by Ryan Gear
A friend of mine was telling me about his pastor’s sermons recently. He said that his pastor uses sermon props every single Sunday and seems to be trying to make his sermons “cool.” My friend confessed that, in spite of the props, he can’t remember a single point from any of his pastor’s sermons. He said the sermons seem gimmicky, and they just aren’t memorable. Of course, I hoped he wasn’t secretly talking about my sermons and that this wasn’t some kind of subtle intervention for me.
For anyone other than a blazing narcissist, preaching is humbling. You study and prepare. You pray for God’s Spirit to move. You stand up and speak from the heart, laying yourself bare. Then after the service, some well-meaning member of your congregation makes a comment revealing that he was completely oblivious to everything you said. No wonder Sunday afternoons are described as the pastor’s hangover. After all that work, we at least want to know that people will remember something from our sermon.
There could be several reasons why the above pastor’s sermons 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 clichés instead of sharing profound content. Maybe he’s trying to make too many points in his sermons, and the content gets lost in the rubble.
Emotion and Memory
It turns out that there could be another reason. 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 moves our emotions. In a University of Arizona study, psychologists Reisberg and Hertel suggest that we remember parts of events that produced an emotion in us, and we forget parts of events that did not produce an emotion in us.[i]
In Memory and Emotion, the same authors site two separate studies that used visual images to produce an emotion in participants. The result should make every preacher shout “Hallelujah!” They found that it was not just the visual images that created powerful emotional memories, but it was the story connected to the pictures that produced emotion … in other words, pictures with narration! While visual images aided in the telling of the story, it was the spoken word that produced 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. Your sermons are the narration, and you can give your congregation mental images coupled with stories that move them emotionally, so that they remember the images.
To be clear, I am not encouraging 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 intensely emotional, and if you preach sermons that matter to life, you will move people, and they will remember what you say.
Here is an example. Last year, Pope Francis stopped a parade and walked over to a man suffering with a disease that has produced skin deformities all over his body. As the Pope walked toward him, no one was prepared for the emotional impact of what the Pope would do. The Pope wrapped his arms around the man, kissed his forehead, and prayed with him for about a minute. On its own, the Pope’s warm embrace of this hurting, often-rejected man is a powerful image.
The narration is the man’s story. His name is Vinicio Riva, and he has suffered from this disease since he was 15 years old. Get this. Since developing the disease, he has felt rejected by his father.[ii] His father, who is still living, is embarrassed of him and rarely shows any affection toward his son. Vinicio has walked through life feeling the continual stares and rejection of other people, including his own father. That all changed, however, when the Pope embraced him on international television. Even though Vinicio’s father rejected him, the Holy Father, and Vinicio’s Father in heaven, embrace him as a beloved son. That’ll preach! Your congregation will never forget the unconditional acceptance communicated by that powerful image coupled with moving narration.
Here are some ways to tell if you’re preaching sermons that move people:
- 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?
- 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 Americans want to be moved. They want to experience life in all of its fullness, and you can help them do that.
- 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 do present information, but in order to move people, you have to illustrate information with emotionally powerful images and stories.
- When you tell stories, do you communicate the real emotion that would be expected in that story?
Some pastors tell cliché-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 whose 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 honestly communicate that emotion as you tell the story.
- Most importantly, are you in touch with your own emotional life?
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 gut!
Something that has helped me become more aware of my own emotions is self-monitoring. It sounds incredibly simple, but in actuality, it requires courageous and focused soul-searching. To practice self-monitoring, ask yourself, “How do I feel right now, and why?” Try this a few times a day, and see what happens! You may discover sources of your feelings that you never imagined… and you will know how you feel and why.
When you feel it and communicate it, they will feel it too. As you couple powerful images with moving narration, both you and your congregation will be emotionally affected, and the result will be a sermon they remember.
People remember your sermons when you move them.