If You Want to Speak Last, Speak Best

Previously in this leadership series: How Not to Delegate. My examples in this post are typically drawn from Christian leadership, but the message also applies more widely to other instances of collaborative leadership, group discussion, and public speaking.

Four months and seven years ago, I was a high school senior visiting colleges. Out of laziness, I had only applied to three, and was pretty set on attending Caltech. I came to Caltech’s Prefrosh Weekend mostly to solidify that decision and get to know the campus a bit better before I would arrive.

My host’s roommate found out that I was a Christian when I listed that I like to listen to Christian music on the interest sheet which they used to match us with hosts. He told me that he’d recently been attending a Friday night bible study and invited me to come along.

Like with most first impressions, I remember quite a bit from that weekend, but that bible study came to mind in particular. Most of the group was Asian, but I do remember recognizing one other white guy, whom I’d later get to know. We were about half an hour late, but still caught the whole bible study, on an unusual passage in the gospels where Jesus curses a fig tree.

The study started in a way that I’d soon grow quite familiar with: after reading the passage, we collaborated in smaller groups to come up with observations, summaries, and key verses. Then all the groups came together and pooled their comments before at the climax, the main speaker gave his exegesis of the passage and its consequences for our faith and lives. Unfortunately, I don’t remember exactly what he said, but I remember that brief sermon of sorts being really illuminating and making a ton of sense out of a passage that I had been completely baffled by.

I indeed attended Caltech, and started coming to that bible study regularly in my freshman year. I learned that it was Life Christian Fellowship, a ministry of the newly planted Life Baptist Church in Pasadena that a couple of my friends were attending. I decided to join them, and remained committed to that church for my four years at Caltech and beyond, along with a growing number of my friends.

The leader of the LCF study I got to see, Abraham Park, was no longer teaching the Friday night bible studies. But his wife Sarah (yes, those are their real names) was just as solid of a teacher, and led the studies in a similar style. I was again frequently blessed to hear a lesson at the end that simultaneously summed up the things we had thought of on our own and gave us something new and refreshing to take from the passage.


After my freshman year, though, the leadership transitioned and a year later, Abraham and Sarah moved to England, the first of many bittersweet departures. A variety of staff, students and alumni led the bible studies in the future, initially typically in the same format, but over time the studies became more focused on the discussion than the message at the end.

Whether it was the loss of the Parks or my own confidence/arrogance building, during that transition time, I no longer got the sense that I was going to learn something from the messages. Sometimes I would end up dominating the conversation beforehand, and sometimes I’d even ask questions in the middle or the end of that presumably final message. Eventually I decided it would be better if I didn’t come that often and focused on the many other Christian activities I was involved with.

Surely there were certainly plenty of ways that I failed during those years, mostly stemming from my own pride. At times I embraced the idea that I was there to give everyone the useful insights they’d remember afterwards, while many of my little comments were jokes. At my worst, I would seek to undermine the main message by offering answers that didn’t nicely dovetail into what I anticipated that message would be. For instance, in a different group, I remember answering that Jesus had said something because he knew he would be able to back it up with a miracle. Since we don’t have the same confidence in our prayers/superpowers today, we can’t learn anything to imitate from that passage, I argued.

Maybe some of those arguments were true, and the things I said genuinely insightful. But they were almost always off-the-cuff remarks and frequently half-jokes. Maybe I was more like Kobe Bryant last NBA season, taking a lot of shots without them necessarily going in. Either way, I definitely could have used some self-control in those discussions.

At the same time, I’ve come to realize that the bible study format is also partly to blame. It’s really a blend of two types of studies: First, there’s an inductive bible study, a rather democratic process where the participants study the passage for themselves and come to conclusions based on the text itself. But then there’s the more authoritative message, where the leader shares some more well-studied and well-thought-out messages that they’ve gotten from reading commentaries, listening to sermons, and/or their own personal reflections on the passage. With such a tension, it’s important to communicate the priorities, and by default, whatever comes last is seen as the final word on the subject.


Just around three years was the next place where I encountered the same sort of Bible study. I was visiting a bunch of churches upon arriving in Boston, and one of them was from the same movement of churches as Life Baptist originally came from. I decided to check out their young adults gathering one Saturday evening, to see what it was like and to meet a friend from LBC who had been going there while she lived in Boston.

