What Preachers Are Fighting Part 4: Sense-Making and Surprises.

To go to the three previous parts of this post series:

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

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

What Preachers are Fighting, Part 3: Getting Past the Guards

This time, Sense-Making and Surprise

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:

  • We promise that we are intimate with Christ, walking in Holiness by His Grace and keeping short accounts with God.
  • We promise that our teaching is Holy Spirit-fueled and not some attempt on our part to impress humans.
  • 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 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. 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.

(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. The chicks are God-designed to have to fight their way out. Some understood that, most didn’t. So the illustration was lost and actually confused most. It didn’t make sense.)

Finally, the second S stands for Surprise. And this 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, and that’s a topic for another post, but to keep the brain on the move and the gates open. That’s also why the use of video can be so effective.


Advertisers – bear with me again – 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. “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.”

That’s M-E-S-S. Meaning, Emotion, Sense-Making and Surprise. I’d love to hear your comments, suggestions or questions via email.

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  1. […] Part 4 of this 10-part series completed the “Fine M-E-S-S” preaching model by focusing on the importance of Sense-Making and Surprise […]

  2. […] Part 4 completed the M-E-S-S model by focusing on the importance of Sense-Making and Surprise […]