Stopping the Inner Mental Chatter when you Teach and Preach

Has this every happened to you when you teach preach? You’re in a groove and as you scan your audience, you notice someone not listening…or someone’s arms are crossed…or someone has a scowl on her face. And then an inner dialogue begins. Why aren’t they listening? They must not like what I’m saying? They don’t like me, etc., etc., etc. And then you lose your focus. Every preacher, teacher, and speaker faces this temptation. When it happens, what’s going on and what can we do?

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It’s all (or mostly) in our brains. Certainly satan is at work to distract us and our listeners as Mark writes.

Mark 4.15 Some people are like seed along the path, where the word is sown. As soon as they hear it, Satan comes and takes away the word that was sown in them.

But often it’s simply a conscious/unconscious process going on inside our brains due to an overactive part of the brain whose function is to scan for something not right in our environment. When we notice someone(s) in our audience not listening, instead of just noticing and moving on, our minds often add silent commentary like, They must not like what I’m saying. And then we add more dialogue on top of that and even more on top of that.

It we stay in this thought stream, it actually blocks our ability to communicate effectively. We lose our mental focus, we can lose our place in the talk, and negative emotions like fear (they are rejecting me) or worry (what will they say about me since they have rejected me) further distract us.

When this happens, fortunately, we can take some quick practical steps to get back on track. Here’s what has helped me stop this negative chatter before it affects my sermon or talk.

  1. Recognize the physical clues that this may be happening. For me, a dry mouth indicates I’m doing this. When our fight-flee-freeze center in our brain is active, it activates a part of our nervous system that among other things, causes our muscles to tighten, get sweaty palms, or slows down our saliva production. Thus for me, my dry mouth. So, it’s important to stay aware of body sensations that indicate your mind is chattering. Sometimes it’s easier to notice these physical sensations first.
  2. After the physical clue reminds you, simply acknowledge that your brain is messing with you. Those anxious thoughts and emotions are not really you. They are simply passing sensations in your brain. In reality, most of those negative thoughts have no basis in fact. So, let yourself off the hook. It’s your brain messing with you.
  3. Reappraise the situation. I’m a very attentive listener and I always look straight at those talking to me, whether I’m in a 1-1 conversation or I’m listening to a speaker bring a talk. I assume others do the same. However, some people are auditory learners and even though they seem to not be listening, they often are. So, when I see someone not paying attention to my talk I mentally tell myself, They must be an auditory learner. I may be wrong, but this short mental reappraisal helps me get back on track.
  4. Finally, pause at a natural break in your talk, take a breath, and move on. Many studies have shown that a slow breath actually lessens anxiety.

When we bring a sermon or a spiritual talk, spiritual forces certainly seek to minimize the Kingdom impact of our teaching. Satan does not want God’s Word to change lives. Yet, at the same time, our bodies and brains often work agains us as well. We must recognize the difference and when it’s our brain, these simple techniques can help.

What has helped you deal with this mental chatter when you speak?

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Should you Try a Bilingual Service at your Church? We did and WOW!

At the church where I serve as Lead Pastor, West Park Church in London, Ontario, we held a bilingual service last Sunday. About three years ago the church embraced a Mandarin speaking congregation looking for a home. Our Chinese church, now over 100 strong, is an integral part of our faith community with their own Mandarin service each Sunday and a full-time pastor. Not only do Chinese make up a significant part of our church, we recently counted over 15 nationalities represented at West Park. We’re becoming a home to a growing number of non-caucasions. Here’s what we did during that service, the impact the service made on us, and some guidelines to consider if you do one.

mandarin service

WHAT WE DID:

  • We translated every part of the service: the welcome time, the announcements, the message, and the offering set up.
  • We sung four songs in English with Mandarin sub-titles. A Mandarin speaking worship leader led the fifth in Mandarin with both English and Mandarin subtitles.
  • Two bi-lingual leaders translated the announcements and the welcome, and our Chinese Pastor, Joe Chou, translated my message on how to resolve conflict.
  • I used a simple Gospel passage, Matthew 18.15-19, as the primary Scripture passage. I also used a flip chart to illustrate each point by drawing a simple diagram to explain each step to resolve conflict that Jesus taught in the passage.

WHAT HAPPENED:

The experience was absolutely incredible and added a fresh touch to our service. I’ve been at West Park eight months and this was my favorite service. The sense of God’s presence was palpable. The feeling of unity was powerfully present. I’ve never heard better corporate singing since coming here. The interaction between Joe and me kept the interest of both the English and Mandarin speakers. The song led by the Mandarin speaker was amazing, a taste of what heaven might be like. And, we received many positive comments about the service.

