A Powerful Tool to Help Create Change in your Church

Change in every church is difficult, but necessary. Things that are alive, change. One powerful tool that can help move change forward in your church is storytelling. I’ve excerpted a brief portion of my fourth book Brain-Savvy Leaders, the Science of Significant Ministry below that describes the power of storytelling to create change.

Narrative persuasion is a technique that uses indirect communication through story and example. Often we try to persuade others with a direct approach that communicates just the facts, like, “We are going to make a change, and here are the reasons why.” The direct approach often is not effective. Neuroscientists have confirmed common sense that storytelling has a powerful effect on behavior (Falk et al., 2012).

Storytelling helps others “see” through the eyes of another. As you solicit feedback as you prepare for your change, look for stories of people who are managing the change well. Tell their stories as you give updates about your progress. When your team members can see successful responses to change through stories of others, it will help them navigate the change better.

How has storytelling helped you move a change initiative forward in your church?

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Sources:

  • Brain-Savvy Leaders: The Science of Significant Ministry by Charles Stone (Kindle Locations 2746-2752). Abingdon Press. Kindle Edition (permission granted for use).
  • Falk, E. B., Berkman, E. T., Mann, T., Harrison, B., & Lieberman, M. D. (2010, June 23). Predicting persuasion-induced behavior change from the brain. The Journal of Neuroscience, 30( 25), 8421– 24.

How Often should Preachers Practice their Sermon?

I’ve served in ministry over 35 years and I’ve preached a lot of sermons. Some have been good and some, well, not so good. Three factors have made the biggest positive difference for me: preparing my heart before the Lord, scheduling adequate study time to avoid feeling rushed, and practicing preaching my sermon. In this blog I suggest a few benefits from practice and describe my practice/preparation process.

As a framework, a few insights about me.

  • I’m not an A++ communicator. I’d say I’m a solid B+. God has gifted me with a good mind and relatively good speaking abilities, but I don’t command a multi-thousand person church audience. I’ll speak to several hundred people on an average Sunday.
  • I don’t have a photographic memory that allows me to memorize my sermons.
  • I don’t have unlimited energy, need 8 hours of sleep at night, and go into a semi-comotose mode at about 8:30 each night. So, I can’t pick up extra study hours at night. If study gets done, it must happen during daylight hours.
  • I study slow. I can’t quickly craft a message. Even after three decades of doing it, I still need 15 hours or so to create a message, excluding practice time.

Even with my limitations, I’ve discovered that practicing my sermon yields several benefits.

  1. Familiarity: When I practice, I become more familiar with the homiletic part (how will I say it), a different kind of familiarity than hermeneutic familiarity (what the Bible says).
  2. Improvement: When I practice my message, I notice how I can say things differently which improves what I eventually do say.
  3. Shortening: Practice often helps me realize that I can remove some parts of my sermon without affecting the message I want to convey. I almost always shorten my sermon as I practice it.
  4. Confidence: The more familiar I become with my sermon, the less I have to think about what “comes next” when I preach which increases my confidence during delivery.
  5. Memory: Although I don’t memorize my messages (I work from a complete manuscript), the more I practice, the more it imbeds into my subconscious which frees me to connect better with the congregation through eye contact and body language when I deliver it.
  6. Timing: I usually try to use humor in each message. Professional comedians practice a lot to improve timing in their humor. When I practice, it helps me improve my timing.

Here’s my routine.

  • I complete my study and write my manuscript at least two weeks ahead of time.
  • On the Thursday prior to the Sunday when I will deliver it, I review it again, tweak it, and highlight key phrases (all in Microsoft Word).
    • I save it as a PDF to my iPad app Notability, one of the best PDF markup apps available. I preach from an iPad mini, instead of paper notes. You can read about my experience with an iPad here.
    • I go to an upstairs closet in the church and preach it out loud once.
  • On Friday, I slowly and silently review it, further tweaking it directly on Notability.
  • On Saturday, I preach in out loud in my bedroom closet (second practice).
  • On Sunday morning, I practice it out loud one more time in my closet (third practice).

So, I practice it out loud three times and silently tweak it twice.

I’ve found that this pattern allows me to best prepare, without overdoing the practice.

What is your prep routine?

