A friend of mine was telling me about his pastor’s sermons recently (I asked, because I’m like that). He said that his pastor uses sermon props every Sunday and tries to make his sermons cool. My friend confessed, however, that he can’t remember a single point from his pastor’s sermons. He said the sermons seem gimmicky, and they just aren’t memorable.
Maybe it’s the use of props every weekend that makes all of the sermons run together so that what is supposed to be creative and memorable is not. Maybe the pastor is parroting cliches instead of sharing profound content. Maybe he’s trying to make too many points in his sermons, and the content gets lost in the fog. Whatever the cause, his sermons aren’t memorable, and how can sermons be lived out by the congregation if they can’t remember them?
Emotion and Memory
Some psychological studies have supported the theory that we more vividly remember ideas or events that move us emotionally. According to their findings, we are more likely to remember what we feel, what affects us in an emotional way (see Memory and Emotion by Daniel Reisberg and Paula Hertel, for example). Reisberg and Hertel argue that we remember these emotional events because they matter to us. We perceive the event as consequential, so we remember it.
Even more amazingly for preachers, the authors site two separate studies finding that it was not visual images that created powerful emotional memories but a complex plot, like a docudrama… in other words, pictures with narration! While visual images aided in the telling of the story, it was the spoken word that induced the powerful emotional memories in participants. In both studies, memory was enhanced by the emotional experience created by narration!
The implications of these findings on preaching are obvious. Do your sermons matter to people? Do you move people in powerful emotional ways when you preach?
I’m not talking about emotional manipulation. Manipulation is always wrong, and insightful people can tell if a speaker is feigning emotion or telling a schmaltzy story just to make them cry. The truth is that life itself is emotional, and if you preach sermons that matter to life, you will move people. They will remember what you say because it matters to them.
Here are some ways to tell if you’re preaching sermons that matter, sermons that move people:
1. Does it move you?
Do you feel the importance of what you’re saying? If not, why bother? Find something that moves you, or why preach it?
2. Are you communicating with passion?
You will if the content matters to you. Let your emotion show in ways that are appropriate to your context. Even well-mannered upper middle class people really want to be moved. They want to experience life in all of its fullness, and you can help them do that.
3. Do you tell true-to-life stories to illustrate your sermon point(s)?
Stories, or plot lines, are what move us emotionally. You will not move people with a bullet point list, alliteration, or academically presented information. Of course, sermons present information, but in order to move people, you have to illustrate information with stories.
4. When you tell stories, do you communicate the real emotion that would be expected in that story?
Some pastors tell cliche-like simple stories that skip over all of the real emotion that someone would experience if they were in that story. Life is not a tidy little fable. Ask someone who is facing a crisis right now. Cute little stories lacking emotional depth do not speak to someone who’s child has been diagnosed with a disease, someone wrestling with questions, or someone who is facing relational brokenness.
Tell stories that are true to the deepest pains and highest joys of life. Ask yourself, how do the various parts of this story make me feel? Then communicate that emotion as you tell the story.
5. Most importantly, are you in touch with your own emotional life?
This is not psychobabble. If you are not aware of your own emotion, you will not be able to connect with your congregation emotionally. This is the most important point. When you get real about what’s going on in you, then other people will see your emotion and connect with you on a deep level. Get honest with yourself, and preach from your guts!
Something that has helped me become more aware of my emotions is Self-Monitoring. It sounds incredibly simple, but it requires focused soul-searching. To Self-Monitor, ask yourself, “How do I feel right now, and why?” Try this a few times a day, and see what happens! You may discover causes to your feelings that you never imagined… and you will know how you feel and why.
People will remember your sermons if you move them.