Are your sermons hard or easy to listen to?

While earning my executive master’s degree in the neuroscience of leadership, I learned some fascinating insights about the brain that can help us pastors lead, speak, and live more effectively. To prep you for today’s post, answer this question? How would people describe my sermons: hard to listen to or easy to listen to? Take a moment and stop reading and honestly answer that question for yourself. Whatever your answer, we can all improve our preaching. In this post I share some interesting insight about the brain that can make your sermons easier to listen to.

I’ve included below a short checklist based on neuroscience insight that might give you a clue and help you improve.

But before that checklist, I’ve listed a few important brain facts to set the stage.

  1. The executive brain functions like concentration, abstract reasoning, problem solving, and attention occur primarily in the pre-frontal cortex (PFC), the area roughly behind your forehead. This is the part of the brain you hope your sermons engage. If your listeners don’t engage this part of the brain, your sermon “went in one ear and out the other.”
  2. The PFC processes information in a serial fashion (one thing at a time). Think of a conveyer belt with an item on it followed by another followed by another, etc. You may recall Lucille Ball’s famous candy conveyor belt episode. If something happens at the front end of that conveyer belt and all the items get clogged up, then nothing moves forward. The same thing happens in the brain. It will only process one thing at a time and if overloaded, it processes very little information. Multi-tasking is a misnomer. See my blog post on multi-tasking here.
  3. The PFC tires easily. If a speaker does not give breaks for the listener’s brain to rest, it will take its own breaks.
  4. Five fundamental processes summarize what the PFC does: it understands, decides, recalls, memorizes, and inhibits (that is, blocks out distractions).

Many complex processes are happening inside the brains of our listeners. So, how can we maximally engage their brains so that the Holy Spirit has lots of biblical truth to work with in their hearts to ultimately bring about life transformation?

I’ve included a few ideas below based on neuroscience.

  • Start out telling the people where you’re going with your sermon. Give an outline or a metaphor that points in a specific direction. The term is called pre-encoding. Learning is the encoding part. Pre-encoding sets up the listener to learn.
  • Don’t aimlessly ramble. If you constantly chase rabbits, their brains will check out.
  • Don’t use complex terms and long sentences. When you do, the listener’s brain will tune you out to try to figure out what you just said. They essentially won’t hear what you say next.
  • A close cousin to the above: be careful about using abstract ideas. Again, the brain will try to process abstract ideas and tune out what you say next.
  • If you do present a complex idea, stop and pause a few seconds to allow people to process it and think about it. In other words, mix up the rate at which you deliver your sermons. Well placed pauses are good.
  • Simplify your power points. Use only a few words per slide. Pictures that explain your points are even better. In this post I suggest some practical ways to make your visual presentations better.
  • Don’t get long-winded. You may have the speaking ability to keep people’s attention for more than 30 or so minutes. If you do, you don’t need to read this blog. But in an age when attention spans are rapidly decreasing (the average person’s attention span is shorter than a goldfish, really), shorter sermons will stick better.

What insights have you discovered that help your listeners absorb more of your sermons?

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Cotton Candy Sermons: Every Pastor Needs Them

The phrase “cotton candy preaching” is a derogatory term that implies that 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, is that the right approach?

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.

One of my passions is intersecting neuroscience with ministry and I’m learning how important the brain plays in persuading others to change. I wrote my last book on the subject, Brain-Savvy Leaders, the Science of Significant Ministry. You can purchase a copy here. Understanding brain insight has helped me be more OK when others have criticized my preaching, saying that my preaching did not connect with their  heart.

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 (more emotion based). 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.

Consider 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 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.

In the past I’ve wanted 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 (force of character) 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 (emotion) and then move to logos (logic). 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?


Related posts:


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.

Coffee Stains on the Auditorium Carpet: A Key to a Successful Sermon?

NO FOOD OR DRINK ALLOWED IN THE AUDITORIUM! I’ve seen such messages emblazoned in the lobbies of many churches where I’ve attended or where I’ve served. In one church we allowed food and coffee in the auditorium. Yet, I was often miffed at how many stains our carpets incurred from coffee spills and donut smudges. The carpet looked terrible. We’d often pay extra for carpet cleaners to clean them. Since I don’t drink coffee, I secretly wished we hadn’t allowed anything in the auditorium except people. But apparently I’ve been very wrong to want that. Coffee stains and donut smudges may have actually helped my sermon be more successful.

I’ll average 15-20 hours preparing a sermon praying that God will use it to change lives. I’ve prayed that with the Spirit’s help the message would persuade others to live more like Jesus. Often I’ve wondered to what degree my message actually stuck in the listeners’ minds and hearts. Surprisingly, the number of stains may actually have indicated my sermon’s stickiness.

Some time back a Yale University study that examined how eating and drinking influences a message’s persuasiveness (Janis et al., 1965). Colege student volunteers first filled out a questionnaire about their views on certain subjects. Researchers then presented them with four unpopular or unlikely views like, “It will be over 25 years before a cure to cancer is found.” The students then read articles that attempted to persuade them otherwise. One group of students was offered Pepsi and peanuts while they read the articles while the other group wasn’t offered any food. Later they completed a second questionnaire about their views on the same subjects.

