5 Ways to Get People to pay Attention to Your Sermons

One of the most disconcerting feelings we pastors experience is when we prepare a sermon and pour our heart into it, yet feel that it didn’t make a difference in people’s lives. It’s equally frustrating when we preach to see somebody tuning us out.

What can we do to help people pay more attention to our sermons? For when they do, there’s a greater chance what we say will stick in their minds to give the Holy Spirit time to ultimately change their hearts.

listening

Neuroscience is teaching us a lot about how people remember things. Two mental processes related to attention simultaneously activate in the minds of those sitting in the pews on Sundays.

  • Focus: the ability to attend to what you are saying.
  • Inhibiting distractions: the ability to tune out competing information. Those distractions can be external like a baby crying or internal like self-talk or mulling over memories of what happened on the way to church.

So what can we do when we preach to help increase attention? I’ve listed 5 neuroscience insights to keep in mind as you prepare your sermons.

  1. Mood matters. Scientists have discovered that when people are in a good mood they pay better attention. We can’t change what happened to a family on the way to church (ie-a fight), but we can take some steps to help put them in a good mood. Humor is a great tool that does that. Don’t begin your sermon with something heavy. Rather, try to interject some humor. Smile and put people at ease.
  2. The head cannot take more than the seat can endure is true. Our brains need downtime. They can’t concentrate for long periods of time. In fact, the brain will make downtime for itself when it gets tired. So, build ebb and flow into your sermons. Alternate intensity (something that may require intensive concentration) with points or stories that don’t take much concentration.
  3. See your sermons like firing a gun. Three distinct processes take place in the brain for attention to occur. It’s firing a gun: load, aim, fire. To load is when the brain is alerted to take notice. Aim is when it looks for more information. Fire is when it actually acts. So develop your sermon with this in mind. Build each point around the load—aim—fire process.
  4. Include novelty in your sermons. Attention increases with something novel or new. Include a couple of surprises. Perhaps you pull out a “show and tell” item unexpectedly to illustrate a point. Maybe you move to a different location from where you usually preach (ie-off the stage and into an aisle).
  5. Make it relevant. Preaching is connecting the then and there to the here and now. We must try to help people apply the message to their lives. The brain pays much more attention when it senses relevance. Don’t just wait until the end for application. Provide application points throughout the sermon.

Ultimately, we want our sermons to stick in the listener’s long-term memory. The more they stick, the greater the chance for the Holy Spirit to bring about life transformation.

What presentation techniques you found that helps sermons stick?


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How to Increase the Spiritual Return on a Sermon

Every Sunday something happens over 400,000 times in North America:  A pastor preaches a sermon. Have you ever wondered, though, how much impact sermons really make? Consider these shocking statistics.

bible-preaching

If an average sermon lasts about 30 minutes and if roughly 56 million people attend on an average Sunday, then church attenders in North America’s churches spend this amount of time listening to our sermons each week.

  • 23,000,000 man hours
  • which equals 958,000 days
  • which equals 136,904 weeks
  • which equals 2,632 years

And if the average pastor spends 10 hours preparing a sermon, all together pastors will spend the following amount of time in weekly sermon prep.

  • 4,000,000 man hours
  • which equals 166,666 days
  • which equals 23,800 weeks
  • which equals 457 years

Adding it all together, each week sermons gobble up three centuries of man-hours. If you multiply that over a year’s time . . . well, you do the math.

When I calculated this number, it boggled my mind. That statistic then begged this question.

What spiritual return is our preaching giving us?

I know we can’t measure the eternal impact from our sermons. However, the amount of time we invest in them and the time people invest in listening to them should cause us to pause and evaluate.

Take a few moments and consider these ten questions. As you read them ask yourself if should make some changes to maximize your sermons’ spiritual impact.

  1. Do I spend sufficient time preparing my heart to preach (ie: spiritual disciplines, stillness, character development)?
  2. Do I spend sufficient time with people to understand the issues they face that need a word from God?
  3. Am I being true to what the biblical writers intended when I preach?
  4. Am I willing to get honest feedback from people who can help me improve my preaching?
  5. Do I make my preaching more about Him and less about me and what others may think about my preaching?
  6. What am I doing to improve my study and presentation skills?
  7. Am I willing to preach on unpopular subjects about which the Scripture speaks?
  8. Do I spend sufficient time thinking about ways that could maximize the listener’s attention to increase their retention of my sermons?
  9. Do I always tie my sermons to the overarching redemptive theme of the Gospel?
  10. Do I approach preaching as a hallowed trust?

