What was the point of the last sermon you heard?

Over the years, I’ve interviewed church-goers on Wednesdays. I asked them what they remember from the previous weekend’s sermons.

Their answers are pretty similar. I’ve seen little difference in their responses due to parishioner demographics, or church size.

You can see what they said. Watch this brief video of the Wednesday interviews and see what you think.

After watching some of these disconcerting comments, some speculate these people must attend churches with poor speakers. But this sample includes people who hear preachers who are regarded as “fine communicators.”

I don’t question the preachers’ public speaking ability. Or the thoroughness of their preparation. Or their theology. Or their sincerity. Or their personal charisma.

So, why can so few listeners recall anything they heard? I believe the paltry retention results point primarily to the limitations of the medium itself–the lecture method.

Studies show that people retain only five to ten percent of what they hear through spoken communication. And, even when they’re listening attentively, they lose 40 percent of what they hear after two minutes. They lose 60 percent after a half day. And they lose 90 percent after a week.

I’ve shown these statistics and listener interviews to people in my public speaking and teaching courses I’ve led over the past 20 years. And, usually, at this point, someone poses the kitchen table analogy. It goes like this: “If you’d ask anybody what they had for dinner last Sunday they couldn’t remember that either. But they were nourished by the dinner nevertheless.”

Others defend forgettable preaching with a variety of other excuses. But this desperate defending seems to deny that there’s any room for improvement.

Rather than trying to excuse poor retention reports, what if you could offer a nourishing message AND see people remembering and applying the message next Wednesday? What if your people regularly stopped their friends and said, “You won’t believe what happened at church last Sunday!” Wouldn’t that be better than a congregation of deer-in-the-headlights amnesiacs?

I suspect that Jesus’ listeners had no problem recalling his messages a week later. How did he leverage the medium of the spoken word? In my next post I’ll share some ways to elevate the memorability and impact of your speaking.

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