The evidence mounts. The lecture style of teaching produces inferior results.
A study reported in Scientific American exposes, again, how academia’s hardened use of the lecture method is stifling learning and growth. The journal’s writer put in bluntly: “If you’re going to college and you’re going to a whole bunch of lecture classes that require you to sit there and listen passively, you’re getting a bad education.”
Learners who are subjected to the one-way mode of lecture-based teaching have a 1.5 times higher failure rate than those who are allowed more participative methods, according to the study.
Though a growing number of those in academia are recognizing the sobering limitations of the lecture method, many teachers and preachers in the church are loath to loosen their exclusive grip on the microphone, even for a moment. This clutching is one of the predominant reasons people today are avoiding the church in record numbers.
“It’s not evil; they just want a voice,” says American Church magazine publisher Steve Hewitt in our new documentary When God Left the Building. People want to participate. They no longer want to be simply lectured.
It’s not enough to say that people have a chance to participate in small groups or Bible studies. Most people who really need the message never make it that far. We need to provide times of interaction whenever we can, including during sermons and other main teaching times.
I’ve shared these thoughts with John Sanders, a pastor friend of mine. He recently experienced a bit of a preaching epiphany. Here’s what he said:
“Recently, while attending a Lifetree Café session, the host instructed us to find a partner and answer a question based on the day’s topic—and I experienced the life-changing value of participant interaction.
“It wasn’t until several days later that it hit me: I remembered almost everything we talked about at Lifetree Café. Then I allowed myself to enter into painful territory. Was I able to remember the salient details from my most recent sermon? Perhaps my brain doesn’t fire on every cylinder, but I couldn’t recall very much, and I was the one doing the preaching! Uh-oh. Maybe there’s something to the participatory model that I experienced in Lifetree Café. Could such an approach work during my sermons?
“So I gave it a shot. During my message, I asked our folks to find a partner and share their response to a non-threatening question. Initially, my inquiry was met with blank stares, but slowly everyone began to partner up. Faces that had been somber moments before broke out in smiles as they engaged in conversation. I let them share for a couple of minutes and then resumed my sermon.
“After the service people kept talking, many of them finishing the conversations they’d started during my sermon. Also, several people thanked me for preaching the best sermon they said they’d ever heard. Many talked about the steps they were going to take to live out what I had talked about. Woo hoo!”
John took a risk. He relinquished his lecture microphone for a few minutes to help his people grow. Now he finds ways to involve his people in the message each week.
After advocating for more engaging forms of ministry communication for many years, I’ve heard hundreds of excuses and defenses for the pure-lecture method of teaching and preaching. But I keep returning to the defining question: What’s your goal? If it’s merely to send your message to a passive audience, pure lecture will do that. But if you care about better results, about people receiving and acting upon the message, they must be involved. They must participate in the process.
That hits the nail on the head for me. One of the many things that keeps me from getting myself to go back to church is the memory of never remembering the sermon past the front door… ha, the sanctuary door even. AND the thing that keeps me coming back to blogs as this is the participatory thing, the interactions and being able to be heard. heh, and even if others don’t agree or misunderstand me.
Having facilitated Group workshops, I have seen firsthand the transformation in people when you lead them from lecture to involvement through ‘pair-share’ but you are also helping them to develop the ability to talk about their faith, some for the first time. Adding a second question, this time to a different person, then to a group of three helps them to feel comfortable opening up in a larger group. When they are a part of the conversation, they listen.
I remember a skit where the wife was complaining the husband never listened. He of course said he did. She asked what the sermon was about last Sunday. His reply; about 30 minutes!
I never got much out of the so-called involvement method. I never felt I was learning correctly by listening to fellow class mates spew their opinions. IK always looked for the lecture type class because I wanted to learn from the one who was the expert on the subject. I am still that way. I love to sit and listen and take notes. Discussion by those who know no more than I do causes me to end up with misinformation. IMO
Would your opinion change if everyone was an expert on the subject? If yes, than you have to consider why there are so few experts in church. Why are there so many Christians who don’t know their Bibles? Much of the answer to that comes back to the lecture method, where people sit passively and never learn how to study the Bible on their own.
There are so few Christians who know their bibles because there are so few who read and study them on their own. If you’re blaming the preacher and his sermon, unless that preacher isn’t actually expositing Scripture, you’re placing the blame in the wrong place.
I remember going to church all my life and hearing from Pastors stories that “related” to the scripture. I would take that into memory thinking it was truth when it was really just a story. It wasn’t the Truth of the Bible so I ended up have erroneous theology. Of course, it was my fault for taking it as truth, but when someone asked me to defend my statement based on a story, it would backfire and I would realize that I had taken in lessons that weren’t actually God’s Word. if I hadn’t studied my Bible, I would still be carrying those falsehoods today. Those stories that “help” people understand scripture can be just as harmful as telling people lies. I remember more from taking my own time to read that Bible that I ever did sitting and listening to a pastor. It was those times and times in small groups (like the early church) that made a lasting impact. The early church wasn’t formal and built on sitting still, but rather on relationships and sharing what they had experienced and learned from serving God.
