Christianity is all about helping people change their minds and behaviour, right?
We want to see people choosing to follow Jesus, then growing in their understanding of what that means and how they can follow him better. Don’t we?
So why are we still using approaches that have been shown to be very ineffective?
How we do it = how not to do it
The sermon is the teaching and discipleship method of choice in most churches. Whatever else church life might consist of, almost every church has a sermon as the centre-piece of its services. The average sermon goes for somewhere between 25 and 45 minutes, meaning it takes up almost half of most church services, and is the one teaching and discipling time that most church attenders participate in.
Yet numerous studies show that it is a very poor method of teaching, and a poor way to change behaviour.
The problems come from the fact that our brains do not retain most of the information we hear (and see). This is necessary, otherwise our memories would be overloaded with trivial information. Instead, our brains make decisions on the fly whether to retain information or to let it go. But this filtering takes time, and if we receive too much information too fast or for too long (generally more than about 15 minutes), we cannot process it all and some is lost, whether it is useful or important, or not.
After the brain decides that something should be placed in memory, that information has to be processed and consolidated – linked with other related information and stored in an efficient form. This can take some time, and can be assisted if the information is repeated, or has special importance to us. Consolidation continues throughout life, and information which isn’t used can eventually be lost.
So sermons which last longer than 10-15 minutes (which is most of them), or sermons that are not immediately reinforced by discussion or action, will be less likely to be remembered or acted on.
“What do they teach them in their schools?”
Teachers know all this. As a teaching friend of mine said recently, there isn’t a research paper that would tell you to teach the way we do sermons. So why don’t ministers know? Why aren’t they taught this in Bible College or Seminary?
My guess is that the problem is twofold.
It has always been done this way. Well, not always. Jesus taught in memorable parables and pithy sayings, and 1 Corinthians 14 suggests that it was different in the early church too. But for centuries, sermons or homilies have been given by clergy because most of the congregation was illiterate, couldn’t read the Bible, and had to have it explained to them.
But Bible Colleges and Ministers seem not to have realised that almost everyone is literate today, and the internet and Google is available (in the first world at least) for all who want to use it. The world has changed and the tradition should be re-assessed.
Fear and control
I have a lot of sympathy for paid clergy. Their jobs and their self esteem depend to some extent on keeping their congregations happy and peaceful – or even passive. No minister wants unrest, especially from contrary teaching. Doctrinal positions must be maintained.
So it seems to me that ministers and denominations are fearful of losing control over the teaching in their church, so they want to avoid using teaching and discipling methods that give all laypeople, even dissident ones, opportunities to question or put forward alternative ideas.
So the safest bet is to exercise strong control over teaching, and that means the sermon. Even if it is stifling and dumbing down the church.
So what’s the alternative?
There are many, many alternatives – I give a few in the references below.
The key is active learning. People learn best when they are actively involved and engaged, not just passively listening. Relevant discussion is not just a pleasant addition, but necessary if we want people to retain knowledge and act upon it.
Active learning can be achieved in many ways:
- Shorter sermons, no more than 15 minutes.
- Have two or three 10 minute talks per service, on different aspects (e.g. one doctrinal, one practical, plus a testimony or interview with a ministry team member).
- Use laypeople and visiting speakers more – new faces, new ideas and new stories will always be more memorable.
- Have small group discussion before the (short) sermon, to get people’s minds ready for the topic, and afterwards, to help them assimilate and process the information.
- Break up the talk into 5 minute chunks, with discussion in small groups interspersed. Sometimes, at least, invite feedback.
- In smaller congregations, the whole sermon can be conducted as a dialogue, with comments and questions from the congregation whenever they wish, and responses from the minister as appropriate.
- Put the talk online and then come together to discuss.
- Replace the sermon with group discussion and feedback, with some comments by the pastor.
- Debates or panels answering questions.
- Mini debates in small groups.
- Teach and equip laypeople so they are able to read the Bible, research and learn for themselves.
I suppose many clergy would freak out at these suggestions. They wouldn’t be able to control the teaching, they wouldn’t even be needed any more, they are not trained for this, it would be messy, it would take ages to get through a teaching program, the Word of God must be proclaimed, etc.
Many of these are valid issues, but most have ways around them. Two important matters arise out of these objections.
Ministers need different training
Some training facilities teach their students the Bible, but teach very little about how to teach and make changes. This surely is folly. Communication is not just knowing the “right” doctrine and speaking it out, but also requires the audience/congregation to receive it, remember it, understand it and act on it. There is no point in training people to be poor communicators of the truths they have learnt. Some aspect of school teacher training would be very helpful.
Maturity takes time!
The goal of the church is to help people become mature followers of Jesus (Ephesians 4:11-16). This takes time – in reality, it takes a lifetime. So we can afford to take time to do things in the most effective way.
So teaching that is relevant, memorable and likely to be acted on, all because people have been actively involved in learning, even if it covers only a small topic, is far better than preaching that covers a lot of doctrinal topics or Bible passages, but touches few lives because people are passive and disengaged.
Bible discussion groups
Bible discussion groups are a second, and important, means of learning and maturing. They can be almost a little church, with all the gifts being used for the benefit of all.
But small groups and house churches can fall foul of the same problems that bigger churches are prone to. A few voluble members can dominate and the group time can be little more than a series of short sermons by a select few. Questions and doubts can be stifled – in many churches, the clergy try to control the discussion here too by writing study notes based on the sermon, with leaders strictly following the party line and thus stifling questions and the gifts of others in the group.
Bible discussion groups, especially if they are outward looking, are a much more active way for people to explore and learn, but they need to have some clear guidelines to try to ensure everyone in the group is actively learning.
Check it out for yourself
We really need to be equipping people better to live as followers of Jesus in this complex competitive world. We really need to move beyond monologue sermons as our main teaching method.
Read for yourself the information we can learn from educators and psychologists:
Photo Credit: pstephan1187 via Compfight cc
If you are interested in the view of an ex churchgoer, long sermons with dubious relevance to the present day was one reason I left.
There was no room for questions, we had to take it all as written or said. Not good for young people who are inquisitive and increasingly sceptical. (Not a bad thing in many ways with all the fake news going around).
Yeah, I can understand that. It’s such a pity because it could be so much better.
I think this is overly cynical for a bit. The ready observation that sermonitis also occurs in mainstream, liberal and latitudinarian churches with little interest in asserting doctrinal suggest that tradition (which you mentioned before) is the rule and that power and control over doctrine are restricted to specific cases.
Well, I think you are right that correct doctrine isn’t as strong a force in some more liberal churches, but sometimes in those churches the correctness shifts from theological doctrine to social doctrine (e.g. “progressive” issues like racism, gender equality, etc). And I think self esteem and keeping congregations happy and therefore not leaving to look elsewhere is still an important factor. And perhaps the power and control is often more subtle. But whenever there is a hierarchy, there’ll be some tensions between those at the top and those lower down. Tell me a little more how you see it.
I don’t think that’s enforced by the clergy/hierarchy in liberal churches but instead as a result of 1) larger openness to new experiences; 2) more interactions with minorities than conservative churchfolks; 3) ideological preselection and self-selection and; 4) a certain social pressure, even though ministers do tend to be more progressive than the pew sitters.
It’s mostly a function of liturgical traditionalism. Sermons are a big thing starting in the early church, arguably already appearing in the New Testament, so the same old way is held up as the gold standard. Changes in the social role of sermons over the course of history possibly also play a part.