“Pull the goalie” — What preachers like me can learn from Malcolm Gladwell

“Pull the goalie” — What preachers like me can learn from Malcolm Gladwell

“Preaching,” said the late, great Haddon Robinson, “is like playing the violin: it’s easy to do badly.”

If you’ve tried it, you know.

I teach preaching to college students. Yet I am acutely aware that I am still a novice. Like many pastors, I often sit back in my seat after the message with that line from W.E. Sangster running through my head: “Next time, I shall preach!”

Even so, the fact is that we preachers can learn a lot from the communication habits of non-preachers, like Malcolm Gladwell in his fantastic podcast: Revisionist History .

One of my most popular blog posts (here) was on another episode of Gladwell’s podcast. But this piece is on his most recent episode, entitled: “Malcolm Gladwell’s 12 Rules for Life.”

gladwell
Malcolm Gladwell; p: kris krüg

TWELVE RULES FOR LIFE

The title is misleading.  Because while Jordan Peterson offers a dozen rules for living, Gladwell has only one:

“Pull the goalie.”

Without spoiling the episode, Gladwell’s basic point is this: In order to make wise decisions when others won’t, you need at least two things:

  1. The willingness to follow data where it leads.
  2. The stubbornness to be profoundly disagreeable.

Most of us have neither.

Hence, like the majority of hockey coaches, we refuse to “pull the goalie” till the very last minute, when tradition and opinion dictate–and when it’s already too late.

You’ll have to listen to learn what Gladwell’s rule has to do with

  • hedge funds,
  • poker players,
  • home invasions, and
  • the life expectancy of NRA members.

I won’t ruin it.

BACK TO SERMONS 

My point is that preachers (like myself) could learn a lot from Gladwell’s podcast—and from this “puckish” episode particularly.

Here are seven lessons:

1. One point to rule them all

The first takeaway involves the elegance of a single, simple big idea.

Gladwell doesn’t give his hearers a list of points as I often do in sermons — because lists aren’t memorable (including this one).

Instead, he gives them one intriguing big idea: “pull the goalie.”

For as J.H Jowett argued:

No sermon is ready for preaching, not ready for writing out, until we can express [it] in a short, pregnant sentence as clear as crystal.

While this doesn’t prohibit a good sermon from having points (I’m working on one now for Sunday), it does mean that those movements should come in service to a single, simple big idea.

2. Short but pregnant

“Pull the goalie” is just three words.

But the phrase is “pregnant” because it demands unpacking.  Its brevity gives birth to a variety of explanations and applications.

3. Enigmatic till explained

In fact, it needs unpacking because the phrase is enigmatic till explained.

Its meaning isn’t obvious (outside of hockey). In my experience, the best big ideas are often opaque at first blush.  They require elaboration, despite their “stickiness.”

“Unless you hate your father and mother…” would be case in point.

4. Counterintuitive, not counterfactual

In preaching, as in life, “boredom is a form of evil” (another Haddon Robinson quote).

Thus the value of a counterintuitive message is its ability to get people interested.  Getting someone to say “Huh…!?” means they’re listening.

“Blessed are the poor and persecuted…” does that.

But “interested” isn’t enough; the statement must also be true.

For Gladwell, the counterintuitive use of “pull the goalie” is supported by a mass of evidence from hedge funds to homicide statistics.

It’s “moneyball” for life.  And while the strangeness is designed to suck you in, the data is designed to convince you once the “Huh?” wears off. 

5. Applied specifically

While Gladwell’s research is often esoteric, he never fails to make it matter.

Hence “Pull the goalie” is applied to far more than hockey.  As he argues, it could be the difference between life and death.

(Pay attention if you own a handgun.)

6. Qualified appropriately

In some cases, the difference between a fascinating preacher and a “fired” one is the ability to say something provocative and then move to qualify it appropriately.

One must anticipate the objections of the audience and then answer them in the sermon, as opposed to waiting for a series of angry emails (or board meetings).

Jesus didn’t always do that.

But he was God.

And also, they killed him.

7.  Repeated

Unlike many of my mediocre sermons, there is no doubt about what Gladwell’s big idea is—because he repeats it with emphasis on more than one occasion.

“Pull the goalie.”

“Pull the goalie.”

“Pull the goalie.”

And by the end, it’s not some trivial bit of Canadian appropriation (though Gladwell is Canadian); it’s a rule for life–and preaching.

 


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