It takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become an expert at something, according Malcolm Gladwell in his book, Outliers. That’s not very good news for preachers. To reach that number, you would have to preach a one-hour sermon every week for over 190 years, if you only counted the time spent preaching your Sunday morning sermon. But there are many more ways than preaching alone that can help you grow in your expertise as a preacher. Before I suggest some of those ways, I want to defend the priority of seeking to become an expert preacher. Someone might rebut, “There’s a lot more to pastoral ministry than preaching, you know.” Yes, I know. Pastors are not just prophets, they’re priests and kings, too. That’s why this blog is devoted to help people become better all-around pastors, not just preachers. But there is no getting around 1 Timothy 4:13-15:
13 Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching. 14 Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you. 15 Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress.
Verse 14 probably doesn’t describe your experience, but if you’re a pastor vv. 13 and 15 do. Paul calls Timothy to immerse himself in the task of preaching. Do you know what the Greek word is for “immerse”? It’s eimi, which means, “to be.” Be in them, Timothy. Never let the things of preaching be absent from you, Timothy. The call to preach is a call to a new atmosphere. Now you’re a fish, and the things of preaching are water. When you dive in, everyone who listens to you will notice that you are getting better. That’s a good thing. So what else can you do besides preaching on Sunday morning that is total immersion in the craft of preaching? Here are seven suggestions.
7 Shortcuts to hitting your 10,000 hours
1. Practice your sermon before you preach it. Maybe you already do this, but if not, it is a great way to work out kinks in your sermon that you didn’t know were there.
2. Add some time to your weekly sermon preparation. Thom Rainer has noted that almost half of all preachers study 12 or less hours on their sermon each week. Could you add another half-day to your sermon prep, not merely for the sake of growing as a preacher, but also to push your individual sermons to the next level?
3. Listening to other gifted preachers. I have found this to be extremely helpful, and I’ve shared what I’ve learned from other preachers here at the blog. The Gospel Coalition is a great place to go, having thousands of sermons and lectures from hundreds of pastors and professors.
4. Sermon feedback. Assessing how well you are doing is a necessary aspect of deliberate practice. There are various ways to get feedback on your preaching. You could watch or listen to each of your sermons to evaluate them. If you don’t trust yourself, you can enlist the feedback of others, perhaps from a trusted elder, or by starting a sermon feedback meeting.
5. Leading Bible studies. Although it is not strictly preaching or teaching, this is a way of helping people understand what the Bible says. Plus leading Bible studies is like doing reconnaissance. It helps you get into the heads of people who don’t think about the Bible all day, every day, making you more effective at application.
6. Reading books on preaching. If you haven’t read much on preaching, I’d start with Chapel, Piper, Spurgeon, Murray, and Helm if I were you. Then go slow through Broadus. If you’ve already read them, consider Robinson, Stott, Akin et. al., Greidanus, or Perkins. Reading books on rhetoric and communication will help you, too.
7. Blogging. There are numerous benefits to blogging for pastors. In terms of developing as a preacher, it gives you extra opportunities to address a problem Christians face and then solve it with a gospel-based solution (basically what you do in each sermon). It also helps you grow in as a communicator, and develop your “voice.” Just ask yourself a few questions before you make this plunge.
Now let’s do some math to see how these activities might add up to 10,000 hours. If you…
1. Preach a 30 minute Sunday morning sermon 40 times per year, and practice it for 45 minutes before you preach it (50 hours per year total)…
2. Spend 16 hours preparing each of those 40 sermons (640 hours per year total)…
3. Listen to one sermon from another preacher every week (39 hours per year total)…
4. Watch/listen to each of your 40 sermons, as well as participate in a feedback meeting 40 times a year (60 hours per year total)…
5. Lead a one-hour small group Bible study two times per month (24 hours per year total)…
6. Read books on preaching for 20 minutes, five days a week (83 hours per year total)…
7. Spend 2 hours a week writing a blog (104 hours per year total)…
…you will spend exactly 1,000 hours per year immersed in the task of preaching, thus hitting your 10,000 hours in just ten years – a much better alternative to 190. And I want you to know that I didn’t work backwards from 10,000 to figure out how to get you there in 10 years. I went the opposite direction, and the numbers
coincidentally sovereignly came out that round. I tried to think what could be a reasonable target for each of the categories I laid out, probably even aiming low on how long and how frequently you preach. I hope the result of this exercise is that you feel like becoming at least an above average preacher is within your grasp, if you work at it. But allow me to encourage you that I believe that even becoming an expert preacher is within your grasp. Why do I believe this? Because between colleagues I’ve gotten to know in my own ministry experience and opportunities to coach pastors on their sermons, I’ve seen too many really good, but not famous preachers – guys who are on their way to becoming experts. Don’t think being well known is the sign reaching expertise in this field. The clue that you are exceptionally honing your gifts is simply that the people in your church can see your progress, not necessarily that TGC is asking to put your sermons on their resource page.
1. Practice doing the actual preaching is the best practice. If you do everything except teaching and preaching, you’ll learn a lot about preaching, but you won’t really learn how to do it. But if you’re at a point on your ministry trajectory where you don’t have many (or any) opportunities to teach or preach, learning about preaching is better than nothing.
2. Associate pastors who don’t get many (or any) Sunday morning opportunities don’t have an excuse for waiting to grow as a preacher. There are plenty of other ways to hone your skills as you await your call to perhaps be the regular preacher at a church.
3. There is a difference between acting like an expert preacher, and having a humble attitude as you grow in your expertise as a preacher. Keep that distinction at the forefront of your mind as you pursue growth in this area. (Not that I struggle with that.)
4. Also, being qualified as a preacher and being an expert preacher are two different things. According to 1 Timothy 3, you only need to be “able” to teach to be qualified for it. But if you love money, you’re disqualified, no matter how good you are at it.
5. No one ever “arrives” as a preacher. Because culture constantly changes, you need to keep evolving in your communication skills, in order to reach the people of the day. Because each generation faces its own winds of false doctrine, you have to stay on your toes as a theologian. Because you are on this side of heaven, you have not attained perfect holiness, so you need to keep growing in your qualifications to preach in the first place.