The bible study format was eerily the same: We split up into groups of three or four to discuss the passage, which that particular week was all of the first 21 chapters of Genesis (some kind of review before they would keep going in the book), and come up with a title of that whole section and a key verse. After reading those chapters again, I was struck most by the sinfulness of man recurring through every story, even in the supposed heroes of the stories, Noah and Abraham, whom God blessed. My title was “God’s Faithfulness to Undeserving People.”

I was able to win over my group with that theme, but one of them brought up that the key verse should probably be Genesis 3:15, explaining that it had been heavily emphasized in previous studies. Sure enough, after all of the dozen groups or so had shared their titles and key verses, the leader gave each group a fake grade for their answers, and particularly praised the groups that had picked his favorite verse. “That’s how you got into Harvard; you paid close attention to what your teacher said and remembered what answer to give!” He then talked for a while about that verse and its importance in foreshadowing the virgin birth (the enmity is between the serpent’s seed and the “seed of woman” rather than the seed of a man). It’s a reasonable interpretation, but hardly the emphasis of all 21 chapters.

I remember that quote in particular because of how much it shocked me (and I meticulously recorded my church visits, so it’s not distorted by time), but I can see the merit of what he was trying to do, to tie the message of Genesis back to the core of Christianity itself, the gospel. At the same time, foreshadowing isn’t the only way to do so; we can also appreciate from those passages how broken human nature is without a savior, and how no one is worthy of salvation apart from God’s grace.

Since I was church-hopping at the time, I could afford to be a bit more harsh in my criticism, and those first and only impressions stick with me more. As I reflected privately afterwards:

So what was different about [that church] from LCF, say, my freshman year? Well, I honestly didn’t respect [the pastor]’s teaching ability like I did Sarah’s. There was also the general attitude he gave off, a sort of authoritative stance that came out when he talked about grading us. Yes, he was joking; we didn’t actually get grades, but he definitely set himself up as our teacher. Abraham, Sarah, and all the other leaders of LCF never took such a stance in our bible studies, instead seeing value in what others were able to share.


The church I ended up picking, City on a Hill, approaches things in a different order. Instead of the sermon merely being information given by the pastor, we process the previous sermon in our weekly Community Groups, studying the same passage. Frequently someone will bring up a point that was raised in the sermon, or ask a question about it. I appreciate the chance to process on Wednesday what we’ve learned on Sunday, rather than letting it go in one ear and out the other.

Coming to Singapore, we visited the church that Grace had attended while she worked after college. We also stopped by her Discipleship Group one week, which also study the passages that the sermons address. The group was fun and insightful, even though it was too bad that that was the only week they happened to be meeting while we were here.

Unlike City on a Hill, though, they were studying the passage that the next week’s sermon would address. This takes these discussions into the same territory as LCF: the discussion precedes the sermon, even if there is a gap of up to a week. And to the extent that I was enlightened by the discussion, I was similarly disappointed by the sermon on that same passage. The message was too generic, not particularly related to or insightful regarding the passage we had studied in detail in Discipleship Group, and the contrast with the study detracted further.

A lot of confounding features made this not nearly as disappointing as the previous one. The passage in this case was also long, two full chapters in Revelation (a book which I guess you don’t really want to go slowly through), so the sermon was able to focus on a different portion than the discussion had. There were also a lot of other things going on in the church, so the sermon naturally wandered towards them as well (mentioning chicken rice along the way, as I pointed out as an example of the food-obsessed culture in Singapore).


But the general observation still stands: If you’re setting up your message to be the last word on a topic, it had better be good.

This also applies to other sorts of groups, although it’s most frequently relevant for bible studies. I’ve also observed this in the leadership retreats I’ve led with the Graduate Christian Fellowship. These retreats often serve the dual purpose of explaining the plans for the fellowship that the new leadership has decided on and collecting feedback from fellow leaders.

I’ve led a session at this leadership retreat each of the last three summers. In the first one, I started by explaining the structure of our large groups and then soliciting feedback from everyone about the details, and it went quite well. In the second, I solicited that feedback first, and then announced the direction that I wanted to go in. There was a bit of backlash, as the other leaders there didn’t agree, and the next year in large groups was a bit of a wilderness year.

Two months ago, I led a similar session regarding the whole of GCF. I wanted the brainstorming to be fresh, so I still started with soliciting feedback. But when I went to give the answers we’d generated so far, I made sure to qualify that these were not the final set-in-stone decisions we’d come to, but simply “another perspective that’s had longer to crystallize.” It tended to be much better received, and we’ll see if that translates into a more successful year.


