Every week in North America, pastors preach upwards of 400,000 sermons. That excludes Bible studies taught by hundreds of thousands of Sunday school teachers and small group leaders. I’ve delivered in excess of 1,500 sermons and Bible studies myself. But what difference have they made in people’s lives? Do they mostly fall flat? I suppose I won’t really know until I get to heaven. In the meantime, however, I believe I should learn everything I can to make my teaching and preaching stickier. And nothing sticks unless those who listen to us engage their brains. In this post I share insights about how brain-based preaching can help us avoid the sermons falling flat issue.
Unfortunately, many pastors seldom consider how brain processes influence learning. It’s a missing link in today’s preaching and teaching. I believe it would behoove every pastor to learn how God made our brain and how it affects learning.
In the last 20 years we’ve learned amazing new insights about how God created our brain and how it’s involved in learning. With the advent of the functional MRI (fMRI), scientists can see what brain neighborhoods activate when we think certain things, pay attention, learn and feel emotion. These new insights can pay great dividends to pastors who learn about the brain.
Sometime back I watched a webinar on making learning sticky by Dr. Grace Chang, a neuroscientist trained at U.C.L.A. She began by defining one of the two types of memory, declarative memory. Non-declarative memory is the other kind (think riding a bike: You can’t describe how you do it, you just do it).
Declarative memory, in our context, would be the kind we would want to foster when we teach. We want our listeners to be able to consciously recall the biblical content of our sermons so that the Holy Spirit can take that truth and transform their beliefs and behavior.
Dr. Chang said that three main brain processes compose declarative memory.
- Acquire the information (getting it in—called encoding). An example would be what you do to get your sermon into the minds of your listeners (i.e., the spoken sermon itself, visuals you use, dramas to reinforce the point).
- Retain the information (keeping it in—called storing). This happens when your listeners actually remember what you said instead of forgetting it when they walk out of the church.
- Retrieve the information (using it—called accessing). This is simply application. You want your listeners not only to remember what you said, but to apply the truth in their daily lives as well.
Brain-based preaching is an intentional process by which you consider how people’s brains process information and learn. When we keep the brain in mind, and in particular these three memory processes, I believe our sermons will become sticker and result in greater life transformation.
If you want to read a great article on brain-based learning, I recommend this one.
Next week when you finalize your sermon, take five minutes and ask yourself what you could do to incorporate each of these three brain processes in your sermon to make it sticker.
In fact, don’t wait until next week. What is one small brain-based change that immediately comes to your mind right now that could make this week’s sermon stickier?
I wrote an entire book on how insights about the brain can improve our leadership. It’s called Brain Savvy Leaders: the Science of Significant Ministry. You can get it here.