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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Motivate your Teams with these 4 Neuroscience Keys

Motivating staff and volunteers in your church is often as elusive as nailing Jell-O to a tree. Yet to move our churches from point ‘A’ to point ‘B’ we must motivate those around us. Often pastors use the same ‘carrot-and-stick’ approach the marketplace has used for decades. If you do such-and-such you will receive a reward (salary increase, pat on the back, etc). If you don’t, you’ll get something negative: you won’t receive the reward, you will have to step down, etc. We’re now learning that this approach does not work in the long term. However, neuroscience is discovering effective ways to motivate others based on how our brains work. Consider putting these four brain-based ideas into your motivation toolbox.

1. Build interpersonal likeability among team members.

This may seem like a no-brainer, but neuroscientists have discovered a brain-based reason to help your team like each other more. Performance increases when co-workers like each other (Shteynberg & Galinsky, 2011).

  • Leadership application: regularly use team building and social experiences to build common interests and community among your staff, board, and volunteers.

2. Encourage sharing of mistakes.

We all learn from our mistakes. However, some church environments discourage sharing them. We don’t want to look like failures. However, brain studies have discovered that when we observe how a friend (see point 1 above about likeability) learned from his mistake, we learn from it, just as if we ourselves made the same mistake. At the same time we are more open to receiving feedback about our mistakes from our friends (Kang et al., 2010). So the greater community you build, the more easily your team will learn from each other and receive feedback. Such relationships foster a “your mistakes are my mistakes” attitude. As Prov. 27.6 says, Wounds from a friend can be trusted….

  • Leadership application: set an example by sharing your mistakes and what you are learning from them and create an environment that makes it safe for others to share theirs.

3. Repeat the common “why” often and delegate the “how.”

Leaders must constantly seek answers to two key questions: “Why are we doing what we are doing?” and “How do we do it?” A common why (a shared goal: being on the same page), helps churches avoid silos and those same shared goals actually increase personal productivity (Shteynberg & Galinsky, 2011). Pastors should prioritize vision clarity as one of their top three roles, along with leadership development and teaching. When you pair a clear and shared why along with allowing your team to create the how, you will foster an atmosphere of personal freedom and autonomy, a key component for high performing teams (Rock, David & Cox, n.d.).

  • Leadership implication: Stay focused on keeping the why clear and allow staff and volunteers to develop the how.

4. Communicate using personality specific language.

Our brains process motivation in different ways. One study about motivating people to floss their teeth discovered that different sides of the brain light up in a scanner depending on how the message was communicated (Sherman et al., 2006). If a person is more motivated to avoid certain negative things (i.e., floss to avoid bad breath), avoidance type messages motivated them to floss more often. For those motivated more by an approach personality, (if I do such-and-such I will get something good: floss to get great breath), approach messages motivated them to floss more often.

  • Leadership implication: know your team well enough so you can tailor your messages to match personalities either as avoidance ones or as approach ones.

What has worked well to motivate your team?


Related posts


References:

Kang, S.K., Hirsh, J.B. & Chasteen, A.L. (2010) Your mistakes are mine: Self-other overlap predicts neural response to observed errors. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 46 (1), pp.229-232.

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

Sherman, D.K., Mann, T. & Updegraff, J.A. (2006) Approach/Avoidance Motivation, Message Framing, and Health Behavior: Understanding the Congruency Effect. Motivation and emotion, 30 (2), pp.165-169.

Shteynberg, G. & Galinsky, A.D. (2011) Implicit coordination: Sharing goals with similar others intensifies goal pursuit. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 47 (6), pp.1291-1294.

Is This the Hidden Factor that Hinders Change in your Church?

In my 35 plus years in ministry, change management has been one of the most challenging tasks I’ve faced. Most pastors would probably agree. Recently I learned an insight about how people’s brains work that helped me see what I may have unintentionally overlooked when I initiated a change. This might be the hidden factor that most hinders change in your church.

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 (avoid)  response, rather than a toward (approach) 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 could 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.

So how we can we make church change less ambiguous and easier to bring about? I’ve listed some pointers below based on some recent findings in neuroscience.

  1. Stay close to your key influencers during the entire change process. Remember, the more threatened someone feels, the more they will resist change. Learn their unique personalities because some personalities respond better to change than others. (Brin Jr. & Hoff, 1957).
  2. Remain sensitive to characteristics that impact a person’s feeling of threat caused by the uncertainty change brings.
    • The more politically conservative they are, the more they may feel threatened by change (Jost et al., 2008).
    • The more personal anxiety they’re experiencing, the more threatened they may feel from change (Bishop, 2007).
    • The lower a person’s self esteem, the more resistant they can be to change (Ford & Collins, 2010).
  3. Keep people informed with timely reports on how the change is progressing (helps minimize uncertainty).
  4. Cast a compelling vision on how the new change can make things better (a form of reframing current reality).
  5. Teach about characters in the bible who created certainty through faith, believing God was in control despite difficult circumstances and uncertain futures.
  6. Teach about how to keep a healthy Christ centered self-esteem.
  7. Teach on how to biblically manage anxiety (see this post on how).

What are some tips you’ve learned that have helped bring change?

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References:

Bishop, S. (2007) Neurocognitive Mechanisms of Anxiety: and Integrative Account. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, xxx (x), pp.1-10.

