Preaching Articles

Transfer is the basis of all creativity, problem solving, and the making of satisfying decisions. 

—Madeline Hunter


This article concludes a series a series of articles on 8 neuroscience-based principles that Jesus modeled for us that can profoundly improve our preaching and teaching. They are based on my latest book, If Jesus Gave a TED Talk: 8 neuroscience principles the Master Teacher used to persuade His audience. Today’s principle is Principle 8—Reinforce Life Application (Transfer).

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I once attended a conference with over 6000 attendees, many holding earned masters and doctoral degrees. The conference included large plenary sessions as well as over 100 breakout sessions. The plenary speakers were the best of the best and their talks inspired us to serve Christ better. 

However, I noticed some common threads in the breakout sessions. Although most of the session leaders held PhD’s, they seemed to lack a basic understanding about how people learn or how to present so that information sticks. Some filled their slides with so many words that my working memory got so overloaded as I read that I tuned out what the speaker was saying. Some used odd colors and funny movements on their slides (like spinning the words as they appeared on the screen) which further disrupted my ability to pay attention. Some inundated us with so much information that they failed to communicate their main point. Some sped through difficult material so fast that although I am a quick learner, I got lost. Again, these were really smart people with PhD’s. 

I left many of these sessions with little direction about what they wanted me to do with the information they presented. They had failed to consider a crucial component that completes the learning cycle, a concept called transfer. 

What is transfer? 

Transfer is simply life application. It’s helping your leaners take the content from your talk into their life settings so they can apply it to their lives. “Transfer is what learning is all about…. It’s the ability to extract the essence of a skill or a formula or word problem and apply it in another context, to another problem that may not look the same, at least superficially. If you’ve truly mastered a skill, you “carry it with you,” so to speak.” For the Christian it’s translating knowledge about God and the Bible into transformed attitudes, actions, and dispositions. Real transformation results in an engaged life, not simply from encoded information.

Knowledge alone is not our end goal. In fact, in early Jewish history, the memory masters, the tannaim (who were like walking encyclopedias of the Jewish law) were criticized not for the memory abilities, but for the fact that their knowledge went no further than mechanical repetition.

Our ultimate goal in preaching is to facilitate spiritual transformation, change in conduct and character, belief and behavior. That means that your learners can take what you gave them in one context (church service, training session, class, etc.) and transfer it to their appropriate life context (personal spiritual growth, business application, marriage, etc.). It’s the, “core of problem solving, creative thinking, and all other higher mental processes, inventions, and artistic products.” Every preacher should strive to help their learners transfer the content from their talks to daily life.

That’s what Jesus did. He aimed for life transformation in His followers. In the story of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10, Jesus told the lawyer who quizzed Him about how to define a neighbor to, go and do likewise (like the Samaritan did). Jesus wanted this man to understand that real faith, not simply knowledge about faith, resulted in changed behavior and heart. 

When He used parables and posed questions about them, he wanted people to reflect on their answers and explore the meaning for themselves. He wanted them to make deeper connections to how the parable’s truth might apply to themselves. His first concern was not how much they knew or even what they should be taught, but rather, what sort of person they were to become.

In fact, He expected transfer of His teaching to life. He used a parable of a house built on sand versus rock to illustrate that those who put Jesus’ words into action (the ones who build their lives on rock) were the true wise ones (Mt 7.24-27). Simple cognitive understanding falls short of Jesus’ desire for us and our learners. And He said that the truly blessed are the ones who do the Word of God (Jn 13.17) He, “emphasized action more than knowledge, and stressed long-term rather than immediate results.” Jesus was after real change. He wanted explicit teaching to create implicit understanding to lead to new habits of the heart.

James also emphasized that we must ‘do’ our faith. He said we must not simply listen to the word (a sermon, a lesson, a class) but that we must do what it says (Jm 1.22). The Apostle Paul emphasized this as well when he wrote, “whatever you have learned or received or heard or seen in me –put it into practice (Phil 4.9, italics mine).”

Lasting transformation, however, does not happen overnight. Real transformation can be messy, risky, and emotional. One extensive study of adult learners discovered ten phases in a transformative process required for learning.

The learner…

  1. Faces a disorienting dilemma.

  2. Self-examines.

  3. Critically assesses assumptions.

  4. Recognizes the connection between their discontentment and the process of transformation.

  5. Explores options for new roles, relationships, and action.

  6. Plans a course of action.

  7. Acquires new knowledge and skills to implement the plan.

  8. Provisionally tries out new roles.

  9. Builds competence and self-confidence in those new roles and relationships.

  10. Reintegrates those new perspectives into their life.


So, transformation takes time and we as communicators play a pivotal role in fostering it.

Several factors help enhance our ability to transfer new learning. How well we learned the information originally, the strength of cues, the context, and how much we practice the new learning. Also, it’s a two-part process, transfer during learning when past knowledge gets combined with new information to create an updated version of the information in long-term memory. Secondly, transfer of learning occurs when our learners apply their new learning to their life context.

CLARIFY THE NOW WHAT? 

In seminary my preaching professor explained that every sermon should answer three fundamental questions: What?So what? And, Now what? These questions universally apply to any talk, sermon, training session, or lesson. The What? question relates to the content of a talk. The So what? question relates to why the subject is important to the learner (personal salience). And the Now what? question relates to what you ask the listener to do to imbed the truth into their lives.

Answering the Now what? question specifies how you hope your listener will put into action practice 1 (clarify the big take-away) from Principle 1 (Clarity, begin with the end in mind). Practice 1 makes your big take-away actionable. 

Behavior change often precedes attitude change. One way to jump start behavior change is to get your learner to commit to a new behavior (what you hope your talk will evoke). In fact, if you can get people to say to themselves that they will do something, it improves the chances they will actually do it. Gaining commitment is easier than changing behavior, but once you gain commitment, the chances of changed behavior increases. So, build into your talks a challenge to ask your learners to commit to an action. It will increase the chances they will actually do it.

Just as a you clarify the over-arching big idea for a sermon, it’s important to clarify the specific behavior you want your learners to start or stop in the days ahead. I’ve heard many sermons in my life that lacked any direction about what to do with the sermon. Don’t let that be true of your talk. Clearly write out the behavior(s) you hope will change. And repeat them a few times during your sermon. Don’t assume that your learners will get it the first time you explain the actionable step. And if you get your learners to imagine for 30 seconds themselves doing that behavior, it further increases the likelihood they will do it.

So, as you craft and deliver your sermons look for ways to maximize life application. I hope these articles on 8 neuroscience principles that Jesus modeled for us in the Gospels will help enhance your preaching. I’ve included the Healthy Learning Platter that I included in the first article to capture the essence of these articles.

Diagram, venn diagram

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And, if you’d like a free chart that captures all the principles and key components, you can get a free one by clicking here.

This article was adapted by permission and comes from Charles Stone’s 7th book titled If Jesus Gave a TED Talk: Eight NEUROSCIENCE principles the Master Teacher used to persuade His audience (Freiling Publishing, 2021).

For a free chapter, go here.

You can follow Charles at www.charlesstone.com

Charles has been a pastor for forty years in the US and Canada. He has authored seven books, and his writing has appeared over 300 times on leading Christian leadership websites. His passion is neuroministry, intersecting Biblical truth with neuroscience. He has earned four degrees and is currently completing his PhD. He has been married forty-one years to his wife Sherryl, and they have three adult children and three grandchildren. His current book is If Jesus Gave a TED Talk: 8 neuroscience principles the Master Teacher used to persuade His audience (2021, Freiling Publishing). www.charlesstone.com
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