You know that feeling. It’s Sunday morning. You’re preaching. But most of your congregation isn’t really listening. Some of them may be looking your direction, but you know better; they’re not really with you.
Some of them are thinking about what they’re going to do for lunch after church. Others are planning out their week. Some are playing that fight they had with their significant other last evening, over and over again, in their head. Others are checking their email. And some are daydreaming about vacation and how they can’t wait to find a job (and life) they actually like.
As you’re observing this, you feel frustrated, bewildered and even a little angry. After all, you’ve spent the past week praying, studying and preparing a message you believe is from God—and they’re not listening. How dare they?
Why does this happen? And why does it happen so frequently? Well, one of the reasons why is because most preachers make the same mistake week after week—they tend to communicate the way they like to learn. And, no matter what your learning style is—more people are unlike you than like you.
And that’s a huge problem. Why? Because of self-interest. Everyone prefers to learn in their own style, which means that if you primarily communicate in your own preferred style, you will not engage the majority of your people most of the time.
But what if? What if there were a simple way you could change the way you organized your message so that you could engage more of your people more of the time. Even better, what if that way only required you to remember four words? If you’re interested, keep reading and then apply these four words to every message you preach from this day forward.
However, before I share these four words with you, let me share with you two other thoughts. First, the four words I’m about to share with you are the best four words I’m aware of to summarize a lot of research on learning theory. Second, I think you’ll find that these four learning styles fit well with personality theory. In other words, the way God has wired our personalities has a clear correlation to our preferred learning style, which is why I’ll link each of the four learning styles to the four main Myers-Briggs® temperament types (NF, NT, SJ, SP).
That said, here are the four different kinds of learners that you’re trying to engage and communicate with each weekend.
The Four Learning Styles
1. The “Why” Learner
Why learners are those who want to be moved by emotion and logic to believe that what’s being said ought to matter … TO THEM. Just because you’re speaking and you think something is important, doesn’t mean it’s important to them.
Which means that if you want to connect with a Why learner, you have to have a good hook. You need to connect with their emotions. You have to create an argument where you show them that it’s in their best interest to listen. If you don’t connect to a why that matters to a Why learner, they won’t be engaged.Note: the Why learner fits the NF temperament best.
2. The “What” Learner
What learners are those who like content. They’re the ones who like to understand the theory or reason behind something. They like to be challenged in their thinking. They like learning and getting the inside scoop. But they also easily get bored with average or boring content.
Which means that if you want to connect with a What learner, you have to have great content. You have to share information that either they don’t know or that challenges them to think in a new way. If you don’t communicate great content that’s new or intellectually stimulating, you’ll lose with a What learner. Note: The What learner fits the NT temperament best.
3. The “How” Learner
How learners are those who want to know specifically, “What am I supposed to do?” How learners like to understand steps and procedures. They want to do something right, so they want to know exactly what they should do in order to complete a task correctly.
Which means that if you want to connect with a How learner, you have to give them very practical, concrete steps and examples of how something should be done. For example, “Before you start writing your message out this week, take out a piece of paper. At the top of that paper write out the four key questions (Why? What? How? Now?) and for each question write out …” If you don’t give How learners steps, they won’t be engaged. They’ll be frustrated. Note: The How learner fits the SJ temperament best.
4. The “Now” Learner
Now learners are those who want to take action now! They don’t want to waste time thinking about theory or ideas; they want to make something happen right now! They’re the kind of people who live for the moment, who love experiencing life, and who enjoy being spontaneous. They think that experience is the best teacher so why waste time learning a lot of theory or steps. All that matters is the next step.
Which means that if you want to connect with a Now learner, you’ll want to challenge them to do something right now—not in the future. If you don’t tell a Now learner what they need to do immediately, they won’t be engaged. They’ll simply tune you out. Note: The Now learner fits the SP temperament best.
Using the Four Learning Styles
Since all of us have a propensity to want to communicate in our own preferred style (i.e. “What” preachers like to give a lot of content, “How” preachers like to give lots of steps, etc.). I think the simplest construct or system to use to remember that not everyone listens or learns the same way we do is, “Write at the top of your message notes/outline the four questions and then answer them.”
Then, as you organize your message, make sure your message as a whole fits the four styles (Intro = Why? Body = What? Application = How? And Conclusion = Now?). Even better, I’d encourage you to use all four learning styles throughout your message.
For example, if this week you’re going to give a three-point message, make sure each of your three points has all four styles built into it. Point 1: a. Why does this matter? b. What content would be intellectually interesting about this point? c. How can I lay out concrete steps that someone can use to live this point out? And finally d. What should someone do right now/today in relationship to this point?
If you do that cycle three times, plus your intro and part of your conclusion, you’ll cycle through all four learning styles at least four to five times this Sunday—which means you’ll keep more of your people engaged more of the time.
So if you want to keep more of your congregation engaged more of the time, here’s what I’d encourage you to do right now. Take out last week’s message and see how much of your message was in your preferred learning style (you might be surprised). Next, evaluate how much was in each of the remaining three. Then figure out what you could have done differently to engage more of the people in your congregation whose primary style was/is one of the other three styles.
Finally, make sure you not only write out the four styles on your message outline each week, but that you consciously remind yourself, week after week, that if you want to keep more of your people engaged, you have to frequently go outside of your own preferred style. If you do that, I’m confident you’ll see a significant increase in the engagement of your congregation. And the more engaged they are, the higher the probability that you’ll see more of their lives changed.