Perhaps the venerable Haddon Robinson captured the essence of good preaching when we wrote this in his excellent book, Biblical Preaching.

When you get right down to it, preaching is like farming. I often say, “Lord, here I am. As far as I can tell, I’ve tried to fill my sack with good seed. I’ve done my homework, I think my attitude is right, and it’s the best, most interesting seed I’ve got. I’m going to scatter it now, Lord. So here goes. We’ll see what comes up in the field.” Then, once I’ve sown the seed, I do what farmers do: I go home and rest.

What questions would you add to this list?

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Should Andy Stanley have used Sermon Notes for His “The Bible Told Me So, Not” Sermon

In August, Andy Stanley delivered a sermon that has upset many because he appeared to question biblical authority. You can hear his message, “Who Needs God? The Bible Told Me So,” here, read a negative critique by Albert Mohler here and read a positive one by Frank Turek here. In this post I’m not critiquing whether or not he undermined biblical authority. I will leave that to people a lot smarter than me. However, I do suggest in the post that this latest evangelical brouhaha offers a lesson to us preachers in favor of using sermon notes, or a manuscript, especially when we speak on difficult and potentially controversial topics.

Close up of a Bible connected with earphones

First, some caveats.

  • I only met Andy once when I sat next to him in a church service 25 years ago.
  • I attended his dad’s church while earning my engineering degree at Ga Tech and I heard Andy speak a few times.
  • He is without a doubt one of the Church’s most gifted leaders and communicators today.
  • I’ve read lots of his books and have learned much from them.
  • The attendance at my church would probably fit in his church’s chapel, if it has one.
  • I don’t question Andy’s commitment to the Bible nor his heart for God.
  • And, I believe that with recent new insights we’re learning about how the human brain works, pastors must craft their messages with those insights in mind. I believe this so strongly that I’ve earned a master’s degree in the neuroscience of leadership and my last book unpacks how we can learn from intersecting neuroscience with biblical truth.

So what I suggest may seem like an ant telling a lion what to do. Even so, I raise these two questions.

  1. Is it wise to write out a manuscript for messages that deal with sensitive topics?
  2. And if it is, should we stay close to script during those messages instead of speaking off the cuff?

Pardon one more caveat: When I’ve seen Andy speak I notice he doesn’t use notes. If he does, he masterfully uses them. So, I am assuming he does not use them but speaks more extemporaneously. I could be wrong. But if I am close to correct (I also assume that Andy prepares well but speaks off the cuff more than most pastors would) here are 4 reasons why using a manuscript and staying close to it is smart, especially when dealing with controversial topics.

