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preaching article 5 Ways to Grab—and Hold—Attention When You Preach

5 Ways to Grab—and Hold—Attention When You Preach

based on 17 ratings
Jan 6, 2015

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.

Dr. Charles Stone is Lead Pastor at West Park Church in London, Ontario, Canada, and the founder of StoneWell Ministries, a pastor coaching and church consulting ministry. He is the author of four books including, "People Pleasing Pastors: Avoiding the Pitfalls of Approval Motivated Leadership" (IVP 2014), and his most recent book, “Brain-Savvy Leaders: The Science of Significant Ministry” (Abingdon, May 2015).

Talk about it...

John E Miller avatar
John E Miller
0 days ago
I cannot fail to compare this with Peter Mead's currently posted article, "Does Your Preaching Skirt Around The Nature Of God?" One wins by a country mile. This is not it. Mr Stone does not mention the Name of Jesus.
Pastor Sandy . avatar
Pastor Sandy .
0 days ago
Thanks for these reminder points - I for one sometimes forget to "provide application points throughout the sermon." And while this article does not mention the "Name of Jesus," the point was to get the attention of the target audience. Once you have that, then speak about Jesus! Blessings -
Dean Johnson avatar
Dean Johnson
0 days ago
Woke up on the negative side of the bed, John? (#1)
Jeff Smith avatar
Jeff Smith
0 days ago
I read these articles and try to apply what I can. Then I read the comments for a good laugh. John - I don't think the author was telling us WHAT to preach, only giving a little insight on the HOW to preach - making it a little better. Read it for what its worth, see if there is something to apply. I didn't read that he is saying don't mention Jesus, but a clear, engaging way to present Jesus. It is the wrapping, not the package. Don't be so quick to find fault.
Tony Russo avatar
Tony Russo
0 days ago
The foolishness of bickering and criticism makes the Church a laughing stock to the world in general.Remember Revelation 8:3-4, that the saints appear at this time in history are praying together and their prayers are one before God fulfilling the prayer of Christ that we the Church might be one.Our differences within the Body should be overshadowed by the fact that none of us will get to the kingdom if Christ isn't directing us through the Spirit. We all hear ministers and church members criticizing each other with differences between pre-trib and the visible return of Christ. I am delighted that at the very least each position wants to be in the kingdom. After all isn't that what we all want? As long as the truth of the gospel is maintained we will find ourselves in the presence the Father and Christ even if we are wrong on a teaching.
Diana Goodwin avatar
Diana Goodwin
0 days ago
Can someone tell me what a "shows and tell" is please? I am new to this!!!!
Pastor Sandy . avatar
Pastor Sandy .
0 days ago
Diana - "show and tell", as I recall, is what our children used to do at school: they would bring an object to show the class, and then explain it. Don't know if they still do this, my kids are long since grown up! Blessings!
Gerald Graham avatar
Gerald Graham
0 days ago
Would you say that prayer is also necessary as an "attention getter"? What I mean is I often have wondered how many of those fidgeting people are really being distracted by the enemy so as not to hear what we say?
Joe Riggi avatar
Joe Riggi
0 days ago
Being able to deliver sermons is one thing, the ability to have them understood and received AND giving your congregation the insight to LIVE the message, THAT is the key to an effective sermon. God bless you all.
Scott Hourigan avatar
Scott Hourigan
0 days ago
why do we need a strategic and creative way to make a sermon appealing? Are we strategically trying to sell Jesus? What happened to studying the scriptures and prayer as the strategy to present the doctrine of scripture? When we use our so called "creative ways" as a means to make a sermon more appealing we are being pragmatic rather than conveying the truth as it is written. The apostles teaching never was purported through "show and tell", comedy or any means other than the fundamental method of preaching!!! We dont need to create a mood in order for the congregation to be receptive of the truth (scriptures, graphe), quiet the contrary, We need to teach the word of God which will create a proper mood that provokes we believers to be fruit bearing christians. Laughter, humor and a good mood doesn't make one spiritual, Gods word does!! read John 17:17 "Sanctify them through thy truth, thy word is truth...
Doug Conley avatar
Doug Conley
0 days ago
Scott (#10), the modern church is buying stock in the entertainment business. You haven't realized that? The bottom line is how many tickets (pass the plate) you can sell and seats you can fill. Christ and him crucified doesn't draw a crowd like a concert followed by a clown who can tell jokes and juggle at the same time! Folks want to leave the building feeling like a million bucks and thinking about how great the show was.
