101: Conversation With Day 1’s Peter Wallace, Producer of Preachers

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    This week, we’ve been reporting Live from New York. This is the second part of 3 stories. Here are: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.

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    Working in New York City this week with 600 media professionals, exploring the new ways we will communicate and connect with each other in the future — I can’t think of a better Wednesday “Conversation With” to publish than this one. I’m talking here with Peter Wallace, the inspirational author, online developer and the executive producer of “Day1” for radio stations nationwide –- and now for podcasts and online browsers, too.
    TO EXPERIENCE EVEN MORE: Here’s a link to the Day1 Web site where you can find podcasts and other great resources. The whole “Day 1” organization is focused around great preaching. Today, we’re also adding Day1 to our Recommended Links. Plus, you also can click on the title or the cover of Peter’s book “Living Loved,” below, and read our review of it.
    (If you want more ongoing news from the New York conference, Click Here to read our friend Joe Grimm’s coverage.)

    Are you already familiar with “Day1”?
    If you live in the southern U.S., have belonged to a mainline denomination for more than 10 years –- and especially if you’re ordained clergy in a mainline church –- then you’re in the group most likely to have heard Peter hosting the weekly Day1 radio broadcasts. From 1945 until 2002, this very influential ministry was better known as “The Protestant Hour.”
    The name change is far more than a marketing strategy for this famous weekly series of sermons. It’s a reflection of the rapidly changing religious landscape in the U.S., where all kinds of congregations emerging from Protestant roots are no longer comfortable labeling themselves “Protestant.”
    Even if you’ve never heard of Day1 until this moment, it’s a very important organization to all of us who are interested in religious life — because its overall goal is to celebrate great preaching and to improve the overall quality of preaching across the U.S.

    Here’s are the highlights of the conversation I had with Peter:

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    DAVID: Peter, I’m thrilled to talk with you, because you’re one of the smartest people in America about what makes preaching popular. We all know that this is an endangered spiritual art form, right? When you stop to think about this, it’s actually a very strange idea these days to assume that Americans will gather in big crowds to sit quietly and hear someone stand up and talk to them for 20 minutes or more.
    There’s almost nowhere else in American life where we do that, anymore. And, the few places it happens outside of churches –- like in corporate conference-rooms where executives drone on to employees –- the whole idea becomes something we love to laugh about in Dilbert.
    So, I’m sure that millions of American churchgoers would love to know: What makes for great preaching these days?
    PETER: That’s a challenge!
    DAVID: Yeah, but it’s the big question for thousands of preachers and millions of churchgoers right?
    PETER: Yes, that’s a question I try to talk to preachers about when they come in to do our program. We record their sermons, but we also have a brief interview with them before the sermon. We all wonder about this. Jesus did this 2,000 years ago and here we are in this high-tech world still trying to do this, even though people’s attention spans are getting shorter and shorter.
    Does it still work to preach to people? This is such an old form of building a community -– talking to people like this –- but it does still work. There’s something about the spoken word and our receptive minds that can become engaged in the moment of preaching. It’s a combination of the content, the delivery, the storytelling that’s involved –- and it is a real art.

    DAVID: I agree. It’s an art. But let’s unpack the elements a little bit. Are you saying sermons should be shorter today?
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    PETER: Well, we wrestle with that because most of our preachers tend to preach around 15 minutes now. That’s our maximum time for “Day1.” So, usually that fits, but some of the preachers like to preach for 20 to 25 minutes and we have to get their message down to 15 minutes. Sometimes it’s difficult, but we’ve been told by radio people that 15 minutes of one voice speaking is a long time for listeners. In fact, radio people tell us it’s just deadly in media. They tell us you just can’t go more than 15 minutes and hold people.
    DAVID: True, I think. That’s what I’m hearing from many experts in preaching I’ve known over the past 20 years -– shorter is better. In fact, the late Catholic Bishop Kenneth Untener, who was a master of preaching, used to say that Catholic homilies shouldn’t run longer than 10 minutes! Of course, that’s a different format than Protestant preaching.
    To be honest, though, I also can point out lots of exceptions to this rule. The evangelist Rob Bell actually has proven that he can sell tickets to clubs and theaters around the country where he preaches non-stop for close to 2 hours! So, yeah, I’m hearing that shorter is better, these days, but there must be exceptions, too, right?
    PETER: Yes. Our limit is 15 minutes. But, yes, there’s something that happens when people listen to good preaching. They tell us that it’s still very engaging.
    DAVID: Beyond the length of time, what would you say are the hallmarks of the best, most popular pastors you’ve worked with over the years?

