Sticky preaching

What makes sermons stick for you? How do you know a good one? If the preacher makes you feel spiritually stimulated and alive when you go home, what has happened? These are questions you are invited and obligated to ask as church leaders. Although teaching elders (commissioned ruling elders, guest preachers) are responsible for the selection of Scriptures and the content of preaching (W-2.2005), the sermon is obviously designed for the benefit of the listeners, not the speakers (W-2007). “The sermon should present the gospel with simplicity and clarity, in language which can be understood by the people” (W-2.2007).

The concept of stickiness in communication is well known in educational circles. Recently it has been explored in relation to theological education in an excellent book by Holly J. Inglis with Kathy J. Dawson and Rodger Y. Nishioka (“Sticky Learning: How Neuroscience Supports Teaching That’s Remembered,” Fortress Press, 2014). As a Presbyterian church educator, Inglis supplies principles for sticky teaching in colleges and seminaries that are helpful in defining sticky preaching in churches: Stimulate more senses than the brain or the ear; connect with the emotional lives of your listeners; connect to prior knowledge; find your core message and repeat it with increasing strength. She provides detailed findings about the way the brain works and how theological and religious education is more than imparting information but can also lead to the transformation of lives and creative action and service.

As a retired pastor I continue to preach at nearby churches at least twice a month and have the opportunity to listen to the sermons of many other pastors. Most of the sermons I hear are carefully organized, spiritually uplifting and connect the hearers’ daily lives to God’s Word. It concerns me sometimes, however, when some speakers seem to be more interested in story telling than preaching, talking about themselves rather than the text, and leave hearers feeling as if they lost more than they gained on a Sunday morning. Listening, I have learned a lot about what I need from a sermon and have developed my own list of concepts that stick. I try to imagine what a parishioner would ask to hear as I explore the good news in today’s complex and disturbing world.

Enable me to explore what God’s Word calls me to do today or tomorrow in my own life, my family, my work, my community, in my response to the daily news.

Let me know that there is something bigger than myself in the universe, that there is a transcendent power that trumps all the pain and evil I see all around me every day, Someone who brings healing in the midst of the suffering and illness that is part of my regular experience.

Encourage me to follow Jesus as a disciple, in spite of my failings and obstinacy, help me learn what he taught about life, love and service. Give me the courage to do the right thing according to God’s will when I face difficult ethical decisions.

Teach me how to repent, to pray, to care deeply and to serve. Push me to find the presence of the Holy Spirit and use the gifts and fruits that the Spirit provides and nourishes.

Remind me that I am to be, to do, to act in God’s name, for God’s sake, in the name of Christ, for myself, for the community, the world, the future. Please do not send me away empty.

We all know that communication is changing radically in American culture. All we have to do is watch a newscast and listen to what is being said while other messages fly frantically around the screen and in detached windows. What makes a sermon sticky for you and what do you need to know about God and the world to make your faith stronger?

earl-johnson-jrEARL S. JOHNSON JR. is a retired PC(USA) pastor in Johnstown, New York, and an adjunct professor of religious studies at Siena College.