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Most preachers experience the conundrum of reaching some people in the congregation, and not others. Is this problem just a matter of some folks being “tuned in” to the gospel, while others aren’t? Probably not, say Thomas H. Troeger and H. Edward Everding, Jr. Instead, it results from the diverse intelligences and learning styles represented throughout ...
Most preachers experience the conundrum of reaching some people in the congregation, and not others. Is this problem just a matter of some folks being “tuned in” to the gospel, while others aren’t? Probably not, say Thomas H. Troeger and H. Edward Everding, Jr. Instead, it results from the diverse intelligences and learning styles represented throughout the congregation. A great deal of research in recent years has demonstrated that people receive and process information and communication in wildly different ways. Troeger and Everding use that research to show their readers how to craft the sermon to speak to each of those multiple learning styles each time they step into the pulpit.
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Preaching That Honors Many Ways of Knowing
All of Us
All of us for all of God. It sounds simple enough. But try to preach so that the Spirit working through you opens the whole congregation to the glory and wonder of God. You immediately encounter the complexity of who we human creatures are, who God is, and how we interrelate and communicate with one another. Looking out upon the congregation, you are aware that people perceive, process, and respond to your sermons in strikingly different ways.
Sometimes after preaching a sermon I wonder what "all of them" really heard. Listening to their comments, I think: Is that what I said? Sometimes I respond "Thank you" because it seems that some of them heard more than I said. I stand amazed how the Spirit can work through my limitations. But other times I regret how my limitations may block the Spirit.
Both of us have learned that the Spirit is not ours to command or control: "The wind/spirit blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes" (John 3:8). No homiletical method can guarantee the Spirit will come to the preacher and the congregation. Yet we believe as Augustine does that "in order to know the truth of what is spoken, I must be taught by him who dwells within and gives me counsel about words spoken externally in the ear." Or as the Protestant reformer John Calvin puts the matter: "For as God alone is a fit witness of himself in his word, so also the word will not find acceptance in men's hearts before it is sealed by the inward testimony of the Spirit." Attending to the Spirit includes relying on the gifts that God gives us, believing that we have received them for a purpose, and trusting that they can strengthen our preaching of the gospel.
The phrase "all of us" points to the multiple ways of knowing that God has bestowed upon us:
Are we possessed with the capacity for deep and passionate feeling? Yes, but we are not limited to feeling.
Do we have the ability to observe, reason, and invent solutions to difficult problems? Yes, but we are not defined by our thought alone.
Are we creatures who can taste the extraordinary variety of the material world? Yes, but our identities are larger than our bodies.
Do our souls flow with visions that keep hope alive and open us to the living God? Yes, but we are not purely spiritual beings.
To engage "all of us for all of God" means, then, to engage the full range of who we are as creatures. Not just our feeling. Not just our thinking. Not just our materiality. Not just our spirituality. But the full, rich treasury of our humanity as created by God, the many varied ways God has given us to perceive, process, and respond to the world. Preachers who engage our multiple capacities for learning and knowing become more effective vessels of the Spirit.
Despite the richness of our resources, most of us have favored ways of learning and knowing, including how we process sermons. Wise pastors know that some of their listeners love stories, while others are listening for what the point is, and still others are waiting to be touched in the depths of their being.
"Draw a picture that will help me see what you are saying."
"Clarify your argument so I can figure out if I agree with you."
"Warm my heart, and I will feel the truth."
The variety of favored ways of knowing suggests that preachers need to draw upon their full humanity in order to communicate effectively with the full humanity of their congregation. By expanding their cognitive repertoire—that is to say, by cultivating the ability to use many ways of learning and knowing in their sermons—preachers can reach a broader range of listeners.
Preacher-Friendly Theories of Learning and Knowing
Many preachers intuitively realize that different people learn differently. But we do not have to depend on intuition alone. We can build into sermon preparation the ways of knowing that are evident in people's responses to our sermons. Cognitive learning theory refines our understanding of the act of communication between preacher and congregation. It clarifies how we perceive, process, and respond to the world through many ways of knowing. It helps explain why different congregation members have varied responses to the same sermon. And it adds motivation to be a preacher who "gets up from his or her desk, leaves behind interpretive reading, and goes in search of real bodies to engage in conversation about the text." Listening to the extraordinary range of responses to a biblical text reveals that there are many ways of knowing, and these different ways will play a decisive role in how a sermon is received.
