Learning styles and preaching

Somebody reminded me the other day of Neil Fleming’s VARK model for categorizing different learning styles people have. VARK stands for:

  • V – visual – learn by watching, observing, seeing – think visual aids, charts, graphs, diagrams etc.
  • A – auditory – learn by listening – lectures, discussions, audio, speaking.
  • R – reading-writing preference – learn through written words (read or written) – books, articles etc.
  • K – kinesthetic – learn by doing – experiments, hands on, experience, touch and taste.

Now of course in reality many people (and teachers) are to some degree multi-modal – they use and enjoy all of the above to differing degrees, but most of us, whether we put ourselves in the position of learner or teacher, bias one or two of the above. For preachers you will probably bias your own learning style in your teaching style. Most preachers I know are A and R and the preaching reflects that.

The challenge is to consider all of the above and see if their are ways you can touch on each of them – not necessarily in every talk, but regularly using the different modalities to help different people. To add one more thing into the mix, a teacher I spoke to said that in modern pedagogy interaction is everything. Retention and application of learning shoots up massively where people are active, not passive, learners. Much of our preaching is a monologue. I’m currently experimenting with ways of hitting these different styles and generating some interaction. Here’s two examples: last week I put up a whiteboard and got some feedback on a question. This week I’m going to hand out some scent sticks (I’m doing something on ‘fragrant offering’) and get people to describe smells and how they make you feel. Hopefully the experience reinforces the learning (hopefully)!

So next time you prep, write down the side of the page V,A,R,K, and see how many you can employ, and if there are ways of having some kind of interaction.



The Two Most Important Questions For Every Preacher

sleepingI’ve read a number of things recently which have encouraged preachers not to ‘waggle on the tea’ but rather get on with it. Most of these comments come from bright middle class Christians who want to be fed and have little time for fluffy intros and the like. Unfortunately it’s a narcissistic approach to preaching and is no different from anyone else who wants to have their ears tickled. What the preacher has to bear in mind is that not everyone there actually wants to listen. Some will be there under duress of parents, or simply to please friends. Some of your regulars will be tired and grouchy. Some visitors will be suspicious and will suspect, before you even open your mouth, that the message will be boring, irrelevant, and untrue. The two most important questions that preachers must constantly ask in preparation are these:

  • So What?
  • Who Cares?

These questions are the difference between lecturing and preaching. The former seeks to convey information to an audience, and it is incumbent on the audience to pay attention. The preacher, on the other hand, expects that a number of folk will be less than ready to listen and so will work hard in the opening minutes to show people why what he has to say is massively important and relevant to those listening. If you don’t grab them in the opening couple of minutes with a mixture of ethos and pathos then the remaining 28 minutes is an opportunity lost to speak to those who were less than ready to listen. If you constantly ask the ‘so what’ and ‘who cares’ question in your preparation, not only will you communicate with those initially un-engaged, but you also communicate to your regulars that they can bring their friends because you’re interested in them and will communicate to them without ignoring or patronizing. So before you start your sermon with ‘we’re looking at Leviticus 5 this morning’ ask ‘so what’ and ‘who cares’.

Manner Trumps Content Like it or Not

rope bridgeI promised last week I’d do a follow up to to my previous post, Two Things Preachers Need to Know. Toward the end of that post I threw out the idea that manner trumps content like it or not. I’m increasingly convinced this is the case. Numerous studies have shown that what people hear and what we say aren’t the same thing. People relate far more to tone, appearance, manner etc. That is all ‘noise’ which often serves to interfere with the content of the message. But I’d like to take us back a couple of millenia to learn from Aristotle on this one.

Aristotle observed that there are three aspects involved in successful communication – logos, ethos, and pathos. Logos is the content of what we say; ethos is the integrity, character, and trustworthiness of the speaker; pathos refers to whether or not the speaker can make us ‘feel’ the reality, urgency, and importance of the message. And here’s the bit preachers need to understand. Logos fails to reach destination without ethos and pathos. You can like a speaker and not buy his message. You can be made to feel the truth of an unsound argument. But you won’t by the argument you perceive to be uninteresting, irrelevant, or untrustworthy. Ethos and pathos are like the bridge across which you freight your argument. And here’s where we return to last weeks thoughts on the view which says ‘give it to ’em straight.’ Remember most unconvinced folk don’t understand much of the gospel, they think they actually do understand it, and are suspicious and skeptical about ‘church’ and ‘religion.’ The ‘give it to ’em straight’ crew reinforce all their preconceptions – people feel like they’re being ticked off and they tune out. Failure of ethos and pathos inevitably means failure of logos.

Now I know the objections run as follows:

1. Paul deliberately rejected rhetorical approaches in Corinth. Yes, he did in Corinth – he didn’t in Athens. Beware making a universal application from a particular situation.

2. Surely God opens blind eyes – this all sounds a bit Arminian. Yes, God is sovereign, and we’re also called to make the most of every opportunity (Col 4) and speak ‘persuasively’ (Acts 14:1).

3. Spiritually dead people don’t connect  with ethos and pathos – they’re spiritually dead and we’re the aroma of death. And yet, paradoxically we’re still called to be salt and light (Matt 5), and to live such good lives that our deeds may be seen (1 Pet 2). So there’s a way in which both can be true at the same time. The unregenerate can say ‘we’ll hear you again on this’ (Acts 17).

4. Aristotle is worldly wisdom, not biblical truth. As Calvin said, all truth is God’s. Common grace is everywhere, and Aristotle, where true, is borrowing God’s capital and using it. Rhetorical forms (like those spoken of by Aristotle and Quintilian) are clearly in use in the NT in sermons and letters.