  1. The human brain is wired to lean negative. Our brain has five times more circuits that look for the negative than circuits that look for the positive. 2/3 of the brain cells in an almond shaped part of the brain involved in the fight-flight response, the amygdala (there are actually two of them), are wired to be vigilant and look for the negative. The brain more easily encodes negative emotional experiences than positive ones and more quickly recalls such negative experiences.
    • The implication: When we speak about volatile subjects in our sermons, we increase the chance that our listeners will attribute negative connotations to them, thus amplifying our message in ways we don’t intend. When we write out our manuscript, we can more carefully craft statements about volatile subjects and potentially lessen the chance of being misunderstood.
  2. Writing out a manuscript can help us avoid sloppiness in saying things that could potentially hurt others. Andy may write out his messages. Again, I’m making some assumptions. But in the last five years, I’ve changed how I craft my sermons. I now write them out as full manuscripts and I use them from my iPad when I preach, although I’m familiar enough with them to not be glued to them. Writing them out forces me to think deeply about how I need to address difficult to understand issues.
    • The implication: The Bible actually did ‘tell us so’ long before neuroscientists told us this. Words really hurt (Death and life are in the tongue, Pv 18.21). In fact social pain registers in the same areas of the brain that physical pain registers. When someone with great influence uses words than can easily be misunderstood and potentially hurtful, those words physically and psychologically hurt. For a 6 year old girl or 65 year old saint who came to faith after hearing the song, Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so, and is then told those words are not true… that experience can be profoundly hurtful. Writing and using a manuscript can help us avoid this.
  3. The larger the platform, the more we must take care to be clear and graceful. Andy’s platform is ginormous. Whereas hundreds of thousands of people tune in, read, and follow Andy, on a good Sunday we live-stream to about 25 viewers and my total Twitter followers is probably equal to the number of views he has per Tweet. Even with my small platform, I still must be clear and graceful.
    • The implication: What I or any other pastor says can instantly be re-tweeted or posted on Facebook and the entire world can know it, if it wants to. Soundbites are now ubiquitous. And, in today’s world, it seems that reality is not the issue. Perception is. Writing out and using a manuscript can help us more carefully craft our words by thinking about how they could be quoted and repeated in cyberspace. It can force us to ask, How would this soundbite be heard out of context?
  4. Sloppily stated statements can throw the listener’s brain off track so that the full message gets missed. When listening to a speech or sermon, the average brain goes in and out of attention every 12-18 seconds for a bit to engage internal dialogue that seems more interesting (salient) than what it is listening to. In fact, recent research has shown that goldfish have longer attention spans than humans. When our brains are shocked and they go into reflective What did he just say? or I totally disagree with that! mode, it can cause the listener to miss what follows the shock statement, the unpacking of the statement.
    • The implication: Writing out and using a manuscript can help us catch those potential shock words or phrases that can disconnect our listener from us. With a manuscript we can remind ourselves to intentionally slow the pace and pause to give the listener time to catch his mental breath before we continue, thus giving the listener time to hear the entire context.

So, this latest ruckus gives an opportunity for us communicators to put the manuscript back into our sermon toolboxes.

And the hackneyed phrase, Hindsight is 20-20 still bears repeating. Could a little old fashioned manuscript have avoided this ruckus and resulted in Andy’s message being simply another great one? We will never know.

But, if you write out or use a manuscript, how has it helped you?

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6 Neuroscience Insights that can Make a Pastor’s Sermons Stickier

I received a master’s degree in the neuroscience of leadership last year and had a blast.  Christian leaders and pastors can learn much from the latest neuroscience discoveries about the brain. Neuroscientists have discovered that the brain profoundly  impacts leadership, emotional regulation, motivating others, navigating change, team building, and effective communication. If you spend much time preaching or teaching, you’ll find these 6 ideas helpful for your sermons.

sermon-preaching

All pastors want themselves and others to become more like Jesus. For that to happen, thinking, behavior, and habits must change. Those changes don’t occur in a void. Rather, God takes what we learn about the bible, character, and God honoring behavior to transform us. A major input to this new way of living comes through preaching and teaching.

But for lasting change to occur, our brains must imbed new information into our long-term memory instead of our short-term memory. Think of the difference between cramming for a test in geography the night before the test (we soon forget the facts) and learning a new language (if we continue to use it, the language gets imbedded deep within our memories). Neuroscientists call this embedding process consolidation. The name itself pictures the process. Although initial information comes into our minds through our five senses, it passes through a part of the brain called the hippocampus. However, if we want the new information (i.e. our sermons) to stick, the memories must be spread to other parts of the brain to consolidate them into long term memory.

So if you want to increase the chance that life transformation happens through your preaching and teaching, consider these practical steps to help imbed your teaching into long term memory thus making your sermons more “sticky.”

