Neuroscience and the gospel

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Last week I went to a seminar called Sharing the Gospel in the language of Neuroscience. It was one of those moments where your mind feels filled to capacity. I believe the technical term for this is “Full Brain.” I quickly realized it was going to take some time to process and empty the ol noggin. The seminar was led by a man named Curt Thompson. He’s a medical doctor and also the author of a book called The Anatomy of the Soul. It’s all really interesting stuff. Turns out, our minds have a lot to do with how we understand the gospel and even how we share it with others.

One of the more disheartening things pastors will ever learn, is that people forget about 85% of their sermon 2 hours later. 85%! The truth is that’s how our minds work. As pastors this may discourage us a bit–since we spend a significant amount of time preparing and writing sermons– but it should also help us focus. There are certain things the mind remembers. It remembers visuals and experiences. Neuroscience teaches us that.

The visual and experimental nature of the brain should drive our preaching and teaching. Someone may not remember all of your content. They might forget how many times the word compassion is used in the New Testament, but they will remember the captivating story you told, or the visual you used to illustrate compassion.

Captivating visuals and experiences are not easily forgotten.

I think this is one reason we are fans of the movies. They are visually stunning, experiential nature mediums that share content. Films touch us on another level. If you’re like me, it’s easy to remember the latest movie you saw; it’s quite a challenge, though, to remember last Sunday’s sermon.

I’ve seen hundreds of movies and there are certain scenes I will never forget–the end of American Beauty with Kevin Spacey lying with his head on the kitchen table; Tim Robbins dancing in the rain after escaping prison in The Shawshank Redemption; Simba on pride rock in The Lion King after defeating Scar.

Something in us is stirred when we see a good movie. That should tell us something about how we share the gospel.

Now this isn’t to say we forget the importance of sound teaching. We need that. But this should be coupled with engaging and memorable visuals that help the content come to life. Here are a few ideas I’m mulling over to see this accomplished:

1) When in doubt, Illustrate

This might be the greatest thing we can do as teachers. Illustrate, illustrate, and illustrate some more. Use pictures, movies, object lessons, the whole shebang. If we are unsure how a piece of content will be received, perhaps it’s time to add another visual or illustration.

2) If you want it to be remembered, have them experience it

Teaching in an experiential way is not easy, especially with the format of most of our church services. But it’s key if we want people to grapple with content and do something with it. An experience helps the content rattle around inside the brain. Find an activity or a takeaway that allows an experience.

I’m adding more visuals and illustrations to messages nowadays. Further, I’m attempting to create more ‘experiences’ in our worship services. I think sometimes being ‘experiential oriented’ can come across as contrived and forced, like we’re trying too hard. (How can we make this worship service experiential? How about we throw tennis balls covered in paint at a blank canvas during the service?!)  Experiences are great, but they should also be intentional and purposeful.

The more we allow the church to be both visual and experiential oriented, the more likely we are to connect with our audience. Pastors don’t have to be experts in the field of neuroscience to apply it some of it’s techniques. But we should familiarize ourselves with the language and processes. We may find it making a difference.

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