What Preachers Are Fighting Pt. 3: Getting Past The Guards

This is a series on the challenges preachers and teachers are facing in 2015 as they communicate the enduring Truth of Scripture.

What Preachers are Fighting, Part 1: The Epidemic of Fear

What Preachers are Fighting, Part 2: Guards at the Gate

I suppose there are two ends of the preaching/teaching spectrum. At one end you’ll find the no-frills philosophy. This is the idea that the preacher essentially reads from the Bible – and probably the King James Version – and the Holy Spirit does the rest. On the opposite end are the entertainers – the kitchen sinkers – those who drown out the Holy Spirit with anything and everything except Biblical exposition, whatever will keep a congregation, or a TV audience, coming back for more. The former folks are deep but dry, while the latter are sizzling and shallow.

And, since you’re reading this, you’re probably of the mind that effective teaching and preaching lies somewhere in the middle.

Jesus didn’t just read from the Scriptures, although He could have. Nor did He seek to tickle ears with fluff.

First, He did the Will of the Father. After that, He taught Truth and at the same time used illustrations that would connect with his hearers. He told stories, wrote parables, gathered children in His arms, and spit in the mud. Jesus connected.

Of course that’s too simple. He is The Connector.

With that as background, let’s think about the brain again.

If the God-designed human brain is so supremely diligent at filtering out unwanted or unneeded information through sensory gating, how does a sermon make it through? Your sermon? Your teaching?

When you are crafting a message, think about making a fine M-E-S-S.





You need those four elements to help your hearers’ brains stop filtering and say: “Hey wait a minute, this is important.” And that’s exactly what you want the brain to say.

We remember what is meaningful to us. That means either that we immediately evaluate it as important to us right now or because we can put ourselves in the situation realistically.

When I’m watching The Passion of the Christ and I see the Lord beaten mercilessly, I actually wince with each blow, even though I’m just watching digital images on a screen. The images have such meaning to me they create a physical reaction. When my pastor tells me the story about the birth of his son, I lean forward in my seat, connecting intimately with the birth of my own daughter. When a Bible teacher asks me what I would have done if I, like Paul, had been stoned within an inch of my life I am forced to feel, because I’ve been drawn into a story on the basis of its meaning to me.

Because that’s the brain’s focus.

To be clear, this does not mean that the Scriptures “mean whatever they mean, to us…” Our opinion of the Scriptures is not the issue here (and holds very little value). But the work of the preacher is to take the Truth and feed us with it. When it is meaningful, it goes down easy.

There is a big difference between telling me what the Scriptures say and telling me what God wants me to know in the moment. That’s what congregations need from preachers and that is at the heart of meaning.

Finally, in order to preach in ways that are meaningful to me, you must know me. Preachers, teachers, Bible Study leaders, Sunday School teachers…who are those people listening to you? Who are they, at heart? That’s the question that uncovers what is meaningful to them.

That’s the M, Meaning.

The E is emotion.


From Marta Kagan

We learn emotionally. Or, more specifically, we remember emotionally. In fact, in terms of brain physiology, the learning process starts where emotions are processed, the Hippocampus. Learning, memory and emotion are initiated in the same brain structures. The three are virtually, or perhaps practically, inseparable.

If you can make an emotional connection…jackpot. Powerful emotions have season gate passes in the brain. They make it through all the time. Pick an emotional response – joy, laughter, silliness, sadness, betrayal, anger, love, tenderness, fear of the Lord, – if you find it, you’ve connected.  I’m not talking about manipulative emotion for emotion’s sake, but an emotional response to a quality of God taught, and realized.

When I realize what God has done for me, it is impossible not to cry, and to laugh.

As a preacher, can you help me get there?

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  1. Very true. Emotions come with two edges. They should come with a safety label.

  2. Jennifer testa says:

    As a facilitator and a parent, I love the idea that emotions always get through. It also scares me to think about the idea that emotions always get through. I can see how people might use that to their advantage. Honestly, I can see where I have used that in a manipulative way. Something to ponder….

  3. Awesome!!! As always!!!


  1. […] Part 3 of this series provided an introduction to the “M-E-S-S” model of sermon delivery – Meaning, Emotion, Sense-Making and Surprise – with a description of the first two. […]