The Pepsi-peanuts group consistently changed their viewpoints on those issues to more favorable ones. The non-food students’ viewpoints changed very little.

The implication?

When others eat food or drink coffee while they listen to your sermon, it may actually make your message stick better. So, paying a few extra dollars to clean those coffee stains and donut smudges may be worth the price. Perhaps we should actually encourage people to bring food into the service.

What is your church’s policy on food in the auditorium?

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References:Janis, I.L., Kaye, D. & Kirschner, P. (1965) Facilitating effects of ‘eating-while-reading’ on responsiveness to persuasive communications. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1 (2), pp.181-186.

How the Brain Stifles Church Change

If you want your church to thrive you can’t avoid church change. Yet it is seldom easy, even though we leaders see the benefits of change before others see them. One hidden reason that makes it so difficult comes from how our brains respond to change. I believe that the more we know how the brain works, the more effective change managers we’ll become. In this post I explain how brain processes in stifle change in your church.

In a prior blog about the brain’s influence on change I wrote…

Our brains are wired for us to want certainty in our lives. When something feels ambiguous or uncertain, we subconsciously feel threatened. When we feel threatened, it creates an away response, rather than a toward response. In the case of church change, an away response might be negativity, fear, passive resistance, or complaining from people. On the other hand, a toward response would be excitement, support, and good gossip, how we hope the church would respond. The more uncertain and ambiguous church change appears, the less support we’ll get and the more difficult the change will become.

Ambiguity about changes we propose, plus many other brain factors, influence how well people in your church will respond to your leadership. I knew of one church in the southern U.S. that was preparing for significant change by attempting to raise several million dollars for a building renovation. However, several key players and church members at that time had yet to embrace the plan. The resistance to the change rose from these core issues.

  • Fear that this fund raising effort would hinder other fundraisers that several ministries depend on.
  • Sparse information given to the church before key milestones in the process.
  • Resistance by some about going into debt.
  • Older church members who felt uncomfortable with the change.

Based on brain insights, I’ve listed five ways that this church or any church should consider to best manage such change.

  1. Leaders should first understand that two fundamental brain systems are at play in the people they seek to lead. One process, called the “X-system,” got its name from the ‘x’ from the word reflexive. This system is more emotional, reactive, habitual, impulsive, spontaneous, and fast. It’s the non-thinking, automatic process that most people live by day-to-day. It’s what prompts someone to emotionally react to a change. The other process, called the “C-system,” comes from the ‘c’ in reflective. It’s more intentional, controlled, slower, and causes us to think before we speak or act. This system prompts people to reflectively consider the change. Simply knowing how the brains of your people work can help you manage change better. If you want to learn more about these processes, read, Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman.
  2. Recognize that change can create an away response in our brains and our emotions (see the quote above). If we feel threatened and fearful (caused by an away response), we’re less likely to embrace change. Older church members may feel especially threatened due both to the effects of age on the brain and to their long term ingrained church habits that aren’t easily changed (Williams et al., 2008). Therefore, leadership should publically acknowledge that they understand that change is difficult and scary and that it’s scary for them as leaders as well.
  3. Bring key players into the conversation. If key players believe they’ve been excluded from the process they can feel that they are in the “out” group. When they do, resistance to change will be higher because it also creates an away response in the brain (Rock, David & Cox, n.d.).
  4. Over communicate using all means possible. The more information church people receive, the less ambiguity and more certainty they will feel. As a result, they will be less tempted to fill in the information gaps with worst case scenarios and will become more open to the reasons you give for the change.
  5. Finally, seek to minimize something called cognitive dissidence. This term simply describes the inner tension we feel when our belief conflicts with our behavior (i.e., I want to lose weight but I’m eating a bag of Cheetos). Cognitive dissonance creates anxiety that can make us less open to change. One way to help minimize it is to preach and teach to change people’s beliefs about the change you’re proposing. If you can help them agree that the reason for the change is Biblical (i.e., reach more people), you can help them shift their behavior to align more with the change (i.e., their willingness to sacrifice convenient parking during the renovation). Behavior change follows change in belief.

God has given us this incredible thing called the brain. The more we learn how it works, the better leaders and change agents we will become.

What insights about change have helped you in your ministry or job?


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Sources:

Rock, David & Cox, C. SCARF in 2012: updating the social neuroscience of collaborating with others. Neuroleadership Journal, (four).

Williams, L.M., Gatt, J.M., Hatch, A., Palmer, D.M., Nagy, M., Rennie, C., Cooper, N.J., Morris, C., Grieve, S., Dobson-Stone, C., Schofield, P., Clark, C.R., Gordon, E., Arns, M. & Paul, R.H. (2008) THE INTEGRATE MODEL OF EMOTION, THINKING AND SELF REGULATION: AN APPLICATION TO THE ‘PARADOX OF AGING’. Journal of Integrative Neuroscience, 07 (03), pp.367-404.

Are your Sermons Falling Flat? Is this Why?

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.

  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.

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.


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