As far as I know, every pastor wants to preach a good, memorable sermon. They want people to leave with a new insight, a word of encouragement, hope. They hope God's word flows through them in law and gospel as needed by the hearer. Given that, we've all heard some rough sermons. They might be hard to remember, hard to pay attention to, and sometimes it's just plain hard to understand. As I have pondered this dilemma, I can't help but wonder how I, as a teacher, can help pastors be more effective in their preaching. Nobody wants to dread the sermon or think of it as "dead time" in the worship service. No pastor wants to be told how to preach. So, if you're a pastor and might welcome a few tips from an educator, here's what I've got for you. Here are some educational tips that can be applied to preaching, because in addition to proclamation, preaching is teaching.
What We Know About LecturesLet's face it. Preaching is lecturing. It's a short lecture, but it's still a lecture. Standing up and talking while people listen is lecturing, and that's what preaching is. Lectures are an effective way of conveying information or imparting knowledge, so if your preaching goal is simply to share your knowledge or Biblical information, then a lecture is the way to go. However, if you want to change how people think about something, you need to engage them in a debate of the mind. Can this be done in a traditional sermon? Yes!
According to current brain/learning research, we know that we learn more when actively rather than passively engaged, but what does that mean? Passive engagement is sitting and listening. It's the simplest form of engagement and least effective. More about active engagement or active learning later.
What We Know About Memory
If you want people to remember something, they need to hear it more than once. We all know the Lord's Prayer because we say it every week. If you want people to remember what you say, then your new mantra should be review, repeat, recap.
We've long known that our strongest sense with regard to memory, is smell, but that doesn't work so well when preaching. We also know that our senses work best when used together. For example, memory works better when you combine hearing and seeing.
If you hear a piece of information, you'll remember 10% of it 3 days later. If you add a picture to it you'll remember 65% of it. You'll have 3 times better recall for visual information than for oral and 6 times better recall for information that's oral and visual simultaneously.
We think in pictures, not words. As people read, their brain translates the words into mental pictures. Think about Noah and you'll find a number of pictures (ark, animals, adults, rain, etc) flip through your brain like a mental video. If somebody says the word dog, your brain show you a video of many different dogs. So, if we attach a picture to the words, we have a better chance of remembering the picture attached to the word. What does that say about using slides in a sermon? What does that say about using slides with pictures on them in a sermon?
What is Active Learning Homiletics?There's a reason sermons are only supposed to last 15-20 minutes. That's about how long an adult can sit and listen if they're doing nothing but sitting and listening. "That's ridiculous!" many pastors have said, "They should be able to listen to God's word for hours." Yes, they should, but no, they cannot. They can listen longer, however, if you do something to engage them in a mental debate.
Active Learning Homiletics is a term I created to explain the intentional action of integrating learning principles into homiletics. In this sense, it's about intentionally engaging people with the material instead of letting them be passive listeners. The way I'm using it here, it does not mean you have to separate people into groups and have them participate in some kind of activity. It means you enhance what you're saying with something that breaks it up. For example,
- Ask significant or probing questions that make people think or wonder.
- Use slides with photos and words on them so that when people recall the pictures, they recall the associated words as well.
- Use pictures of maps when talking about a region.
- Use a graphic organizer to help organize groups of information.
- Have them read along with you when reading scripture.
- If you want them to remember a phrase, ask them to repeat it a few times throughout the sermon. "Say it with me, folks, I am with you always."
- Try unexpected quizzes (but don't call them quizzes). "Remember what I said about...?"
- Throw up a video, cartoon, or use a joke to demonstrate a point.
- Recap or restate your main points before the end of the sermon.