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Stopping the Inner Mental Chatter when you Teach and Preach

Has this every happened to you when you teach preach? You’re in a groove and as you scan your audience, you notice someone not listening…or someone’s arms are crossed…or someone has a scowl on her face. And then an inner dialogue begins. Why aren’t they listening? They must not like what I’m saying? They don’t like me, etc., etc., etc. And then you lose your focus. Every preacher, teacher, and speaker faces this temptation. When it happens, what’s going on and what can we do?

It’s all (or mostly) in our brains. Certainly satan is at work to distract us and our listeners as Mark writes.

Mark 4.15 Some people are like seed along the path, where the word is sown. As soon as they hear it, Satan comes and takes away the word that was sown in them.

But often it’s simply a conscious/unconscious process going on inside our brains due to an overactive part of the brain whose function is to scan for something not right in our environment. When we notice someone(s) in our audience not listening, instead of just noticing and moving on, our minds often add silent commentary like, They must not like what I’m saying. And then we add more dialogue on top of that and even more on top of that.

It we stay in this thought stream, it actually blocks our ability to communicate effectively. We lose our mental focus, we can lose our place in the talk, and negative emotions like fear (they are rejecting me) or worry (what will they say about me since they have rejected me) further distract us.

When this happens, fortunately, we can take some quick practical steps to get back on track. Here’s what has helped me stop this negative chatter before it affects my sermon or talk.

  1. Recognize the physical clues that this may be happening. For me, a dry mouth indicates I’m doing this. When our fight-flee-freeze center in our brain is active, it activates a part of our nervous system that among other things, causes our muscles to tighten, get sweaty palms, or slows down our saliva production. Thus for me, my dry mouth. So, it’s important to stay aware of body sensations that indicate your mind is chattering. Sometimes it’s easier to notice these physical sensations first.
  2. After the physical clue reminds you, simply acknowledge that your brain is messing with you. Those anxious thoughts and emotions are not really you. They are simply passing sensations in your brain. In reality, most of those negative thoughts have no basis in fact. So, let yourself off the hook. It’s your brain messing with you.
  3. Reappraise the situation. I’m a very attentive listener and I always look straight at those talking to me, whether I’m in a 1-1 conversation or I’m listening to a speaker bring a talk. I assume others do the same. However, some people are auditory learners and even though they seem to not be listening, they often are. So, when I see someone not paying attention to my talk I mentally tell myself, They must be an auditory learner. I may be wrong, but this short mental reappraisal helps me get back on track.
  4. Finally, pause at a natural break in your talk, take a breath, and move on. Many studies have shown that a slow breath actually lessens anxiety.

When we bring a sermon or a spiritual talk, spiritual forces certainly seek to minimize the Kingdom impact of our teaching. Satan does not want God’s Word to change lives. Yet, at the same time, our bodies and brains often work agains us as well. We must recognize the difference and when it’s our brain, these simple techniques can help.

What has helped you deal with this mental chatter when you speak?

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4 Ways to Improve Focus while Preparing a Talk or a Sermon

Preparing talks and sermons is one of my highest priorities as a pastor. I’ve often said that preparing a message feels much like writing a term paper, each week. I even heard someone say that sermon preparation is like delivering a baby each week and then on Monday realizing you are expecting again. It’s hard work and takes time. Without sustained focus and attention, sermon prep can consume an inordinate amount of time. (See my post here about how long we should spend preparing a sermon). To maximize my prep time, I’ve learned to focus my attention in these ways.

