One of the most disconcerting feelings we pastors experience is when we prepare a sermon and pour our heart into it, yet afterward feel that it didn’t make a difference in people’s lives. It’s equally frustrating when we preach only to see somebody tuning us out.
What can we do to help people pay more attention to our sermons? When they do, there’s a greater chance what we say will stick in their minds to give the Holy Spirit time to ultimately change their hearts.
Neuroscience is teaching us a lot about how people remember things. Two mental processes related to attention simultaneously activate in the minds of those sitting in the pews on Sundays.
Focus: The ability to attend to what you are saying.
Inhibiting distractions: The ability to tune out competing information. Those distractions can be external like a baby crying or internal like self-talk or mulling over memories of what happened on the way to church.
So what can we do when we preach to help increase attention? I’ve listed five neuroscience insights to keep in mind as you prepare your sermons.
1. Mood Matters
Scientists have discovered that when people are in a good mood, they pay better attention. We can’t change what happened to a family on the way to church (e.g., a fight), but we can take some steps to help put them in a good mood. Humor is a great tool that does that. Don’t begin your sermon with something heavy. Rather, try to interject some humor. Smile and put people at ease.
2. It is true that the head cannot take more than the seat can endure.
Our brains need downtime. They can’t concentrate for long periods of time. In fact, the brain will make downtime for itself when it gets tired. So build ebb and flow into your sermons. Alternate intensity (something that may require intensive concentration) with points or stories that don’t take much concentration.
3. See your sermons like firing a gun.
Three distinct processes take place in the brain for attention to occur. It’s like firing a gun: load, aim, fire. Load is when the brain is alerted to take notice. Aim is when it looks for more information. Fire is when it actually acts. So develop your sermon with this in mind. Build each point around the load-aim-fire process.
4. Include novelty in your sermons.
Attention increases with something novel or new. Include a couple of surprises. Perhaps you pull out a “show and tell” item unexpectedly to illustrate a point. Maybe you move to a different location than from where you usually preach (e.g., off the stage and into an aisle).
5. Make it relevant.
Preaching is connecting the then and there to the here and now. We must try to help people apply the message to their lives. The brain pays much more attention when it senses relevance. Don’t just wait until the end for application. Provide application points throughout the sermon.
Ultimately, we want our sermons to stick in the listener’s long-term memory. The more they stick, the greater the chance for the Holy Spirit to bring about life transformation.