There’s a YouTube video that people in my church will often email to me. You’ve probably gotten it, too. The email subject lines are always something like “This is amazing!” or “We’ve gotta show this in church!”
The video is of a guy named Wintley Phipps who explains how almost all Negro spirituals are built on the black keys of the piano (in other words, the Pentatonic scale). He then proceeds to explain how “Amazing Grace”; the most famous of all hymns, was written by John Newton who, as many know, was once a slave trader. And thus, Mr. Phipps very eloquently outlines how John Newton wrote his remarkable lyrics to what sounds like a “West African sorrow chant.” And then Mr. Phipps performs his artistic re-imagining of John Newton hearing this melody for the first time.
Seriously, it’s quite good. You should go watch it right now.
The only problem with the video is that it’s not true. Yes, Negro spirituals are heavily based on the pentatonic scale. And yes, John Newton wrote the words to “Amazing Grace”. But the melody that we all know and love, the one Mr. Phipps is singing, wasn’t the one John Newton heard. The oldest printings don’t show any music paired with the words. Then, when a later edition finally added music, it’s a completely different melody. It wasn’t until 50 years later, well after John Newton had died, that a guy named William Walker took a combination of two different songs and applied it to the words.
And it doesn’t end there. Over the next couple centuries, additional choruses were added and deleted by various groups of people. Non-Newton stanzas crept in (the “ten thousand years” verse came from the classic book “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”). And now, today, our children are likely to grow up thinking the song is called “My Chains Are Gone” (…thank you, Chris Tomlin).
For some, knowing all of this information may steal away the amazement of this song. For me, it actually increases my appreciation because it demonstrates that creativity is the art of adapting. It’s a business of uprooting what is good in order to dig for what is great. It’s not about a singularly brilliant moment; rather, it’s about a universe full of possibilities that can be mined, combined, mixed, and matched to the infinite delight of the artist and audience.
John Newton wrote an excellent poem. Whoever composed the original musical setting was probably pretty talented, too. But it took William Walker to say, “I like what you’ve done here, but I think there are more options we should explore” in order to change everything. Someone had to challenge what was good for the possibility of what is great. Someone had to play Devil’s Advocate.
Of course, “playing Devil’s Advocate” is a tricky situation. It’s like providing commentary during a movie: it’s okay when you do it, but really annoying when someone else is doing it. Still, it’s important to the creative process. It can serve as a source for additional ideas, it can provide accountability and quality control, it can reveal economic solutions, and it possesses the potential to mature a team’s communication skills. But it has to be done tactfully. Here is a quick list to consider:
10 Ways To Play Devil’s Advocate
(Without All The Weeping and Gnashing Of Teeth)
Be known for being a team player
Even if you’re the head of an organization or department, you need to have some “money in the bank.” Before you go challenging everyone’s ideas, you’ve got to maintain a basic threshold of confidence with your team.
Construct before you deconstruct
In being a team player, never shut an idea down completely. Even if you hate it, find something good to say about every idea.
Build a menu
As much as you’re able, try to brainstorm alternative ideas prior to the discussion. It’s usually not good when someone says, “Well, do you have any better ideas?” – so don’t let it get to that point. Compliment the existing ideas, and then lay yours out alongside it. Talk about all the variables. You may even be surprised to find that, upon discussion, the original idea presented really is the best option.
Be well rounded
The best Devil’s Advocates are the ones who’ve thought about a concept from several different approaches: philosophically, economically, artistically, etc. A lot of young artists do a terrible job of playing Devil’s Advocate because they’re overwhelmingly concerned with aesthetic. While that’s a desirable trait for performance, it’s not very helpful in a balanced discussion.
Taste your own medicine
If you don’t like people playing Devil’s Advocate to you, you may need to check your pride. Unless you’re ready to have your ideas challenged and evaluated alongside other options, you shouldn’t be the instigator in that scenario with others.
Weigh the value of challenging someone
My pastor likes to tell me, “Don’t die on every hill.” Very few people (if any) are emotionally immune to change. Beyond a discussion of ideas, playing Devil’s Advocate is an exchange of trust and respect. An argument about something important can be a very good thing. But an argument about something minor or petty can cost much more than it’s worth.
Be aware of how often you’re playing Devil’s Advocate
Make it a ratio, like: for every 1 time you counter someone’s idea, let there be 5 times that you simply say, “Awesome! Let’s do it!”
Consider time on the clock
The options you suggest are going to require time. If that time does not reasonably exist, weigh the value of whether your suggestions will only cause confusion or disappointment. Sometimes I get an idea at the last second, realize it’s too risky to execute, and save it for a post-service debriefing.
Never challenge someone solely out of emotion
Bitterness tempts us to play Devil’s Advocate. Reject it! Likewise, don’t single people out, always challenging his/her individual suggestions. Doing this is noticeable to others and will quickly degrade your leadership influence.
Know the “win” for your organization
There are times when I’d like to tweak something in order to be more modern and appealing. In doing that, I have to ask myself, “Will this alteration put us closer to our win? Or will it merely appear to be more cool?” Again, aesthetic improvements are great. But the best options are ones that achieve our organization’s key goals. And if you don’t know what the “win” is for your organization, get thee to an Andy Stanley book! Pronto!