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?


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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.

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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