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?
Some time back I read an incredible book – Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead by Dr. Brene Brown. I highly recommend it. Her TED talk on this subject has garnered over 30,000,000 views. She strikes a chord for leaders about risking vulnerability. As a pastor vulnerability is scary and carries risks with which we must practice care when being vulnerable. As risky as it is, Dr. Brown says it’s a key to what she calls wholehearted living, what I’d called a Spirit-filled life. She says we live in a culture of scarcity and poses 14 questions in her book (p. 27) in three categories that caused me to reflect deeply about my family, my ministry, and my world. I’ve quoted some here and paraphrased others.
14 really scary questions about vulnerability…
As you read them, what is God saying to you about your family, your life, and your ministry?
- Is my self worth tied to achievement, productivity, or compliance?
- Do I use the threat of belittling or ridicule to keep people in line?
- Are put-downs and name-calling rampant?
- Are blaming and finger pointing norms?
- Am I guilty of favoritism?
- Am I a perfectionist?
- Has my creativity been suffocated?
- Do I constantly compare and rank myself against others?
- Are people in my family or church held to one narrow standard rather than acknowledged for their unique gifts and contributions?
- Is there an ideal way of being or one form of talent that is used to measure everyone else’s worth?
- Is everyone struggling to be seen and heard?
- Are people afraid to take risks or try new things?
- Does it feel as if no one is really paying attention or listening?
- Is it easier to stay quiet than share stories, experiences, and ideas?
As you read these, what question really resonated with you?
What question would you add to this list?
In Os Guiness’ excellent book, Fool’s Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion, he used the phrase, ‘weapons of mass distraction,’ to describe how people today distract themselves to avoid facing their inconsistent and broken beliefs about God and eternal matters. He writes that while distraction may feel good in the short-term (we avoid the discomfort of inconsistent belief and behavior), it’s disastrous in the long-term. Mass distraction is also a fitting metaphor for how leaders sometimes get sidetracked from the business of leading. Ask yourself which of these four weapons of mass distraction divert you the most from leading at your best.
- Sometimes we get lulled into thinking we can multi-task and get more done… keep email and text alerts on as we prepare a sermon (if you’re a pastor) or as you think through a critical strategy as a leader. We think that giving 90% effort to an important task and 10% effort to a distraction equals 100% of our effort. Actually, each time we shift from one task to another and then shift back, the sum total of our effort gets diluted. It never equals 100%. There is a cognitive cost. It’s called attention residue – it takes time for our minds to disengage from the distraction and get back on task. And, researchers have discovered that constantly emailing or texting temporarily decreases our IQ.
- Solution: turn off your phone and automatic alerts.
- Continuous partial attention.
- Linda Stone, a former VP at Microsoft coined the term. She describes it this way. “To pay continuous partial attention is to keep a top-level item in focus, and constantly scan the periphery in case something more important emerges.” As a result, this “always on” mode puts our brains on constant alert, thus flooding them with too much stress hormone which slows processing.
- Solution: Schedule your best thinking time in a quiet, distraction free environments. I use a niche in my office that blocks me from seeing people pass by my office window.
- Dopamine addiction.
- Dopamine is one of over 100 chemicals in the brain called neurotransmitters. Simply put, a neurotransmitter is a chemical messenger the brain uses to send messages from one brain cell (a neuron) to the next. As a feel good neurotransmitter, it kicks in during activities that bring us pleasure – from checking off items on your to-do list to eating a bowl of triple-fudge marshmallow creme ice cream to seeing more ‘likes’ on your Facebook posts. It’s also involved in drug, alcohol, and sexual addition. Although we may not struggle with serious addictions like drug abuse, we can easily get sucked into social media dopamine addiction when we constantly check to see ‘what’s new’ or ‘who likes me’ on social media. When we see a ‘like’ or a funny cat video, we get a little shot of dopamine and we want more, so we keep surfing.
- Solution: Set aside only certain times of the day when you surf social media. If you are hooked, go on a social media fast to break yourself from this addition.
- Striving to get to a next better moment.