  1. Increase focused attention by engaging more senses than just sight and sound. Creatively use taste, smell and touch. When people pay more attention to your sermons, they engage the hippocampus more. And unless it is engaged, people won’t remember what you say.
  2. Deliver your sermon in an organized way. Use a visual metaphor or picture at the beginning to tie the talk together. This is called pre-encoding which organizes the brain to remember better. If you deliver your sermon in a random way, however, memory decreases.
  3. Break up the message into two parts and place a different element between each (ie. video or music). In the second part creatively review the content you presented in the first part. The following week again review the previous week’s main points. Neuroscientists have discovered that spacing between learning something and practicing it increases memory retention.
  4. Use a power point flashcard at the end of the talk by asking the people to fill in the blanks of your sermon’s key points. When someone self-generates information it sticks much better than when they are simply told information.
  5. Ask the people to personally apply one aspect of the message to their own lives. This concept called self-relevant processing deepens memory more than almost anything else. It relates to helping them emotionally connect to what you want them to learn. Emotional stamping is a powerful memory enhancer.
  6. Ask the people to imagine themselves not only doing the application but also to imagine the context (where) in which they will do it. Again, neuroscience has discovered that people recall memories better when they imagine the context in which they learned or practiced something new.

Run the upcoming bible study or sermon you plan to give through this grid and see what improvements you can make to make your talk more sticky.

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7 Keys to Help Church People Remember your Sermon Better

As a pastor I’ve been trained how to create a sermon so that it’s theologically sound (good hermeneutics) and applicable to the listener (good homiletics). However, seminary never taught me how I might help church people listen better and retain what they hear in a sermon. In the last few decades neuroscientists have learned much about how the brain learns and retains information. In this post I suggest several ideas you can share with the people in your church to help them retain more of what you teach and preach. Recently I gave an entire message to our church on these ideas. So, consider these insights and how you might share them with your church.

remember finger

Insights to help church people retain more of what you teach and preach.

1. Learning occurs in three phases.

Phase 1 is called encoding, when people actually listen to a message. When we hear a message, our brain initially places that information into short term memory called working memory. The part of the brain called the hippocampus is highly involved here.

Phase 2 is called consolidation. This occurs when recently learned information is pushed throughout your brain into long term storage. When that happens, our brain connects the information to what we already know which strengthens the memory traces related to what we heard.

Phase 3 is called retrieval when we hope our listeners remember what we said and apply it at a later time. And the more effort it takes to retrieve it, the better they will learn it.

2. The more you know about the subject/scripture passage, the better new stuff gets learned.

All learning is based on prior learning. We only learn when we can connect information to something we already know. So, the more familiar your listener is with the passage you’re teaching, the more they will retain. I will often print the upcoming passage in each week’s sermon notes and encourage people to read it a few times before the next Sunday.

3. A good night’s sleep on Saturday and Sunday profoundly impacts learning.

A good night’s sleep on Saturday night rests the brain for more efficient listening and improved attention. And a good night’s sleep on Sunday helps with the second stage of learning mentioned in point one above, consolidation. When we sleep memories get diffused into multiple parts of the brain which cements our learning. Learn more here about how sleep benefits our brains.

4. Only what gets paid attention to gets learned.

The better your listener pays attention to what you say, the more they will retain what you say. The responsibility for increasing attention goes both ways. We must deliver our messages in interesting and compelling ways AND the listener must pay attention as well. In Acts 17. 11 Luke notes this about the people in the town of Berea. Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true. They exemplified intense attention, eager to hear what Paul taught.

When listening to a speech or sermon, the average brain goes in and out of attention every 12-18 seconds to engage internal dialogue that seems more interesting (salient) that what we are listening to. When we zone out because we are reflecting over what we just heard, the brain creates a stronger chemical signal resulting in a more lasting memory. So, making your listener think deeply about what you say will enhance learning.

5. The more you personally apply what you hear, the more it sticks.

This is called self-referential learning. Find ways throughout your sermon to interject ways your listener can apply what you teach. Don’t wait until the end of your message before you suggest applications.

6. Review and reflection the week following enhances learning.

When your listener reviews and reflects over your sermon, it requires them have to not only retrieve information from their memory banks but elaborate on it as well. Elaboration strengthens the neural pathways related to the topic of your message.

7. Coffee, coffee, coffee.

Caffeine increases attention which in turn increases learning. So, offer coffee before your service. In this post I suggest how caffeine may make you a better leader.

Ultimately the Holy Spirit transforms people’s hearts, values, and character. But genuine transformation requires effortful learning by your listener. It’s not a passive process. Share these insights with your church and trust the Lord to use them to enhance learning.

What has helped you improve what people in your church remember about your messages?

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