So, given where people are coming from don’t be afraid to invest in ethos and pathos as the bridge across which you move your argument. That bridge is fragile and require investment. While you might think the guy who dresses up in a giant inflatable chef suit to do his kids carols talk is ‘fudging it’ consider whether there’s some relational capital being build – whether in fact a bridge is being erected connecting real people and their world to the message of the Bible. Once this fragile bridge is in place perhaps, just perhaps, people may give your message the time of day. Fact is manner trumps content, like it or not.

Two Things Preachers Need to Know

preacherI read with interest over the Christmas period a number of tweets and blogs urging preachers to be ‘faithful’ with their Christmas messages – not to soft-sell, or succumb to the temptation to be funny or frivolous or whatever else might begin with ‘f’. Basically the call was to ‘give it to em straight’ with both barrels and trust the sovereignty of God. We’re the aroma of death so don’t expect or want ‘them’ to like you.

Now here’s my problem with some less than nuanced versions of the above: First it plays down human responsibility. Second it reduces what it means to be ‘faithful’. Third, it misunderstands the audience. John Stott famously talked about ‘double-listening’ – listening to the word and listening to the world. So when it comes to listening to the ‘world’ here’s the two things you need to know:

1. They don’t know anything
2. They think they know something

Let’s take those in turn. First, many people today know next to nothing about the Bible and the Gospel. They come from so far back that shared understanding between the preacher and unbelieving listener is at a minimum. So we have to ‘accommodate’ to be understood. Calvin picked up the rhetorician’s idea of accommodation to describe how the infinite God makes himself understood to idiots like us. All successful communication requires accommodation, and we have an awful lot of work to do. ‘Giving it to them straight’ misunderstands how far back people are – they won’t understand you – you won’t communicate successfully, and therefore you have to ask if you’ve been ‘faithful’ in the broader sense.

Second, they think they know something. Here’s the real problem. People already think they know all about Christianity, religion, the Bible, and the Gospel. They know what it’s all about – it’s about goody two shoes religious people who hate gays, bash bibles, and try hard to be goody-goodies so they can get to heaven. They know this, they are suspicious of it, and they don’t like it. It’s worse than Athens (Acts 17) – not only do they not know very much, they think they understand it perfectly. So Christians have got a lot of bad theology to unpick, and a lot of that happens in terms of manner and approach. If you’give it to ’em straight’ you’ll reinforce all the things they think they know. So not only did you fail to communicate the positive, you actually reinforced the negative – their false gospel – way to go. Is that really what it means to be ‘faithful’ in making the most of every opportunity?

In the next post I’ll expand on the idea that in communication manner trumps content, like it or not.

Speeches that shook the world

mlkA friend put me on to this excellent program on the beeb a couple of weeks ago entitled “Speeches that Shook the World.” The presenter walked through the elements of what makes for a great speech. There was stuff in there about logos, ethos, pathos (it’s all Greek to me), as well as a helpful concept called the ladder of abstraction. Anyways, this post is simply to point you to the link and warmly encourage you, if you’re a communicator, to go watch – it’ll be an hour well spent. It’s no longer on iPlayer but here’s the YouTube link:


What can preachers learn from golfers?

golfI’m just back from a glorious week in the Lake District walking, canoeing, canyoning, abseiling, and teaching the Bible to teens. As a way to wind down, myself and a couple of others hit the golf course today and it got me thinking about how preachers might learn something from the weird and wonderful world of golf:

  1. Keep at it. Sometimes you nail it, sometimes you fluff it. That’s life. Get to the next tee and unleash the beans once again.
  2. Practice. Don’t expect to turn up and be great. Put some time in on the range honing your skills and trying new things.
  3. Attention to detail. Little adjustments can make a big difference.
  4. Take some lessons. Keep learning. Don’t think you have nothing to learn from someone who knows more than you.
  5. Find a good playing partner – someone you enjoy hanging out with and who gently helps you improve your game.
  6. Use all the clubs in your bag. Sometimes you need to smack hit, sometimes you need something more delicate, and sometimes care and accuracy are the order of the day.
  7. Wear snazzy trousers. Ok, not really. I just thought seven was a good biblical number

Any golfers care to add anything to the list?

More FOAM less beer

foamI promised earlier in the week that I’d share a little acronym I use when thinking about illustration in preaching. Again, this isn’t mine, but is shamelessly stolen from communication coach and all round good egg Richard Garnett. He gave this little acronym to work with:

  • F – facts and stats
  • O – opinions and quotes
  • A – anecdotes/stories
  • M – metaphors

He suggests (rightly in my view) that these four things tickle different parts of the brain. Facts, stats, and quotes engage our left brain – the analytical and rational part; Stories and metaphors tickle our right brain – the creative emotive bit. In the exercise of persuasion we need to satisfy both sides – we need to think and feel that what we’re being told is true and works. Garnett also suggests trying to alternate them so that you don’t overload on one side at any one time.

Two other comments I’d add when it comes to illustration. First, illustration teaches. We sometimes think that there’s content and then there’s illustration – the beer and the froth. I’m increasingly persuaded that this view is wrong. Illustration does teach – it just gets us at different levels. So don’t be caught out thinking your light on content if you have plenty of illustration – your just hitting people with truth at different angles and in different places. Second, you need more illustration than you think. Stop thinking about the old state the point, explain the point, illustrate the point, apply the point. Why don’t you think about having 3-4 diff ways of illustrating your point. They don’t all have to be 5 minute stories about someone getting their head caved in with a shovel in Vietnam. They can be one-liners piled up, or a quick metaphor, or a quotation. Pile up your illustration, tickle left and right brain, bring it home, seek to persuade. Illustration is your teaching buddy, not just the froth you have to put in to keep ADDs happy.