I know in my present church, the pastor for a series that he was preaching on, had us get with other people and share based on a question he would give us. One week, it was through this interaction that I discovered a couple of other people had also been members at one time at the church I grew up in. I likely would still not know about our connection had we not been given an opportunity to share with one another.
Nikos, like you, I enjoy listening and taking notes as well. However, I have found discussion to be fruitful as well. People may not know any more than I do, but the different perspectives I often find enlightening. Even in seminary, I very much enjoyed and was invigorated by the classroom discussion. I had great professors, some of whom, I could listen to for hours. But the discussion time was where we could hash out what we were learning and our beliefs. There’s just something about being able to talk things out versus having it all stored in our heads. We may think we understand something, but if given an opportunity to discuss, we may find we don’t have as firm a grasp on the topic as we think or we can gain insight by hearing a different take on a matter.
Wow. Too true, especially in student ministry.
Absolutely awesome! I pray that every person who reads this will give the concept a try just like John did.
The worst teaching method we can use is the one we use all the time. Mix it up.
I like the irony in the fact that those who conduct the studies and conclude lectures are a complete failure were educated and given the ability to do their research through the lecture system. That would automatically negate their findings because their research is flawed and unreliable since they were trained in a failed system. If their findings are accurate, the system isn’t a failure.
I believe the lecture form is extremely useful but only when it is paired with the things that give it credence. When people see how a lecturer lives and are brought along side to experience with him the truths he teaches, people are more apt to listen so they can understand what they have seen. The reason students still pay 10’s of thousands of dollars to sit at the feet of professors is because those professors have (most of the time) demonstrated they are not only educated but also practically skilled and/or published at the subjects they teach. The limited effectiveness of lectures alone is not the failure of lecturing. The limited effectiveness of lectures alone are the failure of the lecturer to live what he/she preach/teach and that problem has been around for thousands of years. Don’t get rid of the lecture. Get rid of the lazy frauds.
Amen and Amen!
I believe that a lot of the stress about lecture vs. discussion or some combination of the two boils down to worries about sources of authority in theology. For instance – if your congregation is struggling with the issue of how to interact with gay people. Who decides?
Is your pastor the source of authority in your life? If so – you would probably prefer the “lecture” sermon or a Q & A that just involves the pastor “correcting” your theological misunderstandings.
Some people look to the “authority of the Bible” or refer to the “authority of scripture” – but which one? Which canon do you choose? If you are Roman Catholic, you are including the books between the Old and New Testament. If you are Protestant, you are studying (or leaving out) a whole different set of books, etc. etc.
I think there is a great deal of fear on the part of pastors that if we discuss biblical things without their participation, we will end up believing the “wrong things”, misinforming others, and then accidentally sending those people to hell because of our “bad” theology.
On the other hand, people want to talk about things, because that’s how we all learn and grow. It is my opinion that many, many people now study theology online and they really can think things through and intelligently contribute to conversations. It really grates on me when religious folks denigrate others for “blindly following cultural trends” as though we don’t have a brain (or the devil has taken hold and messed up our brains) and therefore we can’t be trusted in conversations with each other. We love God too. We should have a voice.
Not to mention the flack some pastors receive from parishioners when they switch things up. All too often, a pastor has to choose their battles and that’s not always in the best interest of the congregation, no matter how much they may protest.
Excellent point Pat – it must be so frustrating for pastors to “try to make everyone happy”. At the end of the day, change is very stressful for everyone (even if it is a good kind of change).
I believe Romans 10:9-10 is in all of those versions of the Bible.
My wife and I started Parkland House Ministries to provide an alternative to the lecture style church. Many students were leaving the church, I found because they did not want to be subjected to the lecture any longer. It isn’t that they felt that they needed to “add something” to the sermon and have their voices heard. It was nothing like that. What they wanted was to have the opportunity to, while it was on their minds, to ask a question or ask for a point to be clarified. They want to understand the teaching better and the lecture did not give them that satisfaction.
So we have a house to house ministry whereby we meet in small groups in a house setting and that is their local church. They get great teaching with the assumed permission to ask questions regarding the points being made. I am not trying to “change” the church for there are many who love the lecture structure of church and can only feel fulfilled by such. When I find those people, I send them to my friends so they can be fed in the manner that helps them to learn best. But the remnant that for whatever reason has left the church but still loves Jesus, I find them, gather them, and we learn Christ together and they stay, they learn, and they ask lots of questions.