There’s a racial trend to speak about here as well. I don’t think it’s an accident that the three examples I’ve raised are all Asian-majority contexts. Asian culture is much more reverent and respecting of authority.

By contrast, American culture has become very suspicious of authority, which is most obvious from looking at Disney movies. This skepticism, this think-for-oneself mentality hasn’t taken over Singapore yet, where the government for instance is highly regarded. But as more younger English-speaking Singaporeans and Asian Americans grow up with American culture, they’re likely to pick up the same suspicions. It’s just a matter of time.


In the course of inviting speakers for the Graduate Christian Fellowship, I met a pastor who understood this quite well. At his church, he had begun incorporating discussion directly into the Sunday morning gatherings. Everyone would be seated at round tables, and would talk about the subject that week at these tables following a short (20-minute) sermon by him.

When we invited him to come talk at the Graduate Christian Fellowship, we wanted to do the same, until we realized that our venue didn’t accommodate it. Instead, we incorporated an extended Q&A time, which was good, because there was a lot of pushback against his message on the bounds of orthodoxy and heresy. (In particular, he argued against the historical use of the creeds as authoritative litmus tests. Those with their ears to the tracks are sadly also the most likely to be run over.) After the fact, one of my friends in GCF said that his anti-creedal stance was heretical — ironic, but unsurprising, and not a stance I completely agree with — and so it was good that we didn’t simply give him the last word.

Other talks in the Graduate Christian Fellowship also come to mind. In one, on homosexuality, we solicited questions ahead of time that the speaker incorporated into the end of the talk. The talk itself was fine, but people were still slightly disappointed that they didn’t get to raise further questions at the meeting itself. The questions had all been raised before the talk, and by asking them ahead of time, we were giving the speaker the last word.

That isn’t always a losing strategy, though. At another talk in the same series, though, the speaker was Gordon Hugenberger, a seminary professor of Old Testament theology and senior pastor of the largest church in Boston. His talk went well past the allotted time as he went through maybe a third of his slides on the trustworthiness of the Bible, and afterwards, a crowd gathered to ask him further questions. No one cared that he had gotten the last word in the official talk, because he is pretty universally respected among our community (for his theology, not his ability to stick to a clock).

As another positive example, I looked up the feedback that we got on another talk, by an MIT professor on the subject of God’s “awesomeness” (does that word really mean what we think it does?). One grad student called the talk the best GCF large group talk they’d been to partly because “the speaker was sensitive to the different places ppl in the audience were coming from” while another “really appreciated arrangement of a shorter message that leaves time for Q&A/discussion at the end.” As I recall, the speaker had been really self-effacing, admitting that he is a professor and not a theologian, but still being willing to submit his point for our consideration, and both his point and his message were well-received.

We’ve really seen the full gamut, because I can also recall a talk by a pastor who went too far in his humility. He began with asking himself why he had ended up picking that subject to address (politics) among the ones we had offered him, calling it a bit of a mistake. It was actually a pretty good talk with important insights, but he sold it way short in the first few minutes, losing his audience with his lack of confidence. It sounds like a somewhat tricky line to walk, but the advice I’d give based on these examples is to downplay yourself, not your message. We can decide for ourselves whether your message is good.

To be clear, I don’t mean that the only successful talks are those that their audiences immediately appreciate. To make that jump would be to ignore the prophetic examples in the Bible, speakers who were ignored or hated in their own time but whose words would be recognized as the very words of God in future generations. (Or, to pick a more recent example, Dietrich Bonhoeffer.) But there are only so many prophets, and for the rest of us, the main effects of our words will be directly on our hearers. We would be more effective if we speak in a way that they can receive and grow from, particularly if they’re looking to do so.


 

In short, it’s important to grapple with the anti-authority stance of our (American, academic, Millennial) culture without surrendering to its claim that there is no true and good authority. Instead, those we place in authority need to be worthy of that authority, and when not, humbly admit so without downplaying the message they wish to convey. One important feature of this question is who gets the last word: the speaker, or the audience? If you want the speaker to speak last, they’d better be good.

To that effect, I’m hoping that you don’t see this blog as an attempt at a final answer on any of the subjects I write about. Instead, I’m hoping it can function like the sermons at my church, the first word that will spawn future discussions. Comment away!

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