Brin Jr., O. & Hoff, D. (1957) Individual and Situational Differences in Desire for Certainty. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 54(2), pp.225-229.

Ford, M.B. & Collins, N.L. (2010) Self-esteem Moderates Neuroendoctrine and Psychological Responses to Interpersonal Rejection. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 98 (3), pp.405-419.

Jost, J.T., Nosek, B.A. & Gosling, S.D. (2008) Ideology: Its Resurgence in Social, Personality, and Political Psychology. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 3 (2), pp.126-136.

Five ways to Motivate others you may have Skipped

Motivating staff and volunteer leaders in the church or in any organization begs the question: How can we do it better? I believe David Rock, author and speaker, offers fresh insight from neuroscience about how we can best motivate others. He developed a paradigm based on five domains that influence behavior that he coined with the acronym SCARF.

The letters in this acronym stand for these domains that affect brain functioning and thus performance in our jobs and ministries.

  • Status: a feeling of importance relative to others around us
  • Certainty: a sense of predictability about the future
  • Autonomy: a sense of control over events
  • Relatedness: a sense of safety with those around you
  • Fairness: a perception of being treated fairly

When a staff person, employee, or volunteer experiences SCARF in his or her ministry it actually increases a chemical in their brain called dopamine which has a positive effect on our moods and our thinking. When a leader intentionally tries to meet the SCARF needs of those around him or her the more he will see positive results in the areas below. The less these needs are met, the opposite will occur.

  • collaboration
  • intrinsic motivation
  • productivity
  • change management
  • healthy relationships

So how might a church leader meet some of the SCARF needs in his church or team? Consider these.

Status: Teach that every person has intrinsic worth and value in God’s eyes. Just because a person lacks certain skills does not mean his status in God’s eyes is anything less than someone who seems to be super talented.

Certainty: Keep your people informed about the future. Don’t spring new initiatives on them. Don’t blindside them. Give them sufficient time to process something new. Consistently do this.

Autonomy: Don’t micromanage. Give choices to your staff and volunteers within reasonable parameters. Let them own some decisions.

Relatedness: Provide plenty of time for your teams to do social stuff together. Encourage involvement in a small group. Intentionally build community.

Fairness: Make sure you treat everyone fairly. Don’t ever play favorites.

Motivating others will always test us as leaders. The SCARF model can help us become more intentional and effective in how we motivate them for Kingdom impact.

What have you found that has helped motivate those you work with?


Related posts:

Rock, D. (2008) SCARF: a brain-based model for collaborating with and influencing others. Neuroleadership Journal, (1), pp.44-52.

The Brain and Successful Church Change: 11 Insights you need to know

Wise leaders carefully manage church change. Healthy church management includes not just the bird’s eye view (big picture implications) but also considers the individual view, what’s going on inside the individual church member or leader when you, as the leader, present change. Neuroscience offers helpful insight about unconscious processes that go on inside our brains when people face change. Consider these insights and suggestions the next time you plan change for your church.

People appreciate certainty and autonomy because the brain craves both. David Rock, one of the leader proponents of applying neuroscience to leadership (neuroleadership) suggests an acrostic called SCARF that represents five essential brain processes that influence motivation and change management. See my blog here that explains SCARF. The ‘c’ and the ‘a’ stand for certainty and autonomy. I’ve listed 5 insights below that relate these two components to change management.

  1. People naturally assume the worst. Our brain is actually wired to pick up threats and negative possibilities around us more than the positive. 2/3 of our brain cells in the flight-fight part of our brain, the amygdala, are wired to pick up on the negative.
  2. People naturally fill in knowledge gaps with fear. Uncertainty about the future (and change) breeds this fear.
  3. Ambiguity creates more fear than measured risk. That is, the more people have to fill in the knowledge gaps, the greater the fear about and resistance to change. Measured risk, however, fills in some of those gaps and lessens anxiety.
  4. Undoing a wrong impression is harder than creating a good impression. It’s the old adage “you don’t have a second chance to make a good first impression.” That’s not just a quaint saying. Neuroscientists have shown it to be true.
  5. People understate their ability to ride out difficult future events. Uncertainty causes us to poorly forecast how well we can face difficulty. The term is “affective forecasting.” When you present change, people will initially assume that the church will come out worse than expected, although the opposite is often true.
  6. Emotions play a very important part in decision making. Just presenting the facts is seldom enough to move people forward.

So, in light of these insights, what are some positive steps you can take to most effectively manage church change?

  1. Build in small, short-term wins along the way. These wins will give a greater sense of certainty. Remember, people (and their brains) love certainty.
  2. Fill in the knowledge gaps with truth. In other words, communicate, communicate, communicate. Keep people in the loop about your progress with the change initiative.
  3. Provide a feedback loop. Give people in your church a real, tangible way they can give feedback to you about the process. Simply knowing they have that ability to communicate to you and that you are really listening will decrease their anxiety about the future.
  4. Within reason, provide people small ways they can choose about how the change will look. Although the leadership will have decided the big picture change, providing options and opportunity for people to hone what those changes within the big change will look like increases autonomy. Remember, people love autonomy.
  5. Fill in knowledge gaps with Faith. Preach and teach on faith. Keep verses like Hebrews 11.1 often before the people.

Heb. 11.1 Faith is the confidence that what we hope for will actually happen; it gives us assurance about things we cannot see. (NLT)

What have you done that has helped smooth church change?


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