I lead a sermon-free church affiliated with The Salvation Army in Nashville. It is amazing how eloquent everyday people are if we give them the mic! Click on my name to go to my blog and read more about it.
Why listen passively, when you can listen actively? That`so why taking notes is so useful.
Thom, the failure of the lecture method is retention should have long ago been obvious. Interaction (used wisely unless you want a mere exchange of ignorance) is just one of many methods that can work on Sunday morning. We have experimented with breaking up the message into bite sized bits, given by different voices or modes as well as the generous use of object lessons, story, video, quizzes, opened situations and even using cell phones to poll in real time. For our Sunday morning team, unless a person can remember the gist of the message well past the drive home, we have failed as communicators.
The 30-45 minute monologue is dead. Long live imaginative communication!
The 30 to 45 sermon is dead when ill prepared or ineffective preachers preach. Good preaching is hard work. That’s why not every sermon is effective. It takes work! But those who work hard at using their gift of preaching find that sermons are very much alive by the grace of God.
I gave up traditional preaching years ago in favor of highly interactive Bible Story telling. This model engages people in such a way that they not only participate, but craft the message themselves while answering discovery based questions. This has revolutionized my ministry while transforming many lives!
I guess you’ll win the day as long as you’re replacing the word ‘sermon’ with the word ‘lecture’. What about passionate, prophetic exposition of the text of Scripture? The prophets preached. Jesus preached. The apostles preached. If this were purely a pragmatic question about what we think works, then it would be a different story. If preaching is not biblical, then just stop doing it altogether. If you are failing in your effort to connect people with one another in life-changing relationships in other venues after the sermon is over, don’t blame the sermon.
There is an important place for discussion and interaction in the church – it’s called small groups (Sunday school, Bible study, cell groups, etc.). What people so often miss in these conversations is that the Bible affirms that God calls certain persons within the church to stand before the church and proclaim the Word of God. Since the very beginning of the church preaching has been an essential act to nourish, convict and teach Christ followers. It is an ordained act, almost sacramental. The authority does not reside with the preacher but with God who speaks through the preacher. This does not mean that preachers are perfect or that one should blindly trust every preacher without critique but it does mean that scripture and tradition affirm that God has set aside preaching as a critical event for the life of the church. Now I know preaching can take many forms and should. We should always be about staying effective and relevant in the way we communicate the gospel. And by all means we should stay creative in the way we engage one another and be sensitive to how people learn and grow and act out their faith. This includes offering plenty of opportunities for people to dialogue with one another. But within the context of worship there will always be a place, a need and a biblical mandate for a called person who has studied, prayed, and prepared to interpret the Bible and proclaim the gospel. Should people have the opportunity to respond and dialogue about the message given? By all means! Have a sermon talk back session after worship or provide a place to discuss the message in other small group forms. It’s not rocket science.
I will have to incorporate the discussion forum at the church I Pastor. Pray that God will bless my choice to better help those in the congregation better learn the Bible and life issues.
I remember teaching 6th graders. We gave them a choice; here is our lesson and this group will write a story, this group will come up with a song, this group will act out the lesson, etc.
The point; we’re wired differently from each other. This was a real eye-opener by the way on how to best communicate with each child.
The comments above that are ‘for’ lecture are from people that are wired to learn that way. MOST people are not. Studies teach us that people by large can remember UP TO 10% of what they hear. Why would you want to use that method?
If you think you are an effective preacher, next Sunday pass out 3×5 cards and have them tell you what they learned LAST Sunday. But more importantly, how did they apply what they learned last Sunday.
If they aren’t getting it (and using it) you didn’t teach it!
I did this yesterday and here is a message I received: Hi Pastor Rich- Just wanted to say thanks for the message today. By having us talk together about our ideas of what we think heaven is like I met Jody & Roger who after service talked with me more & also invited me to join them for Bible study when they start again in September. I have been trying to make a “connection” at church for months now despite volunteering for various activities, things haven’t been clicking. I knew it would happen in God’s time, well He used you so that it could happen today! Thank you again! Gina
Rich, that is so great to hear!
It is so encouraging to see someone courageously try a new idea, and what a blessing to see such excellent and immediate results!
In my tradition, a 30- to 45-minute sermon would cause mass revolt. If it veers towards 20 minutes, it’s too long. Maybe that’s why, when I’ve mentioned the possibility of discussion during the sermon, there were lots of objections: I’m not testing people’s attention spans too much. Of course, it is MUCH harder to write a compelling 12-minute sermon than it is to write a 30-minute one. Shorter is always harder.
[…] Sermons are basically lectures, and studies have found that congregation members react similarly to university students. They lose concentration easily, and they learn and understand better if they are actively learning. One pastor reported: […]
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