We learn through feelings awakened by vocal tone and physical gesture as much as by content. A young boy listening to one preacher who speaks in a harsh voice about God's love turns to his father and asks, "Why is that man so angry?" A couple with tears in their eyes thanks another preacher for sharing a story about embracing grief at the loss of a child.
We learn through thinking that sometimes expands the boundaries of conventional thought and sometimes gets interpreted in ways we never intended. One person's comment about our analysis of a difficult biblical text reduces our sermon to a stereotypical idea while another person notes how we challenged her thinking about the passage and opened a new universe of meaning.
We learn through imagining that delights some listeners while it distances others. Talking about "the symbol of the resurrection" upsets one group in the congregation while others are grateful because they had never considered interpreting Easter in such a visionary way.
We learn through doing, although different people have different ideas of what "doing faith" means. One person comes out grateful for the down-to-earth practical ways we named for applying the sermon to real life, while another found our remarks too simplistic and divorced from reality.
Any mode of learning will be interpreted in different ways by different people. But by employing all four modes of learning we increase the communicative range of our preaching because we embrace more completely each individual listener's humanity as well as the variety of learning modes that characterize the congregation as a whole.
Utilizing many ways of knowing, our sermons model how the congregation can do the same. Preachers thereby encourage people to employ God-given abilities that they may have neglected. The person whose passion can be enhanced by precise thought and the person whose logic can be empowered by deeper feeling can learn from the preacher how to achieve a more balanced, holistic faith. It is a faith that fulfills the first commandment to love the Lord our God with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our mind and with all our strength (Mark 12:30).
Our brief review of four modes of learning—feeling, thinking, imagining, doing—introduces the basic pattern of this book. In each chapter we identify a theory about how people perceive, process, and respond to the world so that preachers can become more skilled at using a wide repertoire of communicative means. We will consider three major theories:
multiple intelligences (often abbreviated MI)
children's ways of knowing
adult ways of knowing
In a final chapter we will explore how to bring all three theories together in the act of creating and delivering sermons.
Several times over the last ten years we have team-taught a course in which experienced pastors have crafted sermons using these theories of learning and knowing. Although we would never claim these methods are infallible, we have evidence from the positive response of listeners that sermons employing multiple ways of knowing draw a wider range of people into an encounter with the word of God. We give examples from our students' sermons as well as our own to let you see what the theories look like in practice.
Chapter 2 uses the theory of "multiple intelligences" to explore in detail people's varied ways of learning. Most people gauge "smartness" or intelligence by their linguistic or logical abilities. IQ tests focus primarily on these two cognitive capacities—as do many sermons! It is common to think about a well-crafted sermon in terms of its exquisite use of words and skilled analysis of concepts. Such sermons may be well crafted, but they often fall on deaf ears for many in the congregation. Such sermons fail to engage "all of us." Howard Gardner, who has specialized in studying varied ways of human knowing, has criticized IQ standards because people demonstrate intelligence in many other ways than language and logic alone.
Can you imagine a sermon that takes into account "all of us," when each of us is capable of eight intelligences? This does not mean that every person has developed every intelligence to the highest possible degree. But these intelligences are present among "all of us" in the congregation. Clearly, sermons will employ words and some form of logic. But sermons can also tap into people's abilities to experience their lives through spatial imagery or music or action or interpersonal relations or self-reflection or the natural environment. That might initially seem to be more than you as a preacher can or want to handle. But you will discover that the theory of multiple intelligences provides a usable framework for creating and delivering sermons that engage the actual ways your people compose meaning for their lives.
In chapter 3 we explore children's ways of knowing and in chapter 4 adult ways of knowing. People's varied ways of knowing expand our understanding of how thinking and logic function in sermons. Just as there are different forms of intelligence, so there are different forms of thinking and logic among "all of us." We learn in these chapters how to create and deliver sermons for different ways of knowing. This theory is based on research in cognitive developmental theory.
Through experience and intuition, we sense that "all of us" exemplify different ways of making meaning. We are, for example, aware that children are not miniature adults in their ways of thinking. Children's sermons honor children's ways of knowing, but preaching a children's sermon is not the only way to reach the children. It is possible to preach in a manner that appeals to both adults and children without reducing the sermon to a children's sermon. Although the experienced pastors in our classes were initially skeptical about this, they mastered the method to the delight of their listeners.
