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?

Related posts:

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?


Related posts:


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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What do Toilet Repairs and Leadership Composure have in Common?

Some time back I had scheduled a plumber to fix minor leaks in some toilets in our home as we prepared to sell our house. My wife was to meet the plumber in my absence and give him the instructions I had given her. At about ten minutes after the appointment time she called and told me that he had come and said the fixes were so simple I could do them. I asked her what he charged us to give us that sage advice. Her response? “$125.” I was not a happy camper. Here’s what happened next and what I learned about leadership composure.

When she told me that he had left without fixing the toilets and then charged us, my emotions took over. I was ticked off. Livid better describes how I felt. I couldn’t even think straight. My wife immediately sensed the anger in my voice and assured me that she’d call him back and have him return to complete the repairs.

After we hung up, I felt bad that I had gotten so angry. I tried to regain my composure because I had scheduled a full day to complete a chapter for my next book. We pastors often want to figure out why bad things happen, so I began to ruminate over the situation, thinking that if I figured it out, I could calm my emotions.

Well, I am anything but a handyman. I can’t drive a nail straight much less fix something as convoluted as a toilet. I imagined myself spending an entire day trying to fix the leaks. I could see myself breaking something worse that would force sewage to back up into the house. And with all the sewage, we’d never sell the house. And because we couldn’t sell the house, we go into foreclosure and lose the house. And when we lost the house we’d have to live in a van down by the river . . . . Well, maybe I didn’t imagine it that bad. But I did imagine me getting hyper-stressed trying to fix the toilet.

Then I recalled some neuroscience research from Ethan Kross’ on distancing and emotional control. He has discovered a simple technique that helps moderate our anger: take the perspective of a third party observing yourself in situations that prompt anger.

When I recalled that research, I now imagined myself physically stepping away from the car, where I got my wife’s call, and watching myself talking to her and getting angry. When I did that, immediately I thought, “How silly to get upset over a leaky toilet.” It was amazing what happened next.

That simple mental exercise helped quickly lessen my anger. As a result, I was able to think clearly the rest of the day without any emotional “leaky toilet” intrusions. Kross likens that phenomenon to how a friend can help us calm down by giving us an objective perspective of an emotion causing event.

We pastors often face issues that can make us mad.The next time that happens to you, step back and observe yourself becoming angry. See if the Holy Spirit will give you a fresh perspective and clearer insight to moderate your anger and be a more composed leader.

What has helped you moderate your anger brought about by ministry demands or family stress?

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