  1. Visual gating.
    • Visual gating simply means to block out other visual distractions. In my office at church I have two desks. One is the main one that faces the office area which allows me to see out the window. Another one is around the corner in a nook. Only a bare wall stands behind my computer monitor. I use this one. At my home office I have my desk and monitor arranged in the same way. A bare wall stands behind them. I also use the ‘focus’ mode on Microsoft Word. It blocks out all the other panes and programs that lie behind Word so that the only thing I see is my current document. If you don’t use Word, you can buy several other programs that do the same thing. One company even found that the best way they increased employee productivity was to get them large computer monitors.
  2. Auditory blocking.
    • Ambient sounds can definitely distract us from our prep. I’ve used two techniques. I turn on a small fan that blocks most unwanted noise. However, if I really want to maximize concentration, I use my sound suppressing headphones and listen to the sound of rushing water with an iPhone app called Ambiance. You can get zillions of sounds through this app if rushing water does not work for you.
  3. Dopamine enhancement.
    • The neurotransmitter dopamine helps us maintain attention and is involved with reward in the brain. We need dopamine to help us concentrate. Too little and we don’t focus. Too much and we get wired. When we check off a task from our to do list we get a tiny burst of dopamine. Chocolate can increase it (although I don’t recommend keeping a jar of M & M’s on your desk). And, caffeine can boost it as well. I don’t drink coffee or tea, the two main sources of caffeine. However, sometimes I will drink a diet coke or use 5-Hour Energy. I’ve found that this energy drink does not leave me with a crash when it wears off. I wrote a blog on energy drinks for the busy pastor here.
  4. Minimized computer distractions.
    • When I study I turn off any email or social networking automatic reminders. Studies show that when social media and email interrupt us, it takes us several minutes to get back to the task.

What has helped you concentrate while prepare a talk or sermon?

INVITATION to a LEADERSHIP EVENT: This Tuesday, June 10, at 11 am PDT/2pm EDT I am privileged to join Brian Dodd and Greg Atkinson in a live broadcast on leadership. We’ll be talking about innovative leadership, avoiding people pleasing, and indispensable practices to help you grow. Here’s the link if you’d like to join us.

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A Science-based Sermon Note Taking Template

I invest 15-20 hours each week to prepare a Sunday sermon. If you’re a pastor, I’m sure you invest similar time. Have you ever wondered, though, how much of your sermons really stick in your listeners’ minds to help them become spiritually transformed? I have, many times. As I’m learning more about how God fashioned our brain to work in learning environments, I’m testing what I’m learning as I preach. I just began a series on Romans at our church and I created a new sermon note taking template (below) based on some science-based learning principles. I describe it here and include some screen shots if you’d like to modify it for your use.

First, a few basic details.

  • It’s a front and back insert. The image in this post includes both front and back.
  • We hole punch it so people can put it into a notebook, rather than the recycle bin.
  • The front includes basic details such as date, passage, speaker, etc.

Now, some of the science based principles.

  • All Learning is Based on Prior Learning: Next week’s passage. At the top on the front page, I include the following week’s Scripture passage. I encourage our people to read that passage at least five days of the next seven, three times at each sitting. The more familiar they are with the passage I will preach from, the more what they hear will resonate because they are already familiar with the passage. All learning is based on prior learning and the more they know about the passage, the more sticky your sermon will be.
  • Gist or Verbatim memory: Today’s Big Idea. I try to boil down the message into one core statement. [This particular week I simply gave an overview of the book and then shared 9 ways the listener could get the most from the series.] When we speak, we must balance two kinds of memory, gist memory –this means what it says, the gist of what you are preaching, which, by the way, sticks in memory longer – and verbatim memory – specific details of your sermon. The big idea captures the one overall concept, gist memory, what I hope the people retain if they forget everything else.
  • Neurons that fire together, wire together: Last Week’s Big Idea. Although the graphic does not include this line because that Sunday was week one of the series, in future weeks I will include the prior week’s big idea. Repetition truly is the key to learning. The more specific neurons fire together, the more our brain wires itself around what made it fire (it’s called ‘Hebbian Law’). So, when you repeat something, neural circuits around that repeated concept get strengthened. Repeating the prior week’s big idea can help imbed those key concepts you hope will get retained.
  • The Protege Effect: Today’s Key Insight. Students who help tutor other students consistently outperform other students. It’s the old “you want to learn something, teach someone else” concept. On the second page at the top is a box where people can write down one or two key insights that stood out the most from the sermon. I encourage them to envision teaching someone else that concept. Even imagining this will help imbed learning – even better, actually doing it.
  • Social Learning: Today’s Lunch Question. Next, on the backside of the insert I include a box with a question about the sermon. I encourage our people to discuss it at lunch with their friends and family. This process, called social learning (processing what we learn with others) is proven to help deepen learning. As we dialogue with others, we gain different perspectives and new insights, which makes our sermons stickier.

These and other learning techniques you can apply around sermon note taking can help imbed the biblical truths about which you area preaching. Of course, ultimately the Holy Spirit brings transformation. John reminds us of this here.

But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. (John 14.26)

What has helped make your sermons sticker?

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