One of These Things is Not Like the Other: TED Talks, The Moth, & Sermons

Mosaic of SpeakersStop what you are doing right now and listen to this.  Or this.  Or this.  Honestly, these stories could change your life.

People rarely say that about sermons.

Church Consultants have been saying for years now that standing up in a pulpit and preaching a sermon is passe.  We are a visual people.  We like multi-media presentations.  We have short attention spans.

Even screens don’t always help.

Churches are finding that, even if our preachers are entertaining, charismatic, and silver-tongued,  people still will not “come to church.”   Sermon, by definition, equals boring to most of the world.

A Pastor Nominating Committee, in considering their idea of a dream pastor recently, described “good preacher” in their job description.  But then someone asked, “What do you mean by that?”  For some a good preacher is entertaining.  For others a good preacher is bookish.  For others a good preacher moves and inspires.

We can’t even agree on what makes a good sermon.

So why do thousands of people clamor to watch TED Talks (Ideas Worth Spreading)?  Why do people so love The Moth (True Stories Told Live)?  Why is Chicago Ideas Week increasingly popular in the Windy City?  And why do people subscribe to podcasts?

(Some of our favorite podcasts are actually sermons.)

If listening to sermons in church is on the decline,  why are live story-telling and live idea sharing on the rise?  I’m not talking about collaborative conversation here; I’m talking about people who will pay thousands of dollars (TED Talks) to hear interesting people stand up and talk about what’s on their mind.  There are increasingly people who will pay good money to attend Moth Story Slams and Pecha Kuchas.

Why are sermons not like other ‘talks’?

  • Are church buildings intimidating?  Do they scream “intolerance” or “irrelevance“?
  • Does “going to church” feel like too much of a commitment when going to a story slam feels like an easy in and out?
  • Do we prefer to pick our own topics?
  • Do preachers sound fake?
  • Do high pulpits give the impression that preachers believe we are superior, while stages with spotlights are clearly just for the accoustics?

I wrote a doctoral project years ago about preaching as group spiritual direction and I continue to see how the very act of preaching has shifted from Dogmatic Teaching to Spiritual Reflection intended to be discussed in community.  But I also want to discuss what I hear from Brene Brown and Eboo Patel.

Can you help me dissect all this?  (Thanks.)

Images clockwise from top left:  Brene Brown, Rose George, Sarah Jones, Peter Sagal, .  None of them are preachers.

12 responses to “One of These Things is Not Like the Other: TED Talks, The Moth, & Sermons

  1. From a Facebook Comment by Marthame Sanders:

    So glad you posted this. I’ve been mulling this over, too…

    The appeal of The Moth to me is the personal nature of it. It’s a story, too, so even if the speaker isn’t “engaging”, the story usually is. But the interpretation (and application, if there even is one) is left up to the listener.

    TED Talks, on the other hand, are about sharing really cool ideas, learnings, cutting edge stuff. And there, it’s a combination of the passion of the speaker (usually) with the mind-blowing new information that draws me in.

    I’m not sure it’s a venue thing, but maybe…and I don’t want to be too quick to diminish that as part of the picture. I’ve never been to The Moth or to a TED Talk, so I don’t know. I’ve heard The Moth and heard and seen TED Talks.

    Could it be a presentation question? Is it that sermons aren’t nearly personal or passionate (or cutting edge) enough? Is it because we are taught that personal is bad, or that passionate is pushy, or that cutting edge isn’t faithful? Or is it as simple as the fact that both TED and Moth are done without notes?

    I think the challenge for the preacher is that we have to come up with a new sermon every week, whereas TED/Moth is almost always a once-off. But maybe that’s the learning there…multiple voices, sharing multiple experiences of God in personal, passionate ways?

    No clue. But the idea intrigues me to no end.


  2. Reblogged this on katyandtheword and commented:
    Sermons are art another look at the role of sermons today #themoth #sermons #tedtalks


  3. I have no idea but it is an incredibly excellent and relevant question.

    When I mow the lawn I listen to RadioLab or This American Life, and without fail I always think, “I wish we could just listen to this in church on Sunday morning and then talk about it.”


    • Dan DeBevoise

      Shawn same with me. So two times now, one from Story Corp and one from Diane Rehm interview with Maya Angelou, in the middle of my sermon I said I could tell you about this but I want you to hear it in their own words, and I held up my computer to the mic and played a clip. Pretty awkward, but I wanted others to hear it and didn’t want to mess it up by me retelling it.


  4. Pingback: Jan Edmiston: One of These Things is Not Like ...

  5. One thing, and this isn’t an excuse, but a reality. Sermons happen EVERY SINGLE WEEK. The same preacher. reflecting on many things. The TED talkers have one or two a year based on the research they give their lives to. In many ways it’s just not fair comparison. One of the things that strikes me about the examples you gave is how they invite conversation.
    I’m a relatively new preacher, and I’m definitely thinking about how to find and use my voice. I want to avoid having unrealistic expectations of what I should come up with each week.


  6. Pingback: One of These Things is Not Like the Other: TED Talks, The Moth … | Sermon Watch

  7. I’ve been thinking about the same thing (why sermon=boring) and its not any one reason. As other replies have already indicated its a combination. The single most important one being its the same guy week after week and we, now eating gourmet food at every meal no longer want the same old steak and potatoes. Last week, I got really excited when the pastor at our church after a guest preacher’s sermon asked him a few questions in a very engaging way. It was fantastic. Yesterday, we had a Baptist preacher at my Presby church and he engaged us totally with his jokes (about boring pastor sermons, incidentally), questions and stories. Great post. Thanks.


  8. Nick Wallwork

    I like the idea of having many voices. What if we asked members of the congregation (elders, deacons, youth advisers, Sunday school teachers etc) to preach. We as pastors could work with them, but the voice and the perspective would be theirs. Thus it would be a new perspective most weeks.

    I like the idea of collaborating with our members. It can bring many unique voices and create dialog. What if for a month you had 4 different preachers, all preaching on the same scripture, offering their own view of it.

    I don’t think there is anything in any of our guiding documents that says a pastor much preach, only that they shall over see it.

    I think it is correct that TED Talks and the Moth offer unique perspectives by many different people, who have had more than a week to prepare for it. Maybe this is the formula the church can barrow.


  9. I’ve wondered about these things myself, as I sat in my driveway listening to NPR, wanting to hear the end of a story before I got out of the car…. Thanks for this!


  10. At a church I served in Nashville, we spent a Lenten season focusing on reclaiming the spiritual discipline of testimony. We asked a different person each week to reflect on one or two of the most important moments in their journey with God. The variety of voices, the passion with which the stories were told (sometimes with tears), and the permission we gave the testifiers to stand/move however they wanted in the chancel made for a riveted congregation. It was a powerful experience for the people who spoke. It was an equally powerful way to touch the hearts a sanctuary full of well-educated Presbyterians (who are always tempted to worship from the neck up) and to invite them to reflect on their own journey with the Holy.


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