One Word at a Time

IT’S TIME FOR ME to tell you about Ignaz Semmelweis. Yeah, I know. You’ve been waiting.

Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis worked at two maternity clinics in the 1840s. The clinics were right next to each other. One was staffed by doctors and the other by midwives.

Inspecting the results at each clinic, Dr. Semmelweis noticed at the one run by doctors, women were dying of childbed fever at a five times greater rate than at the midwife clinic. That was, obviously, unacceptable.

He started investigating what each clinic was doing differently. He eventually realized the doctors, unlike the midwives, would do autopsies of the women who died and then immediately go deliver a baby without washing their hands or instruments.

It’s obvious to us that this would be a problem, but it wasn’t back then. Years later Louis Pasteur would discover germs, but in the 1840s people had no idea. Semmelweis didn’t know why it would make any difference, but even still he told the doctors, “Let’s wash our hands and our instruments. We’ll use chlorine.”

He didn’t know chlorine was a disinfectant. He just thought it would get rid of the smell from the corpses. He wondered if maybe the smell was part of the problem.*

The doctors at the clinic started washing their hands and instruments and, of course, it changed everything. They realized—even though they didn’t understand why and it seemed insignificant—that washing their hands was a matter of life and death.

I think we can relate.

We inspect our lives and notice some things that are unacceptable. We decide we want to change everything. We try, but after some failed results we stop trying.

What if the secret to impacting one person at a time is something that seems insignificant? Would you be willing to try it even if you don’t understand why it works?


Okay then, here it is: words.

Your words have the power of life and death.

Seem a bit overstated?

I might agree, except it’s what God tells us. One word at a time to one person at a time, “The tongue has the power of life and death” (Prov. 18:21).

Idleman, Kyle. 2022. One at a Time: The Unexpected Way God Wants to Use You to Change the World. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker.

We have just released a new Bible Study based on Kyle Idleman’s book, One at a Time. These lessons are available on Amazon, as well as a part of Good Questions Have Groups Talking Subscription Service. Like Netflix for Bible Lessons, one low subscription gives you access to all our lessons–thousands of them. For a medium-sized church, lessons are as little as $10 per teacher per year.