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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9 Insights about Adult Learning every Pastor should Know

Several years ago I took a 13-week intensive class on how to coach through the Professional Christian Coaching Institute. One of my teachers, Anne Denmark, professionally coaches church leaders and trains speakers. As a highly credentialed and experienced coach she shares her insights on her blog. During one class she shared nine basic principles on adult learning. As I read them I realized that each could apply to a pastor’s sermon prep and delivery. I’ve listed them below.

Cute little child play with book and glasses while sitting at table, isolated over white

Nine Basic Principles of Adult Learning

  1. Recency – what is most recently learned is best remembered.
  2. Active Learning – people learn best by “doing” through active involvement and participation. Confucious said, “I hear and I forget.I see and I remember. I do and I understand”
  3. Multi-Sensory – taking information in through all five senses increases learning.
  4. Primacy – what you learn first you learn best. Put the most important points first (the need to know first) and then put the least important ones last (the nice to know) last. Tell people your objectives up front.
  5. Two- Way Communication – ask questions often to keep learners alert and thinking.
  6. Feedback – check in to see if your listeners are understanding your material.
  7. Appropriate – people learn by attaching new information to something they already know.
  8. Motivate – give adults the reason the learning will benefit their life – their need to know. Make it practical enough that they will take it home and use it.
  9. Exercise – apply what you have learned as soon as possible. If you do not do this within 6 hours, 25% will be forgotten. If not applied within 24 hours, 67% will be forgotten. If not applied within 6 weeks, 90% will be forgotten.

How might these adult learning principles guide your sermon prep and preaching?

Would you add a tenth?

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5 Questions Pastors Neglect in Sermon Prep

I just read the book Impossible to Ignore: Creating Memorable Content to Influence Decisions by Dr. Carmen Simon. It is probably THE best book on communication I’ve ever read. Every pastor and communicator should read the book. Really! Dr. Simon is uber-smart (two PhD’s), yet she writes on a practical level. I learned a boatload of insight I’m now beginning to apply in my sermon prep. From her book I gleaned these five neglected questions that most pastors seldom if ever consider during their prep. Yet, those questions can profoundly impact how well your listeners apply what you teach.

impossible

5 Neglected Questions Every Pastor should Ask During Sermon Prep

  1. What cues am I considering that could jog my listener’s memory to apply my message during the next week?
    • Dr. Simon explains that when we speak, we hope that at some point in the future a listener will act upon our message. And at that future point three mental processes occur. Cues help a listener notice something that relates to the intended new belief or behavior. The listener will search his memory for what the speaker/preacher suggested he do. And, he (hopefully) will execute on his intentions. All this happens in a fraction of a second.
    • Application: Build into your message cues that might prompt your listener to remember what you said and motivate him or her to do it. I recently handed out small red stickers shaped like a stop sign. The STOP is an acronym related to ways to process anxious moments. I hope that when people see the sticker or a STOP sign, that cue will prompt them to act.
  2. What kind of memory do I hope to engage in my listener, gist or verbatim memory? 
    • Gist memory is when we remember the general idea or sense of something in the past. Verbatim memory is word-for-word. And gist memory lasts longer than verbatim memory, although both are important.
    • Application: As you prepare your message be clear about which kind of memory you hope your listener will draw upon. Adjust your message accordingly.
  3. Have I inadvertently planned for my listener to remember the wrong point(s)?
    • Multiple factors impact how well people remember our messages. They include novelty, emotion, story, distinctiveness, social impact, and relevance. Sometimes we can inadvertently make a minor point stand out so much that the major points get lost. Clarify your most cogent points and make sure that those stand out above the minor ones.
    • Application: Evaluate the word pictures, jokes, and stories you use. Make sure they reinforce your main points. Better yet, focus them on the one or two key take-aways. Ask yourself, “If my listener only remembered 10% of my message, what 10% would I want him to remember?”
  4. Do I appreciate the fact that for my listener to really ‘get it,’ he or see has to periodically tune me out during my talk/sermon? 

    • I tend to struggle when I don’t see people pay constant attention to me when I teach. I used to assume that they were bored with what I was saying (and certainly many have been and are currently bored). However, Dr. Simon points out that people go in and out of paying attention to us every 12 to 18 seconds. When that happens, they carry out an internal dialogue with themselves by formulating meaning to what we are saying and hopefully in doing so, make personal application. When that happens, the brain provides a stronger chemical signal that helps the memory ‘stick’ better. So, you actually want your listener to periodically tune out.
    • Application: The next time you’re speaking and it looks like someone is briefly tuning out, remind yourself that they are probably consolidating a memory about what you said. Even if they are bored, this kind of thinking will help minimize the negative self talk (i.e., “Oh no! I’m boring them.)
  5. Have I considered that I want my listener to remember both in the past (what I said) and in the future (future intentions called prospective memory).
    • In the same area in our brain where we reflect over the past, we plan for the future. So, when we reminisce or plan, we’re drawing from similar kinds of information. When you prepare your talks, keep this fact in mind. You don’t want your listener to simply reminisce about what you said. You want them to act upon it in the future, to remember a future intention. If they only remember what you said and don’t connect it to a future change in belief or behavior (to become more like Christ), what you said isn’t very helpful.
    • Application: As you craft your message, think about how you can help your listeners anticipate the future. Perhaps take a minute toward the end of your talk and ask them to role play in their minds what you are asking them to apply during the coming week. For example, if your message is on conflict resolution, have them role play in their minds how they would resolve a conflict with someone.

If you communicate to groups of people in any way, Impossible to Ignore is a must-read. And, as part of her book, Dr. Simon also provides a nifty template against which you can evaluate your talks. It’s quite helpful.

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5 Benefits of Working Outside the Office

Although I’ve been a pastor 35 years, only in the last few years have I discovered the value of studying/working outside my church and home office. I’ll either go to McDonalds (cheap food) or when I lived in Chicago, Panera (good atmosphere and the place I preferred). Both provide free Wi-Fi. While I don’t advocate spending all your time working outside the office, I’ve found that doing so once a week benefits me and the ministry in these ways.

Working in coffee shop. Side view cropped image of thoughtful young man working on laptop while sitting in coffee shop

5 Benefits  of Working Outside the Office

  • Productivity: Less interruptions from others.
  • Creativity: A different environment spurs it.
  • Focus: Less distractions help me concentrate better (like being tempted to clean up my office or play with something on my desk).
  • Energy: A different ambiance/atmosphere gives me more.
  • Stress management: I feel less of it in a neutral environment.

When I do work outside the office, I use an app I play into my sound suppressing headphones. It’s called Ambiance which offers zillions of nature sounds to listen to. I use Audio-technics active noise-cancelling headphones. They’er cheaper than Bose and about as good.

If you can, try working outside your office a day or so a month and see if it benefits you as it does me.

What other advantages of studying outside the office have you discovered?

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