As you try out these theories for yourself, we believe you will soon learn, as one of our pastors puts it, "to be mindful of children listening to your sermons and to find ways of bringing them in."
Adults, like children, do not all think the same way. Attention to the variety of adult faith perspectives will provide you with a structure for identifying those different ways of thinking and suggestions about how to use them in sermons.
Thou Shall Not Label
In all of our explorations we emphasize that it is essential not to label individuals nor to conclude we have their ways of thinking neatly pegged. We begin our course by announcing this commandment in the first class: "Thou shall not label." Rather than place individuals in categories, we encourage preachers to honor children's and adults' varied ways of knowing. We invite preachers to be good neighbors to their congregations, with an understanding of "neighbor" that has been developed by James Nieman and Thomas Rogers: "The neighbor is someone we regularly meet, a fellow participant in social encounters. The word thus designates interaction, not just proximity. At the same time, however, the neighbor is not a member of our household. Scripture may call for a particular treatment of the neighbor ... but the difference between relatives and neighbors is not thereby erased.... [The Good Samaritan] remained, it seems, distinctly Samaritan even in being the quintessential neighbor."
Applying these insights to human cognition and preaching, we realize that people do not all belong to the same "household" of learning and knowing, that our congregations consist of many different neighbors, and that our preaching will not erase their differences. God calls us to make our preaching neighborly to our listeners' varied ways of knowing and thereby to model how they can be neighborly to one another.
We are employing cognitive theories to accomplish the same goal that John McClure approaches through other processes: namely, "to situate preaching as a radical act of compassionate responsibility." Honoring other people's ways of knowing is a way of honoring their humanity, their identity, the unique way in which God has created them. It is "a radical act of compassionate responsibility" because it subverts the oppressive use of language that assumes there is only one way to see and respond to the vast and many-angled complexity of human life.
One experienced pastor who took our course summarized the neighborly spirit that we seek to nurture in preachers: "When preparing a sermon, cognitive theory can guide my creativity by helping me imagine the myriad of ways I can express the same idea. Examining my sermons, teaching style, and content against the perspectives (i.e., modes of thinking) will lead me to be more intentional about the diversity of thought present in a congregation."
Playing the Homiletical Harp for a Congregation of Many Audiences
Preaching that is "more intentional about the diversity of thought present in a congregation" is more faithful to the apostle Paul's understanding of the church as the Body of Christ, a community gifted in many different ways. Instead of preachers using exclusively their ways of perceiving, processing, and responding, they consider how to engage the variety of gifts that the Spirit gives to the congregation (1 Corinthians 12:4-11). They grow in their ability to preach "what people want to say [not hear]. If a minister takes seriously the role of listeners in preaching, there will be sermons expressing for the whole church, and with God as the primary audience, the faith, the doubt, the fear, the anger, the love, the joy, the gratitude that is in all of us. The listeners say, 'Yes, that is my message; that is what I have wanted to say.' All of us recognize here a dynamic that has long been operative in many black churches but which has been absent in traditions in which preachers only speak to but not in and for the faithful community."
To speak "in and for" a community requires understanding not only its idiom but also the many ways that its different members respond to what they see and hear. Concern for preaching the gospel to a congregation of multiple audiences has received extensive attention in recent homiletical literature, yet it is a theme as ancient as the Scriptures. The apostle Paul, though he lived centuries before the advent of developmental psychology, recognized that our forms of thought and expression change as we grow up and mature: "When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways" (1 Corinthians 13:11).
Paul also adapted how he communicated to the different cultural and religious contexts in which he found himself: "To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law ... I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings" (1 Corinthians 9:20, 22b-23).
Paul interprets the gospel through the varied ways of knowing that marked the different cultures in which he ministered. He does not change the message to please his hearers. Instead he deals with a very real need that arose in the church as the result of its becoming a community with people from multiple backgrounds and with diverse ways of thinking and expressing themselves. How is a preacher to communicate the gospel to pluralistic communities?
Excerpted from So That All Might Know by Thomas H. Troeger Copyright © 2008 by The United Methodist Publishing House. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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