklin, Madison, Monroe, Hamilton, Jefferson… Was there something in the water? In certain places and at certain times there seems to arise a golden age where there is a special concentration of genius. What produces them? If there are common factors, are they reproducible?
Eric Weiner owned that question as he embarked on several journeys that would produce his recent book, The Geography of Genius. He visited places like Athens, Hangzhou, Edinburgh – even San Francisco’s Silicon Valley – asking the question, “What contributing factors are present in each of these locations during their golden age of genius?”
Weiner’s work is not really a research piece. Not qualitatively anyway. It’s more of a travelogue where he gains insights from conversations with tour guides and locals. He speaks with some experts as well along the way. Throughout the book he makes several observations. Not every factor is common across the board to every golden age in every place. But there are some commonalities that seem to appear frequently.
After finishing the book I thought, what are some of these environmental factors that could help preachers preach better?
It’s About Creativity
We are not likely going to be considered “genius” preachers by our listeners. But as Weiner’s writing continues the reader begins to realize that genius is not so much about intelligence, though that plays a role. It’s more about creativity. This is freeing because it has less to do with your GPA and more to do with what I’ll call synthetic creativity – how you put things together in a fresh way.
Creativity is different than creation. Geniuses really don’t create things, they discover them. Beethoven didn’t create music or the piano. But he created a fresh category in music in his time. Notes weren’t new but how he put them together was.
At a T4G conference, Thabiti Anyabwile said that the best preachers are plagiarizers. What he means is that we are not looking for something new to say; we’re looking for something very old to say. We are seeking to honor what the biblical text communicates and communicate that. Where creativity comes in is to learn how to say the old things to a contemporary audience in a fresh way. The truths aren’t new but how we put them together in our sermons can be. Geniuses borrow. Plato said, “What Athenians borrow from others they perfect.” Athens distilled the best of what they found from other cultures and tweaked them, synthesized them, improved them.
Do you find yourself saying the same things in the same ways in your messages? You will want to get more creative. Not for new content – that’s in the Word. But for deeper understandings of that content. For different viewing angles. For different ways to present it. Different ways to challenge your listeners to think about it. How do two seemingly disparate doctrines actually intersect in mutual-dependence? How does an under-appreciated truth actually have everyday value? What are some texts that tend to get ignored and what do they really have to say to believers in todays’ world? How do you deliver innovative sermons by taking us deeper into the gospel rather than merely inserting new anecdotes? There’s genius preaching.
There are many factors that seem to contribute to golden ages of genius. These factors converge at the right time, in the right place, under the right conditions. It is hardly reproducible. Yet, at the end of the day, Eric Weiner suggests “three D’s” that are essentials:
When geniuses seem to arise in clusters, their environments tend to be unstable. Things are not all sure, not all safe. Great ideas emerge in the wake of “schema violations” – disruptions of assumptions. Breaks from the norm. These disruptions force “out of the box” thinking. Of course, this is hard to reproduce – they sort of just happen. But you might take advantage of a crisis in your church and allow that to shake up your approach to planning your sermons or your application portions. You might reconsider patterns in your preaching that are becoming dull. Do you gravitate toward deductive sermons? Force yourself to go inductive a couple times this month. Are you averse to topical? Try a series. Always topical? Come on – walk through a book! Shake things up from the norm a little bit and see how your preaching benefits.
I wonder if too many of us spend too much time with like-thinkers, and not enough time with people who think differently. Book a lunch with a pastor who sets up his Sunday service much differently. When is the last time you sat and conversed with a really intelligent atheist? Read notable works from authors who don’t agree with you. On a Sunday when you are free, might you benefit from visiting a church of another ethnicity? Athens was not afraid to borrow from the cultures around them without losing who they were. Don’t compromise essentials, but learn from others to preach “smarter.”
Not every idea is a good idea. Geniuses are not afraid to fail, so that means they try more ideas. The more ideas you try, the more likely you come across a hit. This is not to say you should inundate your congregation with changes every week. But if you can build into your church a culture of flexibility, then you can try new ideas from time to time. Some of them will be hits and some won’t. Your congregation should appreciate your humility when you admit something doesn’t work, and your helpfulness when something does. This is how I discovered that first-person preaching really is just not for me (or my people). But this is also how I discovered that making the leap to going without notes changed my delivery for the better.