Sermons and effective learning

After my last post on Why sermons?, Felicity Dale from Simply Church offered more evidence on effective learning. It merits repeating.

Katie Driver, who either lectures or studies Adult Education at the University of Minnesota asked: Why are We So Ineffective in Making Disciples? This is both a very good question and a useful part of the answer.

Good question

Asking “Why are we So ineffective in making disciples?” is a much better question than “Do people remember sermons?” because it addresses our real objectives. After all, Jesus told us to “make disciples” (not “make good listeners”) and teach them to “obey” his commands, not just to have heard about them (Matthew 28:18-20).

Are we ineffective at making disciples?

Signs of poor discipleship include:

Good answer

Katie begins with some sobering statistics on the effectiveness of adult learning. Adults retain:

  • 90% of what they learn if they teach it to someone else, and have immediate application of what they learn;
  • 75% of what they learn when they practice it;
  • 50% of what they discuss in a group;
  • 30% of what they see demonstrated;
  • 20% of what they see and hear in audio-visual teaching;
  • 10% of what they learn through reading; and
  • 5% of what they learn through lecture.

Katie goes on to show that Jesus used many of the better methods, including: demonstration, (raising the dead, healing the sick, casting out demons), discussion (“Who do men say I am?, What do you think?”), practice (He sent them out two by two, “You do it”), and go teach someone what you know (“go and therefore make disciples… teaching them to observe all I have commanded you”)”.

Analysing the problem

People can learn to be disciples (i.e. active followers of our master) in many different ways, through their own relationship with God (e.g. by Bible reading, prayer, reflection and experience) or through other people (e.g. talks, books, discussion and mentoring). For a sermon to achieve the result Jesus asked for requires quite a number of steps:

  1. The preacher selects a passage or topic that is helpful to the needs of his (it is mostly males doing this) hearers. Teaching through the Bible will not help much as most of it will be forgotten before the person gets to apply it. Addressing the discipleship needs gets harder in larger and more diverse congregations. This matter requires much prayer and discernment.
  2. Delivery of a truthful and interesting sermon that either contains interactive ‘active learning’ elements or is no more than 20 minutes in length.
  3. The hearers being alert enough to listen and take it all in.
  4. The hearers engaging with the topic and teaching in such a way that they reflect on it and accept the teaching into their hearts.
  5. Practical ways to put the teaching into action and be a better disciple.
  6. The resolve to actually do it.

It is clear that a teaching sermon cannot address many of these necessary steps and may address none of them very well. Thus it is clear, once we ask the question, that if we are ineffective, monologue sermons are one of the reasons. At the very least they need to be reduced in importance and supplemented by more effective measures. But preferably, they need to be replaced by better discipleship approaches, and only used on occasions.

Is there anything stopping us? Unfortunately I think there is. But that’s the subject of another blog.

Get more detailed information at Sermons – not how we learn best? and Interactive Preaching.

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