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    PETER: They’re not all pastors. Phyllis Tickle preached on our program and people loved that. And I loved having a chance to meet her –- to meet all of the different people who do the program.
    But, I think it’s a combination of things that connect with people. First, I think listeners can really tell right away whether this person is talking about something that affects them and their lives. A personal connection is the first thing. With great preaching, people respond with: Oh, I need to listen to this, because this really matters to me.
    DAVID: That’s interesting. A connection right away with their lives. And the idea that we need to listen. It matters to me.
    PETER: Then, great preachers weave stories that get their points across. And there’s an art to that, too. Just throwing in stories for a laugh or to try to make a point by just throwing in a story –- that doesn’t really advance what you’re saying. It can almost backfire if people think you’re just throwing in something for an effect.
    Storytelling has to be woven in with the points you’re making. Think of how Jesus did it. Jesus pretty much taught in parables and stories. That’s almost the extent of what he did in many cases, but his stories were the message. His stories forced people to wrestle with what he was talking about personally –- to take what he was talking about and work with it in their minds and to do something as a result of it.
    DAVID: OK, so length –- keep it short, unless you’re a Rob Bell, I guess. And, second, effective preaching has to connect directly with people’s lives. Third, storytelling that’s a direct part of the message, not just a cut ‘n’ paste of old favorites. What else?
    PETER: Sincerity. A real sincerity in what you’re saying.
    DAVID: That’s a challenge. When you’re preaching every week or, if you’re a Catholic priest, delivering a homily every day –- the sincerity really demands something of a preacher.
    PETER: It means talking about difficult subjects that people are wrestling with. One of the most popular messages we’ve had is about divorce. And that’s a very difficult subject. How do we, today, wrestle with the world in which Jesus lived and what he said about divorce -– and all of the really practical thoughts today about how so many people get through divorces.
    Basically, people are hungry for messages that make sense in their lives.
    DAVID: This is an interesting transition to your own work, because “Living Loved,” your new book, is a 90-day inspirational journey through scriptures –- and you say in the opening of the book that you wrote this during a period you were going through a very tough time yourself.
    PETER: I had gone through a divorce.
    DAVID: And, although you don’t talk in the book about the specifics of your own situation going through the divorce, you do invite people to come along with you on a prayerful, spiritual journey with you.
    PETER: I hope so. I hope people see it that way.
    DAVID: You’ve set it up so people can read along for three months –- 90 days. Did you write it in 90 days? Are these reflections on scriptures and the nature of love essentially a 90-day slice of your spiritual life?
    PETER: I’m a pretty fast writer, but I tend to get out the material and then go back and mull it over and revise it. I started this book several years ago after my personal life went through an upheaval. Writing this book became almost a way to minister to myself.
    DAVID: The upheaval was the divorce, as we’ve just said. But, as the book opens, what you say is “I have come through a painfully difficult personal time.”

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    PETER: Yes, I was going through a divorce and all kind of things that left me not feeling very loved myself. It was very very difficult and I was reading John’s gospel at the time -– and this led to the book.
    DAVID: In the book, you take people through the gospel of John with you in 90 reflections. It’s a moving journey for readers, all about the nature of love -– and, in a sense, allowing God to love us. But I’m curious about why you were so guarded about the specifics of your own struggle. You say, right in the opening, that it was “painfully difficult,” and then you share a good number of anecdotes from your life in the course of the book –- but not really about this difficult time specifically.
    PETER: That was deliberate. I purposely did not go into detail about that. People have told me that they connected with that phrase you just read with their situations.
    DAVID: So you were doing the same thing we talked about at the start of our conversation here –- you were connecting with people on a direct, sincere level about things that really matter in their own lives.
    PETER: Yes, but what I’ve found is that people connect my phrase with different painful situations in their lives. If I had said: Well, this is specifically about going through a divorce, then, I think a lot of people would have said: That’s not what I’m going through. And, they may not have felt this was relevant for them.
    But the truth is that everyone has wrestled with questions: Who am I? Who has God made me to be? How do I find my place in this world? Why can’t I really feel what I believe in my daily life? Why can’t I get energized to actually do what I believe in terms of serving others? Why don’t I feel loved? What’s holding me back each day?
    So, to one degree or another, everyone wrestles with these questions –- and we’re trying to do this while life is continually throwing new hurdles in our path.

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    DAVID: Peter, as you say that, I keep thinking we’ve come full circle here. You’re really talking here about what makes for great preaching, I think –- wrestling sincerely and directly from out of scriptures and out of our faith with these questions that are so universal in our lives.
    I remember one of the most powerful book recommendations we’ve made in the first months of our ReadTheSpirit web site was about a book called, “Tear Soup,” a book about grief that has helped a lot of readers since we found it. The book originally was recommended by someone I just happened to meet one day –- and then I found a copy of the book and ecommended it to readers.
    Part of the spiritual genius of that book, “Tear Soup,” is that it never specifically mentions the specific source of great grief in the main character’s life. People connect with that story in powerful ways -– because so many of us have known great grief, in many forms. It’s one of those “hurdles” you talk about that life throws in our way.
    PETER: Deep down, I think we all know what we should be doing, but we’re often scared or we think what we should be doing is impossible -– or we come up with all sorts of excuses why we can’t do what we need to do.

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    DAVID: I remember this passage in your book. It’s right in the middle of the book, a chapter about “Stretchable Faith.” You quote from John, Chapter 6, the line about “Jesus said this to stretch Philip’s faith.”
    And you talk about a friend of yours who advised you, at a time when you were dealing with a “critically important decision” that you should stretch yourself, too. He said to you: “Life is too short. Before you die, why don’t you do something that you love?”
    PETER: That’s where faith comes in. There’s the verse about faith moving mountains, and sometimes you do have to move mountains. It starts with accepting yourself, the fact that you are loved -– and listening to what you are called to do. And, if you do listen to the call of faith, amazing things can happen.
    DAVID: We say that mustard seeds can grow, but I know that’s tough to actually believe. I was in a discussion group just last week in which a young woman said this very thing to me. She said she deeply wants to believe that mustard seeds can grow the way scriptures say they can -– but it’s almost impossible to believe it.
    PETER: But, it’s true. Sometimes, we have to get out there beyond our comfort level in experiencing that truth. We have to act on what we hope and get out there and trust in God to pick us up when we fall down. That’s what our lives should be all about, right?
    DAVID: Yeah. And that’s a pretty good place to close this conversation. A great sermon, I think, right there in the things we talked about today, Peter. Thank you.

    COME BACK THURSDAY for more news from the conference in New York on the future of media — reporting on news that’s breaking here with spiritual impact for all of us. And, don’t miss Friday’s story, “Carrying Light from the Darkness,” about two very different authors both of whom wound up searching for hope in the deepest of despair. 

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