- This one is a bit more subtle but Blaise Pascal captures it in this saying. “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” In other words, one weapon of mass distraction is the inability to be OK in this present moment. We’re often tempted to move to a next better moment to escape the current painful or boring moment thinking that if I just get to a better one, things will be better.
- Solution: Try mindfulness practice, a scientifically based spiritual practice that helps you learn to live in the present moment. Learn more here about Christian mindfulness.
In our fast-paced, demanding world, weapons of mass distraction lurk around every corner. When we heed Peter’s command in God’s Word, we can counter those distractions.
1Peter 5.8 Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.
Which of these weapons of mass distraction most tempt you? What would you add to this list?
Some time back I attended a two-day retreat with Keith Meyer sponsored by the Cornerstone Pastor’s Network. Keith is a pastor and author of several books on soul care including one honored in 2010 as one of the five best books for the leader’s inner life, Whole Like Transformation: Becoming the Change Your Church Needs. Keith challenged us with several great practices to take care of our soul. Here are the top five that grabbed my attention the most.
- Our longing for Him must supersede our love for His ministry. So often our passion for Christ gets buried in our passion for our church or ministry. When that happens we stifle that vital connection to the Vine, our true source of joy and strength.
- We must slow down enough to go God’s speed. And what is God’s speed? The speed of love and relationships. This one really struck me. Too often in my drive to accomplish my daily goals, I move so fast that I breeze by the relational connections that Jesus most wants me make.
- When we pay attention to God throughout the day, we’re most open to divinely arranged interruptions. One way we can become more sensitive to Him is to ‘pray our day’ and ‘pray our events.’ That is, use your calendar items and task list as cues to pray for your meeting, lunch appointment, study time, or whatever you have planned for the day. When we do this everything becomes a cue to go to Him.
- Memorize long transformative passages like Colossians 3, John 15, and Romans 12. Sometimes we memorize single Scripture verses and use them simply as ‘pills’ to treat our daily problems. Longer passages, however, can best transform our thinking.
- Grace is not opposed to effort but to earning. This one originally came form Dallas Willard, USC philosophy professor and writer of some of the best books on spiritual formation. One of my favorites he wrote is Renovation of the Heart,a must-read for every pastor.
- The acronym VIM captures the non-negotiables for spiritual transformation. ‘V’ stands for vision. ‘I’ stands for intention. ‘M’ stands for means. Again, Dallas Willard was the first to suggest this process. Here’s a great article that unpacks VIM.
What practices have most helped you care for your soul?
The terms spiritual disciplines and spiritual formation have taken center stage in many churches and pastor conversations today. Essentially they refer to what we do to build healthy souls. And we all want that. They serve as means to an end, to become more like Jesus, not as ends in themselves. And the most common ones include Bible reading, fasting, and prayer. While I believe that most pastors somewhat regularly practice the main ones, I have a hunch that we may often unintentionally miss these four. As you read each one, ask yourself when you last practiced it.
- Not having to have the last word.
- Keith Meyer, pastor and author, tells a story about a student in one of Dallas Willard’s classes. At the end of one class a student rudely challenged him with a question. With Dallas’s keen mind he could have crushed him with an answer. Yet, he gently responded with, “Well, that’s a great question and a good time to end class.” After the class several angry and supportive students came up to him asked why he didn’t answer. He said, “I was practicing the discipline of not having to have the last word.”
- Solitude for the extrovert and community for the introvert.
- Introverts usually practice solitude easily yet may find it difficult to intentionally break their alone time to be with others. The opposite holds true for the extrovert. Silence and solitude can feel excruciating for an extrovert. Yet, often we need to do the opposite of what comes easy for the greatest impact on our souls.
- Submission for a Type-A, high-D personality.
- Both those descriptions reflect my personality. I like to be in charge and lead the way. It’s hard for me to take a back seat. Yet when I do so with a right heart, it counters the temptation to become prideful.
- No one likes to be wrong. Yet, when we do wrong, when we sin, Scripture tells us to confess it. It easier to confess it to God in private. It’s hard to confess it to others against whom we’ve sinned. Yet when we appropriately confess our sin to others, God gives us a deep sense of cleansing and peace in our souls.
What other disciplines do you see that pastors often miss?