“Preaching to the Choir”

We all probably hear a lot of cliched business phrases in our work lives, but one I’ve been hearing a lot lately is “preaching to the choir”.  Whenever I hear it used, it seems to be in a manner that discourages the practice.

The idiom as it is normally used seems to mean “wasting time” — with a strong image of uselessly “persuading” those who are already persuaded, and possibly boring/annoying them with something they’ve heard a million times already.

The idea seems to be that preaching to the choir is a useless activity, because the people are already in the choir, and that the preacher would be better off finding sinners to preach to… the choir isn’t the problem, it’s these sinner people who haven’t heard your message a million times and don’t agree with your point of view who you should be preaching to.

I would like to challenge this notion. “Preaching to the choir” should be much more effective than preaching to non-believers. Think about it:

  • The choir is listening to you. They’re there because they want to be there. They want to hear preaching.
  • A choir isn’t the leader. The choir needs a leader. I’m sure they can think for themselves, but they still need someone with vision and focus, who can inspire and motivate them with a message worthy of amplification.
  • The choir exists to amplify that message! That’s why they’re there!

You don’t have to overcome a lot of resistance in the choir order to get them to buy in to your message. This means the amount of time you need to spend persuading relative to the amount of time that you can spend in action doing useful and productive things is more favorable. “Preaching to the choir” should be a good thing, not a pointless thing.

When a member of “the choir” accuses someone of “preaching to the choir”, what they are saying is that they don’t want to hear the message again, or that they’re not the one who is the problem. “Don’t talk to me, talk to those guys who are the problem.”

It’s a way of passively resisting the words of the speaker. Messages that you don’t want to hear again are messages that you don’t really agree with. Even if you say that you are in agreement with the speaker, not wanting to hear what they have to say, and directing them elsewhere is not a positive response to their message. If you really think about the message and still feel that you truly are in agreement, then your agreement is weak — you’re not offering to back it up with action and committment.

Even if your agreement with the “preacher” is genuine and you are really trying to be helpful by directing the “preacher” to where their message needs to be heard, by not taking a more active role in helping the “preacher” solve the problem, you’re subtly indicating that you’re not going to be involved, or don’t want to be involved, and that maybe you’re not really on the same team.

If you are on the same team, but in your role it isn’t appropriate to act on the preacher’s message, this is a good opportunity to talk about how you can help the preacher by doing the things that you are there to do. Possibly this might mean your role changing or shifting. Don’t simply assume that because you’re on board and in your role that you’re not the problem and therefore don’t have to change. Don’t automatically think about situations in terms of problems, either. Sometimes it’s not about there being a problem, but merely about doing something good, or helpful, or better.

Of course, in business, you can’t always be involved with everyone else’s agendas. You have finite resources, time being the most precious. You have to exercise judgement and learning how to say no is an important thing. Still, telling someone that they’re preaching to the choir in such a situation is misleading. If you want to say no, say no. If you agree with something, but can’t commit to be involved with it, say that. If you don’t believe in what the “preacher” is saying, say that. Or if you don’t disagree, but think other things are more important, then say that.

If you really are part of the “choir,” when you hear the preacher, get up and amplify that message! And when you leave “church”, take action to effect positive change. There’s nothing about being in a choir that implies that you shouldn’t also get your hands dirty. A more powerful message than talking about something is doing something.

If all a “choir” does is sit around in the “church” and make pretty sounds that most people find agreeable while staying out of trouble, it doesn’t actually accomplish very much good. It might seem like it does, but it doesn’t.

Imagine being a preacher with a choir behind you, comprised of people who are all talk and don’t do anything. Think about how ineffectual that would be. Think about how much that would suck, to spend all this time on message and not seeing any good come of it. Superficial agreement isn’t support. If you hear the message, if you believe the message, then act on the message. 

And if you’re a “preacher,” and your “choir” keeps telling you they hear you, but you don’t feel them behind you when you try to carry forward some initiative on your agenda, then think about that and what it says about the people you’re in company with.

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