Effective Preaching 3: Making Good Sense

As you think about how well your teaching or preaching connects with the human brain – and therefore engages the hearts and souls of your audience members – I’d encourage you to consider the M-E-S-S model. I know it appears worrisome at the outset, but think of your preaching as a “Fine Mess.”

In part 1, I addressed how to ensure that your preaching or teaching is meaning-ful.

Part 2 focused on the connection between brain design and the importance of making an emotional appeal.

This time, a way to think about making sense to your hearers, which is so critically important to ensuring your content makes it into long-term memory.

Most of the people who listen to our sermons, lessons, and messages want to hear us, many even pray specifically that our communication would represent God’s encouragement, admonition and exhortation so that they could walk more closely daily with the Savior.

Along those lines, when we stand before them I think they expect us to keep three promises:

  1. We promise that we are intimate with Christ, walking in Holiness by His Grace and keeping short accounts with God.
  2. We promise that our teaching is Holy Spirit-fueled and not some attempt on our part to impress humans.
  3. We promise to treat teaching and preaching as a craft that we will work to develop so that God is glorified and people are fed.

This series is about that third promise.

The M-E-S-S model is designed to provide a framework for getting past the brain’s God-designed stimulus filters (sensory gating) and teaching in ways that are remembered and learned.

The first S is sense-making. When a hearer thinks, “that makes sense,” that doesn’t mean they are necessarily agreeing with what is being said, but they are saying that the words fit what they know about the world. The verbal and non-verbal codes being used can be decoded easily, the metaphors are clear and fit the audience. If, for instance, you are going to use agricultural metaphors to an audience that includes 2 farmers and 77 non-farmers, you’ll need to set up the metaphor with an explanation of terms and an understanding of context. Otherwise, you lose the sense-making game.

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I once tried to use a chick coming out of an egg as an example without explaining to the audience that a person helping a chick break out of its shell is a bad thing, not a good thing. They are designed to have to fight their way out. Some understood that, most didn’t. So the illustration was lost and actually confused most.  They understood the words I was saying and they could grasp sentence structure, but, despite all that, I wasnt making “sense” in terms of understanding. And that decreased the likelihood that my message would make it into long-term memory.

This is particularly important when you are using personal stories. We’re taught to emphasize them in our preaching classes. However, from the aspect of sense making, personal stories are actually the trickiest to use well in a message. They make complete “sense” to you. But they are often packed with context, the history of relationships,  your own feelings about the story, etc. So, those stories, may need additional context, definition or explanation to make the connection with your audience.

Ultimately, the more work you do to develop an understanding of your audience/congregation, the more likely you are to make meaningful sense.

Next, the final element of the M-E-S-S model and how to surprise the brain into remembering.


The M-E-S-S Preaching & Teaching Model

The M-E-S-S model is designed to provide a framework for getting past the brain’s God-designed stimulus filters (sensory gating) and teaching in ways that are remembered and learned.

The M is meaning. There must be content in messages that make a relevant connection to the individual in the pew or seat. It’s not just about what the Bible says, but how God’s Word makes a right-now impact on how a person is living his or her life and/or thinking about his or her life.

E is emotion. Emotion is the most powerful tool a speaker has in making it past the brain-gates. Emotion opens the way to learning and memory. That doesn’t mean that every sermon has to be a “tear jerker,” but every message should appeal on some level to a feeling. (Read the parables of Jesus, for instance, and take note of how they make an emotional connection to hearers.)

The first S is sense-making. When a hearer thinks, “that makes sense,” that doesn’t mean they are necessarily agreeing with what is being said, but they are saying that the words fit what they know about the world. The verbal and non-verbal codes being used can be decoded easily, the metaphors are clear and fit the audience.

Finally, the second S stands for Surprise. And this takes us directly back to the brain. Your ingeniously-created brain works very hard filtering out information. One key in getting the filtering process to stop – which is so important for effective preaching and teaching – is to provide the brain with stimuli it isn’t expecting, forcing it to say, “Hey, wait a minute now…” That’s why surprise is a key element of the Fine M-E-S-S Model.