GUIDELINES FOR HOLDING ONE:

With North America becoming more multi-cultural, should you try a bilingual service, even if you don’t have a different language group meeting at your church? Absolutely. If a different language group does not meet at your church, invite a local church that speaks a different language to join you. Here are some guidelines to consider if you decide to hold such a service.

  1. Get buy-in from your leadership before you begin.
  2. Promote the service in advance.
  3. Provide bulletins in both languages.
  4. Choose simple, easy-to-sing songs, familiar to both language groups.
  5. Translate every part of the service.
  6. Schedule extra time for your combined worship team. I recommend combining both language groups in your worship team.
  7. As you begin the service, explain that the service will be held in two languages.
  8. Use a good translator. Joe’s excellent translation abilities made a huge difference.
  9. If you are the lead pastor, affirm the value of the experience and thank the language group for being a part.

If you’ve held bi-lingual services at your church, what other pointers would you suggest?

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4 Ways to Improve Focus while Preparing a Talk

Preparing talks and sermons is one of my highest priorities as a pastor. I’ve often said that preparing a message feels much like writing a term paper, each week. I even heard someone say that sermon preparation is like delivering a baby each week and then on Monday realizing you are expecting again. It’s hard work and takes time. Without sustained focus and attention, sermon prep can consume an inordinate amount of time. (See my post here about how long we should spend preparing a sermon). To maximize my prep time, I’ve learned to focus my attention in these ways.

business man thinking about  new projects
  1. Visual gating.
    • Visual gating simply means to block out other visual distractions. In my office at church I have two desks. One is the main one that faces the office area which allows me to see out the window. Another one is around the corner in a nook. Only a bare wall stands behind my computer monitor. I use this one. At my home office I have my desk and monitor arranged in the same way. A bare wall stands behind them. I also use the ‘focus’ mode on Microsoft Word. It blocks out all the other panes and programs that lie behind Word so that the only thing I see is my current document. If you don’t use Word, you can buy several other programs that do the same thing. One company even found that the best way they increased employee productivity was to get them large computer monitors.
  2. Auditory blocking.
    • Ambient sounds can definitely distract us from our prep. I’ve used two techniques. I turn on a small fan that blocks most unwanted noise. However, if I really want to maximize concentration, I use my sound suppressing headphones and listen to the sound of rushing water with an iPhone app called Ambiance. You can get zillions of sounds through this app if rushing water does not work for you.
  3. Dopamine enhancement.
    • The neurotransmitter dopamine helps us maintain attention and is involved with reward in the brain. We need dopamine to help us concentrate. Too little and we don’t focus. Too much and we get wired. When we check off a task from our to do list we get a tiny burst of dopamine. Chocolate can increase it (although I don’t recommend keeping a jar of M & M’s on your desk). And, caffeine can boost it as well. I don’t drink coffee or tea, the two main sources of caffeine. However, sometimes I will drink a diet coke or use 5-Hour Energy. I’ve found that this energy drink does not leave me with a crash when it wears off. I wrote a blog on energy drinks for the busy pastor here.
  4. Minimized computer distractions.
    • When I study I turn off any email or social networking automatic reminders. Studies show that when social media and email interrupt us, it takes us several minutes to get back to the task.

What has helped you concentrate while prepare a talk or sermon?

INVITATION to a LEADERSHIP EVENT: This Tuesday, June 10, at 11 am PDT/2pm EDT I am privileged to join Brian Dodd and Greg Atkinson in a live broadcast on leadership. We’ll be talking about innovative leadership, avoiding people pleasing, and indispensable practices to help you grow. Here’s the link if you’d like to join us.

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Cotton Candy Preaching: Why Pastors Should Learn to Preach that Way

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).

  1. Logos: persuasion through reasoning and logic.
  2. Pathos: persuasion by appealing to emotions.
  3. 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?


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Eide, D.F.A.B. (2006) Eide Neurolearning Blog: Shake Things Up – Novelty Boosts Learning. Eide Neurolearning Blog. Available from: <http://eideneurolearningblog.blogspot.com/2006/11/shake-things-up-novelty-boosts.html> [Accessed 8 June 2012].

Rogers, T. B., Kuiper, N. A., & Kirker, W. S. (1977) Self-reference and the encoding of personal information. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, (35), pp. 677-688.

Brain Based Preaching: New Age Voodoo, or the Missing Link?

Every week in the U.S., 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? 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.

Unfortunately, though, most 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.

I recently participated in a webinar sponsored by the Neuroleadership Institute and ASTD on the brain (click the link to download some cool papers). In one word, fascinating.

Dr. Grace Chang, a neuroscientist at U.C.L.A., presented the first session on making learning sticky. 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.

  1. 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).
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

So, is brain-based preaching new age voodoo?

Not at all.

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?


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