Sticky Sermon Ideas from Les Miserables, the Movie

I just saw the movie Les Miserables with my family.

I was blown away, had my feet knocked out from beneath me, and was overwhelmed with emotion at this incredible story of redemption, sacrifice, and courage.

I’d never seen the live production nor read Victor Hugo’s novel upon which it is based. I now know what I have missed. If you haven’t seen it, please do. And take a Kleenex.

God was nowhere hidden in this story. Images of the cross, examples of transformed lives, and sacrifice for the good of others filled the screen from the very start. Read Jennifer Graham’s opinion piece here in the Boston Globe about how well it told the Gospel. Pretty amazing.

Hugh Jackman (Wolverine in the X-men) plays the lead part. Just about everybody is nominating him for some award. I predict he’ll win most of them.

Only after my emotions came back to baseline did I realize how well the movie illustrated several ideas that can make a pastor’s sermon more sticky in the minds of our hearers. I learned these three from the movie.

  1. Maximize story. Les Mis is one huge meta-story filled with multiple mini-stories. Jesus Himself was the master story telling. He couched many Biblical truths in the context of a memorable story. Story has the ability to penetrate even the hardest hearts. When you craft a sermon, include stories as much as you can. Ben Arment, a friend of mine, puts on a national conference each year called Story. It’s a great venue to learn how to use story and creativity in ministry. http://www.benarment.com
  2. Engage emotions. I’m not a big crier, but a movie can bring it out in me. Les Mis never gratuitously uses emotion, but it weaves powerful emotional moments into each character interaction. In a sermon, well-placed emotion actually helps cement learning into the minds of our listeners. Neuroscientists have discovered that just the right amount of emotion (not too much or too little) can greatly enhance learning.[1]
  3. Avoid premature answers. Sometimes our sermons ‘solve the problem’ too soon without allowing our listeners to wrestle with the issue themselves and generate their own solutions. In the movie, Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is pursued for years for missing parole by a ruthless policeman named Javert (played by Russell Crowe). In one poignant scene Javert struggles with Jean Valjean’s show of grace. As he struggles, he paces back and forth on a ledge high above a river as he contemplates suicide. This scene lingers for some time before Javert makes his decision (NO spoiler alert here). I was left in suspense long enough to be drawn even more deeply into the movie. When crafting and delivering a sermon, set up a problem and then intentionally skirt around the answer a while to force the listener to wrestle with his answer or solution. It’s called self-referent learning. When we come up with our own applications and solutions, we more easily remember them. They ‘stick’ better in our minds. [2]

If you saw the movie, I’d love to hear the insights you learned that are applicable to ministry.


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[1] LaBar, K.S. & Cabeza, R. (2006) Cognitive neuroscience of emotional memory. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 7 (1), pp.54-64.

[2] Slamecka, N.J. & Graf,P. (1978) The Generation Effect: Delineation of a Phenomenon. Journal of Experiential Psychology, (4), pp. 592-604.

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