The phrase “cotton candy preaching” is a derogatory term that implies sermons lack depth. And of course no pastor wants to be considered a “cotton candy preacher.” On the other hand I’ve heard pastors say that Christians need “meat and potatoes” preaching, which they define as sermons with depth. Such pastors often begin their sermons with, “Please turn in your Bibles to today’s text.” Once they read the Scripture, they’re off to the races to give a deep, theological sermon, a meat and potatoes kind.
But after spending 15-20 hours per week preparing a sermon, how do we really know if it connected with the listener? Is the test of a good sermon simply that we delivered a deep, theological, sound talk? Is it all about good content? Is it up to the listener to get it and figure out how it applies to his or her life? Or is this the true test of a great sermon: that we truly connect to the listener’s heart and mind so that the Holy Spirit changes attitudes and behaviors?
I think it’s the latter. That’s where cotton candy preaching comes in.
In my current masters program I’m completing on the neuroscience of leadership, also called neuroleadership, I’m learning how important the brain plays in persuading others to change. In my 32 years in ministry I’ve faced my share of critics. Some have said that my sermons were too heady and that they didn’t connect with the heart. I’ve been puzzled why I seemed to get those comments. Now I understand why.
The old sage Aristotle helped us when he described three domains that affect persuasion (and preaching).
- Logos: persuasion through reasoning and logic
- Pathos: persuasion by appealing to emotions
- Ethos: persuasion through the force of character or personality of the speaker or writer
People in your congregation are largely persuaded through these factors. Either reasoning or emotion moves them. I tend to be more of a thinker, so I’m persuaded more by thoughtful, reasoned sermons rather than ones that I might classify as cotton candy. I’ve tended to be more of a meat and potatoes preacher. But I’m in the minority because emotions persuade many more people than does logic. Think about TV commercials. Most commercials don’t list the benefits of their products. They tell a story or evoke emotion or move the heart. Dodge Ram’s God Made a Farmer commercial in this year’s super bowl with Paul Harvey beautifully illustrates how emotion moves the heart. I tear up every time I watch the commercial, yet it does not lack depth.
I had received those criticisms I just mentioned because I had crafted my sermons to avoid being pegged a cotton candy preacher. But I now realize that for any meat and potatoes sermon to stick, we must incorporate some cotton candy techniques, those that we may think don’t contribute much to a message’s depth.
Consider these cotton candy preaching ideas the next time you prepare and deliver a sermon.
- Remember that because most of the people in your congregation came from hectic and difficult weeks, they aren’t in a mindset to listen to you. It’s your job to help them get ready, along with the other elements of the service.
- During the week, live a life of integrity and authenticity. Love people and spend time with them so that your ethos works on your behalf. People must believe you are a credible person before they will believe you have a credible message.
- Start your message with pathos and then move to logos. Use emotion, within reason, because it grabs attention. Remember, nothing is learned that is not paid attention to.
- Use novelty. The brain loves novelty (Eide, 2006). Start, illustrate and deliver your sermons creatively. Don’t become so predictable that people can guess what you’re going to do next.
- Use humor. Humor makes people feel good and when they feel good they learn more.
- Make sure you provide lots of application. Neuroscience tells us that self-referent information (that which we can apply to ourselves) is more easily learned and retained (Rogers, Kuiper, & Kirker, 1977). After all, we teach and preach so that God can take His Word to change people’s lives.
- Keep your messages simple. Less is often more.
What cotton candy ideas have worked in your preaching?