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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Thom, I can’t remember your last post. Did it affect me any any way? Absolutely! It so affected me that I saught three others to sign up for your blog.
I’m anticipating your ideas to help me with communicating clearly and effectively next time as well. You’re good…and you can be be better!
TEASE! I will remember to tune in next, that’s a start!
Thanks again for the thought provoking submission. I can remember very well the last 2 weeks sermons form our church. I am pastor but not a preaching one. I agree that preaching can be improved in many situations but then I also think that the listener has an obligation to come prepared to listen and to actually hear. In our society today we pay our dues and then we expect to receive something in return. In the church context the investment is ongoing. “He who has ears to hear let him hear”. If we come to the service expecting and wanting to hear from God we will be miles ahead. In the end the church service is not about us but is really all about God. If we approach it in this way God will honour us and will bless us beyond all that we could expect. Those of us who communicate God’s truth in any way need to do our part as well to do the best job we can, but you know sometimes you just cannot get blood from a stone. It has to be a 2 way street!
Yes, I’ve heard these statistics many times in recent years. And I’m not necessarily dismissing them or modern communication theory. Nor am I a dinosaur stuck on obsolete methods. Nevertheless, I cannot help but recall the words of scripture itself, “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God/Christ.” The spoken word obviously and apparently does have a power, and power to make people respond. If it didn’t, we wouldn’t have passages like Acts 2 in our bible, where 3000 people were pierced to the heart and to their very core by the preached word. So there must be a balance somewhere. I will be curious to see your followup posts. Thanks for giving us thought matter.
Good point, Rob! Listeners do have to do their part. People who come to church and sit under the preached word need to come actively seeking to hear from God. Active listening. Listening with expectation. Communication is a two-way process that involves both speaker and listener. I am not absolving the preacher or speaker of doing his or her utmost to meet the listener. But listeners are not exempt from putting in their own effort. By the way, an excellent homiletics teacher and practitioner, Donald Sunujkian, has written numerous articles for preachers to be more effective at helping their listeners visualize their words and thoughts. I highly recommend his writings.
My former pastor taught in an incredibly memorable way. He typically had some sort of shocking visual.
At one particular service, we came in to see that the stage was covered in dirt, grass, and stones. Quite shocking. I remember wondering how it was going to all be cleaned up. He continued to talk about Luke 8:5-15 (had to look up the scripture, but remember the story well!)… showing us how the seeds distributed by the farmer fell and the impediments to their growth (likening them to the impediments to our growth as people). At one point he stomped on them, kicked them… dirt went flying everywhere… If his story and explanation weren’t so gripping, I would have wondered if he were having a mental breakdown.
It is one of many of his sermons that has stuck with me even though we have been gone for two years. I have been searching for that type of teaching since we moved.
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