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.

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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5 Ways to Get People to pay Attention to Your Sermons

One of the most disconcerting feelings we pastors experience is when we prepare a sermon and pour our heart into it, yet feel that it didn’t make a difference in people’s lives. It’s equally frustrating when we preach to see somebody tuning us out.

What can we do to help people pay more attention to our sermons? For when they do, there’s a greater chance what we say will stick in their minds to give the Holy Spirit time to ultimately change their hearts.

listening

Neuroscience is teaching us a lot about how people remember things. Two mental processes related to attention simultaneously activate in the minds of those sitting in the pews on Sundays.

  • Focus: the ability to attend to what you are saying.
  • Inhibiting distractions: the ability to tune out competing information. Those distractions can be external like a baby crying or internal like self-talk or mulling over memories of what happened on the way to church.

So what can we do when we preach to help increase attention? I’ve listed 5 neuroscience insights to keep in mind as you prepare your sermons.

  1. Mood matters. Scientists have discovered that when people are in a good mood they pay better attention. We can’t change what happened to a family on the way to church (ie-a fight), but we can take some steps to help put them in a good mood. Humor is a great tool that does that. Don’t begin your sermon with something heavy. Rather, try to interject some humor. Smile and put people at ease.
  2. The head cannot take more than the seat can endure is true. Our brains need downtime. They can’t concentrate for long periods of time. In fact, the brain will make downtime for itself when it gets tired. So, build ebb and flow into your sermons. Alternate intensity (something that may require intensive concentration) with points or stories that don’t take much concentration.
  3. See your sermons like firing a gun. Three distinct processes take place in the brain for attention to occur. It’s firing a gun: load, aim, fire. To load is when the brain is alerted to take notice. Aim is when it looks for more information. Fire is when it actually acts. So develop your sermon with this in mind. Build each point around the load—aim—fire process.
  4. Include novelty in your sermons. Attention increases with something novel or new. Include a couple of surprises. Perhaps you pull out a “show and tell” item unexpectedly to illustrate a point. Maybe you move to a different location from where you usually preach (ie-off the stage and into an aisle).
  5. Make it relevant. Preaching is connecting the then and there to the here and now. We must try to help people apply the message to their lives. The brain pays much more attention when it senses relevance. Don’t just wait until the end for application. Provide application points throughout the sermon.

Ultimately, we want our sermons to stick in the listener’s long-term memory. The more they stick, the greater the chance for the Holy Spirit to bring about life transformation.

What presentation techniques you found that helps sermons stick?


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How to Increase the Spiritual Return on a Sermon

Every Sunday something happens over 400,000 times in North America:  A pastor preaches a sermon. Have you ever wondered, though, how much impact sermons really make? Consider these shocking statistics.

If an average sermon lasts about 30 minutes and if roughly 56 million people attend on an average Sunday, then church attenders in North America’s churches spend this amount of time listening to our sermons each week.

  • 23,000,000 man hours
  • which equals 958,000 days
  • which equals 136,904 weeks
  • which equals 2,632 years

And if the average pastor spends 10 hours preparing a sermon, all together pastors will spend the following amount of time in weekly sermon prep.

  • 4,000,000 man hours
  • which equals 166,666 days
  • which equals 23,800 weeks
  • which equals 457 years

Adding it all together, each week sermons gobble up three centuries of man-hours. If you multiply that over a year’s time . . . well, you do the math.

When I calculated this number, it boggled my mind. That statistic then begged this question.

What spiritual return is our preaching giving us?

I know we can’t measure the eternal impact from our sermons. However, the amount of time we invest in them and the time people invest in listening to them should cause us to pause and evaluate.

Take a few moments and consider these ten questions. As you read them ask yourself if should make some changes to maximize your sermons’ spiritual impact.

  1. Do I spend sufficient time preparing my heart to preach (ie: spiritual disciplines, stillness, character development)?
  2. Do I spend sufficient time with people to understand the issues they face that need a word from God?
  3. Am I being true to what the biblical writers intended when I preach?
  4. Am I willing to get honest feedback from people who can help me improve my preaching?
  5. Do I make my preaching more about Him and less about me and what others may think about my preaching?
  6. What am I doing to improve my study and presentation skills?
  7. Am I willing to preach on unpopular subjects about which the Scripture speaks?
  8. Do I spend sufficient time thinking about ways that could maximize the listener’s attention to increase their retention of my sermons?
  9. Do I always tie my sermons to the overarching redemptive theme of the Gospel?
  10. Do I approach preaching as a hallowed trust?

Perhaps the venerable Haddon Robinson captured the essence of good preaching when we wrote this in his excellent book, Biblical Preaching.

When you get right down to it, preaching is like farming. I often say, “Lord, here I am. As far as I can tell, I’ve tried to fill my sack with good seed. I’ve done my homework, I think my attitude is right, and it’s the best, most interesting seed I’ve got. I’m going to scatter it now, Lord. So here goes. We’ll see what comes up in the field.” Then, once I’ve sown the seed, I do what farmers do: I go home and rest.

What questions would you add to this list?

