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Four Learning Practices for Sermon Engagement

Learning practices have rich application for sermon engagement. Here are four easy-to-implement strategies to allow each sermon to be more formative in our daily lives.

Struggling with Recall

“So what did you think of the sermon?” a colleague asks. I struggle to recall the main points. Pause too long, and they might think I wasn’t listening. Answer too quickly, and I may be off point and drive home that my attention was elsewhere. I stammer something about a slightly connected anecdote.

Repeatedly experiencing this kind of moment has helped me realize I need a better way to engage sermons. More effective sermon engagement can help me avoid embarrassment and, more importantly, take full advantage of the profound proclamation of God’s word in which we participate each week in worship. And I’m guessing I’m not alone in searching for ideas.

Thinking about this dilemma one Sunday it struck me that I should apply concepts from my work life to my worship life. For the last five years I have been teaching courses in college learning at Calvin College. These courses focus on topics like memory, attention, comprehension, mindset, motivation, sleep, and other concepts that affect our learning. A flurry of research in the last ten years shapes the curriculum and has updated our understanding of how the brain works and how learning happens. A Calvin student who applied these ideas to courses last fall stated, “I now listen to the whole lecture and remember it—and I even enjoy it!” Learning practices have rich application for sermon engagement. Here are four easy-to-implement strategies to allow each sermon to be more formative in our daily lives.

Activate Previous Knowledge

What: We retain new information more successfully when we ground it in our previous knowledge.  Connections with things we already know facilitate comprehension and memory. Activating previous knowledge is key to understanding new content. Generating questions about the Scripture text being preached that week is one strategy that will help activate previous knowledge and increase comprehension. Question generation before a sermon will also force you to predict what will be covered during the sermon. Prediction, in turn, often aids attention, as we look to see if the sermon will track in a similar direction to what we wondered.

How: Before the sermon, read the Scripture passage and write three questions. These questions can explore how the passage connects to other passages, ask something you don’t understand about the text, wonder how the story connects to your personal life, or probe what makes this passage unique or meaningful. Seek to ask questions about whatever strikes you from the passage; you will find yourself listening for answers during the sermon.

Effortfully Process the Sermon

What: Psychology professor Stephen Chew highlights two purposes of note taking: to summarize information and to encourage active processing. Taking notes creates a summary that can be used to review or trigger memory later. Additionally, taking notes forces you to process information by making choices about what to write and how to put things in your own words. The average person speaks three words per second, while the average person writes one word per three seconds. This discrepancy means that listeners must selectively decide what information is worth noting, which requires engaged thinking. Active engagement through various forms of note taking aids attention in the moment and memory over time.

How: During the sermon, take notes by recording key points, useful anecdotes, personal questions, and interesting connections as they arise. Try to identify central themes the preacher is trying to communicate. Sketching out the main flow of the sermon in pictures and/or words is another way to effortfully process the sermon. Taking notes or sketching will help you remember the sermon and leave you with a useful summary to reference later.

Elaborate and Associate

What: Psychology professor Daniel Willingham states that “learning is the residue of thought.” Or, put another way, you learn what you think about. At its most basic, creating connections (association) and adding detail (elaboration) push us to think about the sermon before, during, and after it is preached, aiding our acquisition, retention, and application of that content. Generating new connections and adding sensory details encourages us to take ownership of that information. Furthermore, addressing material in this way can reveal lingering questions or confusions, allowing for deeper thought and interesting follow-up.

How: After the sermon, take time to document and expound upon the Scripture and preaching by developing a few lists. List things you expected to hear and did, things you didn’t expect to hear, other stories that connect to the sermon, and further questions the sermon raised for you. You could use the questions generated before the sermon to start this thinking. Your reflections can jump-start your sermon conversations in the fellowship hall, over dinner, around the water cooler, or with the preacher.

Retrieve Content over Time

What: Retrieval “ties the knot for memory,” say the authors of Made to Stick (Chip Heath and Dan Heath, Random House, 2008). Learning is solidified as it is revisited and tested, with frequent and varied practice encouraging the development of lasting concepts. Thinking about a sermon midweek, working with your notes, and recalling what the pastor says—all of these practices help to secure our learning. Forums such as adult education, Bible studies, and youth groups all can encourage retrieving sermon content, and these practices can carry over to the dinner table or conversations in other realms of day-to-day life. 

How: Over the course of the week, discuss the sermon with someone else by summarizing, deliberating, and questioning what you learned. Try to explain the key points of the sermon succinctly and share a question or application that has stuck with you over the week. You could also retrieve content by writing a mid-week journal reflection on the sermon.

Worship, of course, is not just a chance to add knowledge but, when done well, a wholly formative experience. Active engagement in learning helps you fully engage the proclamation of God’s word. Informed pursuit of the spiritual discipline of learning before, during, and after the worship can help deepen the Spirit’s work in us. Yet even in the moments where attention fades, you are still part of a liturgical experience that shapes your heart toward loving God and neighbor. We trust that God’s Spirit works through our attention and inattention to form us toward discipleship and love.