How To Overcome the Curse of Knowledge

How to Overcome the Curse of Knowledge

In the last post we identified a major obstacle to effective preaching, the curse of knowledge.  In this post we are going to consider how to overcome the curse of knowledge in your preaching.

A Reminder

Let’s review for just a moment what the curse of knowledge is.  It is represented in this image:

You have a body of knowledge that you have accumulated.  If you are a preacher, it is likely that you have a specific amount of knowledge about the Word of God, along with a specialized vocabulary.  I remember when I was in seminary and was introduced to the word “pericope”.  It means a section of the Bible, and students would use the word often.  There is nothing wrong with that in the context of a group of seminary students, but if you use a vocabulary word, or a concept that your hearers don’t know, you have become subject to the curse of knowledge.

So, the model above identifies the problem well.  You know more about Bible subjects than your hearers.  And you have some assumptions about how much your congregation knows about the Bible.  So you begin using concepts and vocabulary and ideas in your sermon that go right over the head of your hearers.  It likely happens to you at some point, so we have to know how to overcome the curse of knowledge if we are going to be effective preachers.

An Example of the Curse of Knowledge

When I lived in Southern California there was a group of people that had a unique approach to missions in countries that wouldn’t let missionaries in.  They decided to bring promising students out of these countries, train them in a local seminary, and then send them back to their country.

It was a great idea.  Unfortunately, one of the byproducts was something that wasn’t expected.  The students gained a huge body of knowledge, and when they went back home, they regularly were victims of the curse of knowledge.  They were educated beyond effectiveness as they spoke above the knowledge of their listeners.

Overcoming the Curse of Knowledge

Making the Complex Simple

So, the big question is, how do you overcome the curse of knowledge as a preacher?  Here are some suggestions:

  1. Be aware!  Awareness is the first step to change.  If you write your sermons, check over your manuscript to see if you are using words that the least educated person in your church might not understand.  If you don’t write your sermons, listen to a recording of one of your sermons.  Did you hear anything that likely wasn’t known by your audience?  It will really help if you actually have someone from your church listen or read as well.  Choose someone that you trust, and someone who trusts you.
  2. Know your audience.  The first church that I served as pastor had only a few people with a college education.  Most, but not all, had a high school education.  I had to be very careful with my vocabulary in that audience as I came in with a Masters of Divinity degree and was full of new knowledge and vocabulary.  Right now I am serving as an interim pastor in a church that has many professors at local colleges and universities.  The way I express ideas is very different from that first church.  Know your audience!
  3. Keep it simple.  There is a phrase that I’d like to avoid: dumb it down.  I don’t mean that.  I mean that you should keep the concepts as simple as possible, but that equals the knowledge of your audience.  Here’s a 12 second famous quote about that in the well-known movie, Philadelphia.

4. Finally, use stories.  Stories go beyond knowledge; they reach the heart.

That’s how to overcome the curse of knowledge in your preaching.  Here’s another explanation with some other ideas as well.