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Should Andy Stanley have used Sermon Notes for His “The Bible Told Me So, Not” Sermon

In August, Andy Stanley delivered a sermon that has upset many because he appeared to question biblical authority. You can hear his message, “Who Needs God? The Bible Told Me So,” here, read a negative critique by Albert Mohler here and read a positive one by Frank Turek here. In this post I’m not critiquing whether or not he undermined biblical authority. I will leave that to people a lot smarter than me. However, I do suggest in the post that this latest evangelical brouhaha offers a lesson to us preachers in favor of using sermon notes, or a manuscript, especially when we speak on difficult and potentially controversial topics.

First, some caveats.

  • I only met Andy once when I sat next to him in a church service 25 years ago.
  • I attended his dad’s church while earning my engineering degree at Ga Tech and I heard Andy speak a few times.
  • He is without a doubt one of the Church’s most gifted leaders and communicators today.
  • I’ve read lots of his books and have learned much from them.
  • The attendance at my church would probably fit in his church’s chapel, if it has one.
  • I don’t question Andy’s commitment to the Bible nor his heart for God.
  • And, I believe that with recent new insights we’re learning about how the human brain works, pastors must craft their messages with those insights in mind. I believe this so strongly that I’ve earned a master’s degree in the neuroscience of leadership and my last book unpacks how we can learn from intersecting neuroscience with biblical truth.

So what I suggest may seem like an ant telling a lion what to do. Even so, I raise these two questions.

  1. Is it wise to write out a manuscript for messages that deal with sensitive topics?
  2. And if it is, should we stay close to script during those messages instead of speaking off the cuff?

Pardon one more caveat: When I’ve seen Andy speak I notice he doesn’t use notes. If he does, he masterfully uses them. So, I am assuming he does not use them but speaks more extemporaneously. I could be wrong. But if I am close to correct (I also assume that Andy prepares well but speaks off the cuff more than most pastors would) here are 4 reasons why using a manuscript and staying close to it is smart, especially when dealing with controversial topics.

  1. The human brain is wired to lean negative. Our brain has five times more circuits that look for the negative than circuits that look for the positive. 2/3 of the brain cells in an almond shaped part of the brain involved in the fight-flight response, the amygdala (there are actually two of them), are wired to be vigilant and look for the negative. The brain more easily encodes negative emotional experiences than positive ones and more quickly recalls such negative experiences.
    • The implication: When we speak about volatile subjects in our sermons, we increase the chance that our listeners will attribute negative connotations to them, thus amplifying our message in ways we don’t intend. When we write out our manuscript, we can more carefully craft statements about volatile subjects and potentially lessen the chance of being misunderstood.
  2. Writing out a manuscript can help us avoid sloppiness in saying things that could potentially hurt others. Andy may write out his messages. Again, I’m making some assumptions. But in the last five years, I’ve changed how I craft my sermons. I now write them out as full manuscripts and I use them from my iPad when I preach, although I’m familiar enough with them to not be glued to them. Writing them out forces me to think deeply about how I need to address difficult to understand issues.
    • The implication: The Bible actually did ‘tell us so’ long before neuroscientists told us this. Words really hurt (Death and life are in the tongue, Pv 18.21). In fact social pain registers in the same areas of the brain that physical pain registers. When someone with great influence uses words than can easily be misunderstood and potentially hurtful, those words physically and psychologically hurt. For a 6 year old girl or 65 year old saint who came to faith after hearing the song, Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so, and is then told those words are not true… that experience can be profoundly hurtful. Writing and using a manuscript can help us avoid this.
  3. The larger the platform, the more we must take care to be clear and graceful. Andy’s platform is ginormous. Whereas hundreds of thousands of people tune in, read, and follow Andy, on a good Sunday we live-stream to about 25 viewers and my total Twitter followers is probably equal to the number of views he has per Tweet. Even with my small platform, I still must be clear and graceful.
    • The implication: What I or any other pastor says can instantly be re-tweeted or posted on Facebook and the entire world can know it, if it wants to. Soundbites are now ubiquitous. And, in today’s world, it seems that reality is not the issue. Perception is. Writing out and using a manuscript can help us more carefully craft our words by thinking about how they could be quoted and repeated in cyberspace. It can force us to ask, How would this soundbite be heard out of context?
  4. Sloppily stated statements can throw the listener’s brain off track so that the full message gets missed. When listening to a speech or sermon, the average brain goes in and out of attention every 12-18 seconds for a bit to engage internal dialogue that seems more interesting (salient) than what it is listening to. In fact, recent research has shown that goldfish have longer attention spans than humans. When our brains are shocked and they go into reflective What did he just say? or I totally disagree with that! mode, it can cause the listener to miss what follows the shock statement, the unpacking of the statement.
    • The implication: Writing out and using a manuscript can help us catch those potential shock words or phrases that can disconnect our listener from us. With a manuscript we can remind ourselves to intentionally slow the pace and pause to give the listener time to catch his mental breath before we continue, thus giving the listener time to hear the entire context.

So, this latest ruckus gives an opportunity for us communicators to put the manuscript back into our sermon toolboxes.

And the hackneyed phrase, Hindsight is 20-20 still bears repeating. Could a little old fashioned manuscript have avoided this ruckus and resulted in Andy’s message being simply another great one? We will never know.

But, if you write out or use a manuscript, how has it helped you?

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