I have been a speaking for a living for over 20 years now, most of that as a preacher more recently over the past few months as a professional tour guide in Edinburgh. I have been reflecting on the differences and similarities. Preaching in an established church I spoke for a couple of hours a week with usually two sermons on Sunday and maybe a midweek bit of teaching. Tour guiding I do about 4-5 tours a day each of which last 55 minutes, if there are no traffic jams, and frequently there are, and as people are paying I am expected to keep speaking for just about all of that. So I am doing a lot more speaking now but not having to do as much preparation time, I change features of my tour week by week but not substantially. All of that means that in tour guiding there is much more emphasis on presentation skills and less on preparation skills. I am also still preaching a couple of times a week so I thought I would share how tour guiding has helped me think about preaching. So here are my thoughts

All of us preachers want what we say to be well received and so there is always a danger that we will aim to “entertain” people, so we ending up using our skills to do little more than amuse people. Now humour is a great and necessary skill in preaching but there is a danger in over using it and making people’s smiles and laughters our main aim.

I am pretty sure if my tour focused just on making people smile and laugh many would look for their £13 ticket price back because what they wanted was information about Edinburgh. I have learned to aim at engagement with people on my tours not entertainment. My aim in using the various skills that I have as a speaker is to engage people’s attention and try and hold it, so I can convey the information in a way which will be informative and memorable. Aiming at engagement means that I look at my audience and decide what kind of people I am talking to and in what ways I can best engage their interest.

All of that has helped me with my preaching to think a bit longer not just about what I am going to say but how I am going to say it, in a way that engages people interest. If people don’t engage with what I am saying an opportunity for them to encounter God’s truth in a transformative way has been lost. So if you are a preacher have a think about the different ways that you can engage with your audience and so gain a hearing for what you have to say but in a way that makes them remember more than your jokes.

I have learned the hard way that the only way you can speak for 55 minutes about Edinburgh, its history, personalities and landmarks and be prepared to fill in with general information about Scottish history if you get stuck in traffic, is by knowing the material back to front. You can’t engage different groups of tourists by shaping the tour to what you think will interest them if you don’t know a great deal more information than you will speak about.

The application to preaching here is pretty clear, as preachers we need to be immersed in Scripture in general so we understand its “big story” but also have in depth knowledge of the specific passages we preach from. Tourists expect me as a guide to have expert in depth knowledge of the history of Edinburgh and people in our churches have every right to expect that as preachers we have expert in depth knowledge of God’s word and have mastered the passage we are preaching from.

The last few years as I have not been the pastor of a traditional church I have heard a lot of other preachers and to be frank a sizeable minority seem to “wing it.” I sometimes sense that the main points and applications they make are so general that they could apply to any scripture and that some BIG issues in the passage which require real thinking are being ducked, dumbed down or ignored. Before we preach lets master our passage and more importantly let it master us.

I expected when I started as a guide that they would give me a script and it would be case of learning and delivering someone else’s material. Actually what happened was we were given a lot of information, encouraged to listen to other guides give their tours and then to develop our own unique tour. Some of the tour guides were outstanding and I learned a great deal from them but very wisely the head guide warned us all not to simply imitate and reproduce their tours but to find our own “voice.”

How much more important is it for us as preachers to find our “own” voice and not simply parrot other people’s sermons? I know this is a touchy subject. We can all learn from other preachers and should do. However, if we are simply copying someone else’s thoughts from sermon central is that really preaching? Philip Brooks famously defined preaching as “truth through personality” In that sense preaching only happens when God’s truth is conveyed through our own personality and that can’t happen if we are simply acting as a verbal clip board pasting someone else’s work to our congregations mind. As I said we can all learn from other preachers, I think we can even use another preacher’s outline of a passage and there stories but every sermon we deliver should be in some sense uniquely ours. Unique in the sense that it comes from our unique interaction with God, His Word our experiences and our culture. People want to hear from you not Rick Warren, Bill Hybels or John Stott with your accent.

Edinburgh is an astonishingly historic city and people come hear expecting to hear about that history from tour guides. I could present that history as a series of facts, so and so did this on this date. I am certain that would have been people yawning with 10 minutes and unable to remember really anything about Edinburgh’s history within 10 hours. I have discovered the way to convey the facts of Edinburgh’s history is through story, especially personal stories.

Instead of describing the causes of the great plague that hit Edinburgh in 1644-45 and rhyming off some statistics about how many people died I tell the story of George Rae the Plague Doctor. Instead of giving the dates of the many sieges of Edinburgh Castle I tell the stories of William Frank leading the Scots along a secret path up the rocks and over the walls. Rather than simply telling people the Grassmarket was a notorious execution site, I tell them the story of Maggie Dickson, half haggit Maggie who survived being hung.

I find it interesting that Jesus didn’t write anything that resembles Calvin’s Institutes when he wanted to explain the truth about the nature of the Kingdom of God, instead he told stories, “A man went up to Jerusalem” “A man had two sons” Stories engage our interest and imagination in a way that sticks truth to our memories like glue. The way I have seen people react to these stories and talk to me about them later has motivated me to try as a preacher to be more imaginative as a storyteller and think about how I can convey the truths of God’s Word through stories. I would encourage you to do the same.

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  1. John Kynaston says:

    Great post. I’d love to go on one of your tours!! … and listen to your preaching again!

  2. Caroline Cochrane says:

    Hi there! I found your blog through Andrew Peterson’s website the Rabbit Room. My husband and I are coming to Edinburgh very soon. In fact, we are leaving today! We are interested in which tour company you work for. We would love to take one of your tours. Please feel free to email me with the info.

  3. I work since 1998 full time as a. Tourguide around the San Francisco Bay Area. I also have learned to tell stories about real people in history or in my own life. To illustrate the fear that families had of hippies and their drugs, I tell the true story of my friend carol and her older brother Michael. I was 13 and thought I was in love with him, the taciturn 15-year-0ld. It was 1973. I hung around their house and turned red if he came in. He would go to his room and slam his door. Little did we or his family know that he was taking drugs. He had an overdose, became an invalid who could not walk or talk properly anymore and who staggered and lurched. The. He died at 17. I was devastated. There was no need for police giving me “drug education “. It was all over our streets.

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