At regular intervals, people involved in serving churches (whether paid or not) get told how people learn. We hear that listening is ineffective. That seeing is better. And that doing is best of all.
Then follows a therefore moment. Quite often, it’s something like: therefore we now know that sermons and preaching are ineffective, and we should try something else. Strangely, this whole argument is always delivered in speaking-listening mode. Rarely visual, never by doing.
I’ve always been troubled by the apparent equating of preaching with teaching/learning of content.
So I was intrigued to read the following quotation, from Animals in Translation by Temple Grandin. (Grandin is also the subject of the title story in Oliver Sacks’ An Anthropologist on Mars.)
observational learning. When it comes to evolutionary fears, as well as to many other areas of learning, animals and people learn by watching what other people or animals do, not by doing something themselves and learning from the consequences. I have the impression this lesson hasn’t been absorbed by most educators. You read that hands-on learning is best, but that may not always be so.
The examples she gives centre on people and animals learning to fear something without ever having had a related bad experience. For example, lab monkeys with no fear of snakes learn to fear snakes by watching the fear reaction of wild-reared monkeys upon seeing a snake. The fear was caught, not hands-on.
As Grandin sardonically puts it, ‘Presumably most people with fear of flying, just to give a common example, have never come close to crashing.’ (p. 211)
Which brings me back to preaching. My personal concern in preaching is not that people will remember a sermon. My prayer is that preaching will change lives, by God’s grace. Memory might be a tool God uses to help someone, but it’s not the goal.
Allowing for the fact that Grandin’s observation is only for some types of learning, I suggest there’s a useful observation to make about preaching. One part of preaching, in my view, is that listeners catch and follow the example of the preacher.
That is, preaching should model prayerful, willing and submissive listening to God’s word. Preachers, to some extent, are a picture of the obedience of faith that follows gospel proclamation. Preachers train wisdom by speaking the fear of the Lord.
So I’ll keep preaching. All the while, I need to remember that a sermon is less about my text than it is about me as a preacher standing before God.