How can we make good use of all of the senses of our congregation to enable understanding and retention of our message?
This essay will examine the various ways a preacher can make use of all the senses of their congregation to enable the understanding and retention of the message. In order to do this it will discuss the human senses themselves and the way they are used in learning. It will then look at the various forms of preaching which can be employed to access the different senses, evaluating their benefits and problems. The essay will also consider the concerns of all-age, all-ability and all-maturity congregations and how these issues should be contemplated and understood.
The preacher provides the sermon but it is the congregation that listen and them who own it once it’s delivered. The preacher is merely a window between God and the congregation. There is no way of knowing what any particular member of the congregation will take on from a sermon; even those sitting side by side from the same family will apply their own filters impacted by their experiences and lives which will alter what they ‘hear’.
There are five human senses; sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell. When it comes to taking on information in a formal environment sight and hearing are used predominantly; however that does not mean those are the best senses with which to learn. Robert Pike wrote on adult learning in 1989, he concluded that people remember 10% of what they read, 20% of what they hear, 30% of what they see, 50% of what they see and hear, 70% of what they say and 90% of what they say as they do. If his research is true then the congregation would only remember one fifth of a sermon even if they were listening carefully and fully engaged.
However the good news is that, the average congregation would remember half of anything presented by word and pictures and even more of anything they participate in. This in itself is a clear argument for multi layered sermons. Knowles, a specialist in adult learning, wrote about how experiences are the greatest ways of learning. He advised that focus should be on subjects of interest to the lives of adults, thereby allowing their “self-direction” (Knowles, 1973) to apply the lessons practically.
The majority of congregations will have the ability of sight, indeed “our society is dominated by the visual” (Day, 1998). Therefore any sermon which is based on sound alone is not making the most of a key sense; in fact the congregation may well be using their sense of sight to explore the church and thereby be distracted.
This research would point away from purely verbal sermons, towards interactivity involving the congregation. Richard Chartres, Bishop of London, spoke about “delivering a mighty atom… a message or a story which gets under the radar and reverberates in the inner spaces of people who are programmed to turn off as soon as you say ‘I take my text from the Prophet Haggai’” (2007). Depending on the subject of the sermon this can be more challenging; likewise for some people the idea of interacting is terrifying. For example a sermon on ‘Jesus calms the storm’ is easy to apply in a visual and physical way; by laying a huge blue groundsheet down the aisle and asking children to climb on the preacher creates a boat on the lake. The adults take the corner of the sheet and make the waves as the Gospel story is told; it gets rougher and the kids are engulfed in the waves. Then Jesus calms the storm and the children stand there, relieved, excited and enthused.
To get the message of this Gospel across to the congregation, especially that of an all-age service, would take hundreds of words. Trying to get across the fear of the and relief of the disciples would be problematic at best, if not impossible. Yet the physical experience will stay with the children and the joy the adults felt at playing will be part of their memory and therefore retained. The benefits of participation are great however it must be balanced since too much action can loose the message.
Another example is the parable of the mustard seed. It is hard to imagine the size of a mustard seed and what it looks like when it’s harvested; of course it was the perfect medium in Jesus’ time when people were connected to the land, but in current times it needs further explanation. The use of words could help, applying it to a sunflower seed or a tomato plant but this still requires an interest in the subject. A better option would be to show pictures of the seeds along with pictures of the plants when grown, this would certainly have a greater chance of being understood and might be retained longer. But better still would be if the congregation watched, or helped, as the seeds are set down and long lengths of string used down the aisle to represent how tall the plants will be at maturity, representing the growth of the kingdom of heaven. By seeing a physical demonstration, and perhaps getting involved, the congregation would feel the miracle of growth, see what was meant by the parable and begin to realise how the church grows from small seeds into the large tree protecting and sheltering all. Of course there is a final option for this sermon which could make the most of all senses. By getting the congregation to actually plant seeds, feel the earth, place the seed and commit to tend and water it they not only hear the story, but they see the picture and feel the parable and after that they see it every day reminding them of the lesson and the love of God.
However services are not always compatible with this level of participation, perhaps the church layout doesn’t allow or the physical ability of the congregation would inhibit. These are issues which need to be taken into account when designing sermons; what ages are at the service, what abilities do they possess, do they have any physical limitations, how spiritually mature are they. If a congregation is broadly of a similar ability, interest and maturity then a sermon can be designed for them and their needs. However the sermon may be presented to a congregation with a range of intellects, interests, spiritual maturity and preferences of style. Some find it easier to understand words, others pictures whilst some need to partake to truly take on board the message.
These issues become greater when you preach to an all-age service. When faced with a congregation ranging from babies, through preschoolers, to school age, young adult, adult, middle aged and senior it can be difficult to know how to find the right pitch. Any wordy sermon would need to be simple enough to be understood and yet challenging for the spiritually mature. The use of a more interactive sermon could get everyone involved, engaged and thinking - allowing this to some extent to be guided by their own interest and ability, but might not be enough for those needing challenging.
Similarly when preaching to a congregation including people with sense or comprehension difficulties it will be important to ensure everyone can participate. To use visual material would exclude visually impaired, whilst interactive could impinge the less mobile. In this situation a range of methods could be brought together, although it's important to remember that less is more.
This essay has looked at the theory behind learning and the ways in which human senses are important for understanding a message. It has discussed the various methods that can be used in a sermon; from words, to pictures, through to involvement which at one end could include Godly Play or Messy Church. It has provided some examples of how sermons can be brought off the page and into the 3D space of the church for the congregation to see and experience. It has also highlighted the mixed interests, ages and abilities of congregations and how this makes sermons more challenging to pitch.
To conclude, the key skill of the preacher is to be able to connect with as many people as possible with the one sermon. Obviously it won't always be possible, but it is important to try on each occasion and to ensure that a series of sermons will meet the range of needs. By thinking about what the congregation needs, as individuals and as a group, the preacher can look at the message and work to make it accessible, understandable, interesting, engaging and memorable. Sometimes this will use simple words, sometimes complex words, sometimes pictures and occasionally action; it is by using the tools available that the congregation will come each week excited to see what lesson they will learn.