Effective Preaching 4: Surprise Surprise Surprise

11As 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.

The post that made up part 3 addressed the importance of making sense – and how that might not be what you think it is.

This time, a the central importance of surprise.

Your brain is wonderfully, miraculously and intelligently designed. In addition to keeping your autonomic nervous system humming – and therefore your blood pumping – your brain does something for you every second that you need desperately to function. It does something without which you wouldn’t be able to, well, think. Through such sharp-eyed nerve groupings as the hippocampus, pulvinar nuclei, basal ganglia and the pre-frontal cortex, your brain was created to do something constantly that impacts both your own sanity and whether or not the members of your congregation will get anything out of your sermon.

Your brain ignores.

And it does it every second of every minute.

Think about all of the sights, sounds and, perhaps smells that you are only now attending to because you are reading this sentence. A computer hum, a home heating system, a television in the distance, all screened out, until now, so that you could focus on this blog post.

Every second you are bombarded with stimuli that you don’t need – sights, sounds, smells, sensations. Through a marvelously complex process, your brain makes determinations about what you want to or need to pay attention to, and what you don’t. Everything your brain decides you don’t need in the moment is filtered out,  ignored.

It’s called sensory gating, and you couldn’t live without it.

Writing in the March 2003 edition of Biological Psychiatry, researchers began pinpointing the specific “spam filters” with which you were blessed. They zeroed in on sensory gating in “the temporo-parietal region (Brodmann’s areas 22 and 2), and the prefrontal cortex (Brodmann’s areas 6 and 24).” And the more the brain is studied, the more scientists understand just how much your brain invests in…


Now, see those bodies out there when you preach or teach? Those are people. You know what they have in their heads? Yep, brains. And you know what those brains are busy doing as you teach?


It’s what they do.

That’s why the second S in the M-E-S-S model stands for surprise. And that takes us directly back to the brain.

Let me start with a baseball analogy, if you’ll bear with me. I was once listening to an expert talk about pitching. He said that great pitchers move the ball around when they pitch. One pitch is high and outside, the other is low and inside. Three pitches in a row are outside and the fourth is inside. The key, this expert said, was continously changing the batter’s eye level.

The same holds true for teachers. Move the “ball” around. Perhaps 5 minutes of straight verbal exposition of the Scripture then an analogy. Then 10 minutes of unpacking the primary textual theme followed by a true story from the preacher’s life to support that theme. Then perhaps put a photograph on the screen that supports the argument and ask hearers to consider what they are seeing. You get the idea. Change your hearers’ “eye level.” It’s OK to read a story, but probably not for 10 minutes before you change something. This isn’t just because attention spans are shorter but to keep the brain on the move and the gates open. That’s also why the use of video can be so effective.

“I’ve heard this a thousand times…” can kill the effectiveness of a message. Routine is the enemy.


Advertisers talk about “Surprising Broca.” They are referring to a part of the brain called “Broca’s Area” after the 19th century French surgeon and anthropologist Paul Broca. This area of the brain is where verbal words are associated with images to gain meaning. Broca’s area helps you form words and create imagery and helps your hearers anticipate what you are going to say so that it makes sense.

The more you can “surprise Broca,” using impactful dramatic terminology that your audience may not have been expecting, the more of an impact you will make with this “surprise.” This especially entails the creative use of verbs, which are Broca’s stock and trade.

So, “the women at the well met Jesus when she came to get water” doesn’t do much for Broca.  Verb-laden imagery gets its attention. “She had baggage. Just no suitcases. It was another day, another hollow hike for water in the heat of middle-day, her baggage and shame driving her to avoid as many townspeople as possible. At the well, she looked up, saw him, and stopped dead in her tracks.”

In preaching, surprising often means impacting, and that’s the entire purpose of the M-E-S-S model.

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.

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