No parent looks forward to the situation that my wife and I recently found ourselves in. A few months back, our family doctor noticed a murmur in our five-year old’s heart. Could be nothing, he said, or it could require immediate surgery. He ordered an ultrasound, and we scheduled an appointment with the pediatric cardiologist.
Needless to say, we approached the appointment with apprehension. First and foremost, we worried for our daughter’s health and what the specialist’s report might hold. Beneath that high-level concern was the layman’s uncertainty of what exactly we were facing—how serious it was and what the options for treatment might be. And then there were the practical anxieties of wondering where you’ll park, whether you’ll be able to find the office, and how the kids will do sitting in the waiting room.
We entered the hospital with a jumbled ball of questions, uncertainties, and anxieties. We left with a master class in effective communication and an inspiring example for those of us who have the enviable vocation of delivering good news.
On the day of the appointment, our apprehensions about parking and finding the office were quickly relieved, and the kids even kept themselves reasonably occupied during our brief stay in the waiting room. After the perfunctory paperwork, intake questions, and weigh-in, we were ushered into our examination room to await the heart doctor.
Dr. Lee gave a friendly rap on the door and came in, introducing and quickly ingratiating himself to the room with a combination of fist-bumps, high-fives, and firm handshakes. His entrance put us at ease immediately. Then he invited us parents to take a seat and he got right down to business.
“I’ve taken a look at your daughter’s heart and I am not concerned,” he said. “I don’t think that you need to worry, either.” Suddenly, we could breathe. Our gratitude was palpable, and if the good doctor had stopped at that point he would have done enough. But Dr. Lee didn’t just want to deliver the news; he wanted to increase our understanding and to give us confidence going forward.
But Dr. Lee didn’t just want to deliver the news; he wanted to increase our understanding and to give us confidence going forward.
He proceeded to ask the customary questions about family history, taking notes and listening attentively, and asked follow-ups along the way. He seemed genuinely interested in the mundane details that we had to share.
Next, Dr. Lee moved into teacher mode. He first described the issue besetting my daughter and explained under what circumstances it would be worrying. He used plain English wherever possible, and when more technical terms were required he defined them simply and succinctly. Then, grabbing a pen and paper, he sketched a rudimentary but helpful diagram of the heart and illustrated the problem. He showed why it was worth paying attention to in years to come, but also why it wasn’t worth losing sleep over in the present.
At one point we raised an additional concern. He nodded sympathetically, paused for a moment, and then briefly related a personal anecdote that was germane to the issue. The story not only added necessary perspective to our concern; it also humanized our doctor. This guy gets us, I thought.
Finally, Dr. Lee anticipated our next question: “So, what does this all mean for you going forward?” First, he set out the paths that were not necessary and why. To ensure that we grasped his point, more than once he said, “Here’s another way of looking at this…” Then he scripted our critical moves, making clear our next steps. “Really, the only thing she shouldn’t do for a few years,” he said with a glint in his eye, “is go scuba diving.” We shared a relieved laugh.
Dr. Lee spoke to us like we were thoughtful, intelligent people, who just happened not to have the expertise that he possessed. We felt neither patronized nor passed over— in my experience, no small feat talking to medical doctors. And by the time he concluded his presentation, we were convinced of his case and shared his confidence.
God’s people enter the church each week with a jumbled ball of questions, uncertainties, and anxieties. As seelsorgers, physicians of souls, we preachers can learn a few things from Dr. Lee’s example.
First of all, we prepare for the reception of the message by building rapport. The little steps that Dr. Lee took to connect with us relationally went a long way in our willingness and ability to hear what he had to say. So also for preachers: the small talk and text messages and time spent listening to our parishioners’ mundane details builds relationships and shows, This guy gets me. The way to the pulpit is paved through the narthex and fellowship hall—not to mention the parlor and the hospital room.
The way to the pulpit is paved through the narthex and fellowship hall—not to mention the parlor and the hospital room.
Secondly, don’t bury the lede. Knowing that he had lots of information to share, and that it would be easy to lose the thread disentangling it all, Dr. Lee made plain the most important news and reiterated it in the course of our conversation. Preachers likewise need to focus on the evangelical forest lest they lose it for the exegetical trees. On any given Sunday we have all sorts of interesting info that we want to share with God’s people (and rightly so!), but most importantly we must reiterate the message: “I’ve taken a look at the Father’s heart in his Son, and you don’t have to worry—He is for you.”
Thirdly, avoid the so-called “curse of knowledge”: the cognitive bias that assumes others know the same stuff that you know. This is a natural temptation for both doctors and preachers, who are both blessed and cursed by their expertise. Dr. Lee “reversed the curse” by addressing us thoughtfully, assuming that we were neither morons nor MDs, and following different tacks (diagrams, anecdotes, discursive explanation) to ensure that his message was clearly understood. So also as preachers we take pains to convey the truth by using various means to communicate it. Our aim is not only to deliver the good news but to grow our people in God’s Word.
Fourthly, tease out what does this mean? Dr. Lee was explicit in spelling out our next steps. Too often we preachers will shrink back from this. We’ll unpack the what? and probably get to the so what? but then punt when it comes to the now what? To be sure, we can’t spell out every application from a given biblical text (and it’s usually not as obvious as it might be for a medical issue), but we can point the way forward for our hearers—sometimes with an illustrative anecdote, other times with concrete prescriptions, still other times with biblical parallels.
Lord willing, when you preach the good news in this way and the sermon concludes, your hearers will be convinced of the biblical case and share your confidence in His grace. But all of this said, even under the best of circumstances the message can be missed; don’t take it personally. As we made our way home after the appointment, my relieved wife asked our daughter what she thought of what the doctor had to say. “He said I can’t go scuba diving!”
 In Aristotle’s modes of persuasion, this would be considered ethos.