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.
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?