Ginette Marie Dun-Robin C avatar
Ginette Marie Dun-Robin C
0 days ago
who shot the big old buck? after one glance, the game warden said, why the preacher did! .... since the bullet went in one ear and out the other! always a problem ... try disarming them before where they are going to deflect what you say! not easy but possible get in their hearts and heads and souls then their minds will follow!
Bill Williams avatar
Bill Williams
0 days ago
As a high school English teacher, I've had training in neuroscience at both the undergrad and graduate level, and I can testify to its wonderful benefits for helping students engage with the material. This isn't about entertainment. It's about discovering how God has wired our brains to learn. This should not be a substitute for providing true biblical content, or for prayer and dependence on the Holy Spirit. But if the content of the sermon is biblical, and if the preacher is praying and depending on the Holy Spirit, then incorporating insights from neuroscience can only serve to help the delivery. @John Miller, I too enjoyed Peter Mead's article. But this article by Charles Stone is a different kind of article. Comparing the two is like comparing apples and oranges. @Scott, one of the classes I teach is on the King James Bible as Literature. And one of the things I have learned from teaching that class is that the biblical authors were incredibly strategic and creative! As far as "show and tell", consider Jesus' parables, for example, or Ezekiel's visions, which were very visually-oriented. And as far as humor, well, if you're reading the Bible and you never come across anything that makes you chuckle, you may not be paying close enough attention! I agree with you that laughter, humor and a good mood doesn't MAKE a person spiritual. But some of the most spiritual people I know live lives characterized by laughter, humor and a good mood! And some of the most unspiritual people I know are also some of the most serious! @Doug, I share your distaste for the entertainment model of church that many seem to be gravitating towards these days. But I can assure you that neuroscience has nothing to do with entertainment. It has to do with how our brains learn, so that we can be effective communicators.
Ginette Marie Dun-Robin C avatar
Ginette Marie Dun-Robin C
0 days ago
who shot the big old buck? after one glance, the game warden said, why the preacher did! .... since the bullet went in one ear and out the other! always a problem ... try disarming them before where they are going to deflect what you say! not easy but possible get in their hearts and heads and souls then their minds will follow!
Pastor Sandy . avatar
Pastor Sandy .
0 days ago
How does it go? "And a little bit of humor makes the medicine go down, the medicine, go down, etc.!" I often preach to a group of oldsters who have heard these biblical topics over and over and over. If I don't intersperse some humor, some stories in between the sections of "medicine," one can never hold their attention. It is a real challenge to make it meaningful to them. So I really appreciate articles such as this one from Rev. Stone. Makes me revisit my sermon style!
Norman Lorenzo avatar
Norman Lorenzo
0 days ago
Very nice article... As a young pastor, Ican really use this. @bill, i agree in ALL uve said. God bless you both! Continue inspiring young generations...
John E Miller avatar
John E Miller
0 days ago
Scott Hourigan, stick to the scriptures. You are absolutely right and sadly so is Doug Conley. Liberal theology wants to dress up the word of God in the trappings of the world to make it appeal to human senses. What is needed in this age of rapidly declining morality, particularly in western society, is for the church of God to aspire to holiness and purity of affection for the Lord Jesus Christ. The word of the cross is foolishness to the natural man, but it and it alone has never ceased to be the power of God to save. Gimmicks are the resort of those who themselves have lost sight of the centrality of the cross.
Bill Williams avatar
Bill Williams
0 days ago
@John, I want to make sure I'm not misunderstanding you. Are you saying that understanding how God wired the human brain to learn is a "gimmick"?
Pastor Sandy . avatar
Pastor Sandy .
0 days ago
I guess I should make myself perfectly clear in regard to my #15 comment. My point is that you could use the same sermon, Biblically based, for more than one presentation. When one is directing a sermon to a group of people, for the most part seniors, who have all (and this is a fact because I know these individuals for the most part) professed the Lord Jesus Christ as their Savior, given their life to the Christian life, been Baptized (or otherwise immersed/sprinkled depending on their affiliation before they came here), could probably quote scripture to me better than I to them, and have heard it all, one has to change the presentation. Call it what you will: gimmick, entertainment, whatever, but if you want the oldsters to keep coming back, and they've heard the messages for probably 60-70 years, you better believe you have to say something different. I know I'm going to hear criticism, but this is a fact. I change the presentation for a younger crowd. You have to know your audience.
