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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Mr. Rogers’ Advice to Discouraged Pastors

Do the Best You Can and Leave the Results to God… That phrase may seem trite and a bit worn to discouraged pastors, but it’s filled with truth. In Christ’s parable of the talents, the master, representing God, gave responsibility to the servants, us, based on individual ability.[1] The story implies that some pastors have greater competencies and gifts than others. Similarly, Paul teaches that the Holy Spirit gives out gifts as He sees fit.[2] It’s obvious that the Spirit gives some pastors extra preaching or leading gifts, evidenced in the size and impact of their ministries. And when we don’t measure up or our church is not growing and we face discouragement, what can we do?

do your best words on post-it over brown background

It’s easy to become discouraged when we do our best yet don’t see our church grow like others against which we or others may compare ourselves. When we wrap our identities around numerical results and the numbers don’t increase, the discouragement can overwhelm. This is especially true for older pastors who realize they may never achieve the dreams they had for ministry.

Author David Goetz wrote,

I often sat in the studies of both small-church pastors and mega-church pastors, listening to their stories, their hopes, their plans for significance. I deduced, albeit unscientifically, that often clergymen in midlife had worse crises of limits than did other professionals. Religious professionals went into the ministry for the significance, to make an impact, called by God to make a difference with their lives. But when you’re fifty-three and serving a congregation of 250, you know, finally, you’ll never achieve the large-church immortality symbol, the glory that was promised to you. That can be a dark moment—or a dark couple of years.[3]

In contrast to these struggles, the late theologian Fred Rogers (of Mr. Rogers fame) recalled an experience he had when attending seminary. He wanted to hear a variety of preachers, so for a time each Sunday he visited different churches. One week he experienced “the most poorly crafted sermon [he] had ever heard.” A friend had accompanied him and when he turned to her, he found her in tears. She said, “It was exactly what I needed to hear.”

Rogers then told his audience, “That’s when I realized that the space between someone doing the best he or she can and someone in need is holy ground. The Holy Spirit had transformed that feeble sermon for her—and as it turned out, for me too.”[4]

Although the results from our best efforts may look feeble to some, they can touch a heart and change a life when we least expect it. This side of heaven we will never know the people we impacted through our faithful service.

Don’t give up our give in to discouragement. God is still at work.

What has helped you deal with discouragement?

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Adapted with permission from the book by Charles Stone, 5 Ministry Killers and How to Defeat Them.


[1] Matthew 25

[2] 1 Corinthians 12

[3] David L. Goetz, Death by Suburb (New York: HarperCollins, 2006), 43.

[4] In Victor Parachin, “8 Ways to Encourage Your Pastor,” Today’s Christian, Sept/Oct. 1999. http://www.christianitytoday.com/tc/1999/sepoct/9r5035.html?start=1.

Feeling Overwhelmed in Ministry or Life? Try this.

Ministry burnout, overload, and destructive stress lead to an abysmal survival rate for pastors today.  For 20 years a friend of mine followed 105 pastors and discovered that only half remained in ministry. Many other statistics bear witness to the high fallout rate for pastors. Burnout, moral collapse, and the weight of ministry has shattered many dreams for Kingdom impact. No pastor ever begins ministry with a goal to end up as a casualty of it. Unfortunately, unless some make systemic changes to their hearts and ministry pace, they too will end up a statistic. But, if you feel yourself on the road to burnout and overwhelmed you can change your trajectory through this simple yet life-transforming exercise.

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I’ve used a tool that many coaches use to help people regain balance from feeling overwhelmed. It’s called a “Life Balance Wheel.”

It had its origins in the Middle Ages when few could read. Etched on many cathedrals, it visually represented the cycle of daily life: happiness, loss, suffering, and hope. For most people life offered little hope and the carved images instructed the common person about the inevitable change process in life.

Today we use the life balance wheel in a more positive way. It takes many forms, but this example captures its essence. Each piece of the pie represents an area of life. Within that area the scale rates your satisfaction with that part of your life.

Here’s how to use it to help regain balance and deal with life’s pressures in a more intentional way.

  • Google “Life Balance Wheel” and you’ll find many free printable templates.
  • After you print it out, mark your level of satisfaction within in each area of your life.
  • Connect the dots to see how balanced or imbalanced you have described your life.
  • Pick one or two areas in which you feel least satisfied.
  • Describe what life would look like if your satisfaction in those areas increased to an “8”
  • List five specific steps you could take in each area that could help you move to an “8”
  • Give each step a specific date when you will take the step.
  • Make yourself accountable to someone to help you regain balance. A good coach trained in the life balance wheel would be a good investment.

This simple tool could have profound implications for your future, your family, and your ministry. Right now schedule an hour this week to complete the exercise and see how God could use it in your life.

If you’ve used the life balance wheel before, what have you found helpful?

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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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A Simple Exercise that will Infuse Life into your Staff

Recently our church staff held our annual in-house evaluation retreat when we reviewed the prior year’s goals and plans. God had given us a good year and we wanted not only to discuss how we could improve, but rejoice in His blessings. After we prayed, we did a simple exercise that infused life into each of us. Here’s what we did that I guarantee will infuse life into your staff, whether they are paid or volunteer.

Gratitude changes everything - inspirational text on a vintage slate blackboard

This will infuse life into your staff.

We have nine on our ministry staff and eight were present that day. I asked everyone to write down the names of each staff member sitting around the table. I then asked them to write down one quality about each person that they most appreciated. That was the easy part. The uncomfortable, yet life-giving part came next.

I then asked each person to look at one individual and tell him or her what they appreciated most about that person. We went around the table while each of us stayed on the ‘hot seat’ (maybe there is a better term for it). Then, one by one, we each looked directly at that staff person and told him or her what we most appreciated about them.

It was an incredibly life affirming experience.

Tears were shed.

We become vulnerable.

Each of us got blessed.

Our retreat took on an incredibly open and affirming tone.

It was amazing.

Gratefulness expressed to others is not only biblical, but it brings with it many practical personal benefits as well. Science is now telling us what the Bible has for centuries: showing gratitude, saying thanks, and affirming others is really good. Here’s what we’re learning about gratefulness.

  1. Gratefulness stimulates Christ-honoring behavior, called pro-social behavior by psychologists.
  2. Gratefulness can actually make us happier.
  3. Gratefulness can help decrease the power of materialism.
  4. Gratefulness can help us learn to forgive more consistently.
  5. Gratefulness can help us sleep better.
  6. Gratefulness can make us feel better physically because it evokes the production of two neurotransmitters in our brains, dopamine and serotonin, involved in reward and well-being, respectively.

So, when we experience and show gratefulness to others or in our hearts, many benefits result.

Two great Scriptures remind us how important gratefulness is.

“I will give thanks to you, Lord, with all my heart; I will tell of all your wonderful deeds” (Psalms 9:1).

Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5:18).

Try this with your staff (or even with your family) and experience how life giving it can be.

What are some other life-giving exercises have you used with your staff?

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