John E Miller avatar
John E Miller
0 days ago
Bill, understanding "how God wired the human brain to learn" my be interesting from the point of view of an academic, which you obviously are, but its relevance to preaching His word must be marginal at best. Otherwise I would be excluded from preaching or teaching from His word.
Pastor Sandy . avatar
Pastor Sandy .
0 days ago
John - let me try to understand what you mean in #20: if you are presenting a section of scripture that may not be easily understood, or even accepted, are you saying you do not concern yourself with presenting your sermon in a way that will be understood?
Bill Williams avatar
Bill Williams
0 days ago
@John, I apologize if I gave off the wrong impression. Although I wouldn't go as far as to say the relevance of neuroscience for preaching is marginal at best, I also don't mean to imply that one cannot preach God's word faithfully without its insights. I'm sure you are a very faithful preacher of God's word. And as I said earlier, this is not to be a substitute for prayer, careful exegesis, and dependence of the Holy Spirit. BUT, if prayer, exegesis, and the Holy Spirit are present, THEN an understanding of neuroscience can be a valuable help. That's all I'm trying to say. If one doesn't find the insights of neuroscience personally helpful, well, that's fine. But one shouldn't dismiss it as simply a gimmick or entertainment, just because one doesn't find it personally helpful. And those preachers who do find it helpful shouldn't be dismissed as somehow abandoning God's word or conforming to the world. I hope that clarifies what I was trying to say!
Reginald Gabel avatar
Reginald Gabel
0 days ago
John E Miller? Doesn't the Holy Spirit count? Scott? Satan knows the Word but it does not Sanctify him. Jesus told stories and the Church leaders did not like it, at so many events the church leaders condemned Christ for not upholding to the "law", the church leaders condemned Him for being more concerned about reaching the lost than doing it the "church way". I truly believe in the worship service being Holy and respectful... but maybe we should break open the roof of the church and bring the sick in.... I truly believe to many would be more worried about the roof of the church than the sick... now how does that go... if he is for me how can he be against me... we should be battling Satan not each other... there are too many dying and going to hell for this
John E Miller avatar
John E Miller
0 days ago
Sandy C., I will answer your question simply and honestly. If I feel that the Holy Spirit has laid a particular passage of God's word on my heart in view of preaching from it, I first study it carefully then pray for help in understanding it myself. I might refer to one or two trusted commentators. I would also search out other passages of scripture that might explain its meaning. I would continue to pray for help that my own understanding of the passage would be clarified and increased and if I felt confirmed that The Holy Spirit had graciously been pleased to answer I would then make a few written notes for my preaching and wait prayerfully on the Spirit's guidance and power so that my service would exalt Christ among the listeners and glorify God. Until this discussion I can honestly say that how God had "wired" my brain or those of the congregation had never even occurred to me. If the word of God falls on ground that the Holy Spirit of God has prepared, the good ground of the parable of the sower, it will bear fruit. Reginald, this may answer your question.
Aaron C. Peer avatar
Aaron C. Peer
0 days ago
In my mind I make a distinction between abstract content in my sermons and concrete content. Abstract content is hardcore exegesis, theological thinking, or anything that requires a lot of brain power. Concrete content is object lessons, illustrations, and application. I try to weave in and out of both often in order to hold attention. Usually people can take about 3-4 minutes of abstract content before they need something concrete to grab a hold on. This has helped me learn to keep people's attention over 45 minutes. Also, there is nothing at all worldly about thinking through how best to hold people's attention. It is called being a good steward of our ministry for Jesus. Thanks for your good thoughts Pastor Stone.
Fernando Saravi avatar
Fernando Saravi
0 days ago
On the whole, I agree with Bill Williams' points. I should add that many of the best preachers have an intuitive grasp of the points stated by Charles Stone even if they don't have any formal knowledge of modern neuroscience.
Charmine Durrant avatar
Charmine Durrant
0 days ago
Good thought, keep on sending them very much informative

So, what did you think?


Thank you.