we stand in the pulpit, you and I can see the people we’ve lost. They’re fidgeting or sleeping. They’re thumbing through the bulletin again. There may be blank stares on their faces. If we were to stop mid-thought and sit down, they would not be bothered at all by the incompleteness. They’d just be glad it was over (and to be honest, we might be too).
Yet we’ve also seen the people who are right there with us, who are hanging on each word. If we were to close our Bibles and walk away from the pulpit, they would object, calling out, “Wait! You haven’t finished yet! Tell me the rest!”
We all know both of these experiences. So what is the difference? What is it that awakens the drive to learn in some sermons, while other sermons seem to leave that drive to learn in neutral?
Charles Sanders Peirce, one of the most important American philosophers, proposed a model of internally-motivated learning that directly addresses this difference. Applying this model to preaching will help us increase the ranks of our listeners who are anxiously waiting what we have to say next.
Jump starting internally-motivated learning
Peirce, who lived in America from 1839 to 1914, claimed that internally-motivated learning – which he called inquiry – begins with some doubt, surprise, or disharmony. As Peirce put it, “Every inquiry whatsoever takes its rise in the observation … of some surprising phenomenon, some experience which either disappoints an expectation or breaks in upon some habit of expectation.” That is, we work to figure out things that aren’t what we expect them to be.
This kind of learning, Peirce argued, is not externally imposed like an assignment in a class. We don’t do it because we feel guilty if we don’t, or we’re too polite to walk out of the room when someone is still speaking. Rather, it is motivated from within the learner when the world appears discordant. Our thinking, our effort to learn, is usually passive. In this way people are naturally disinclined to be active listeners of a sermon. They might listen actively out of self discipline, peer pressure, or commitment, but without that commitment or pressure, they’ll naturally be looking at their watches.
Of course, one way to engage people is to entertain them through jokes and interesting illustrations. While they’re listening, we hope to sneak in some truth – like hiding the medicine in a spoonful of sugar. But what Peirce described is a much better way. He said that when we notice “the wonderful phenomenon,” that thing that surprises us and makes us wonder what could be happening, our “usually docile understanding seems to hold the bit between its teeth and to have us at its mercy.”
Notice the power Peirce describes, the way in which this inquiry takes the learner on a wild ride to find a way to resolve the disharmony! Peirce describes this inquiry, this learning process, like an adventure that one almost hopes won’t end for the joy of the journey. Yet it is a journey we desperately want to complete because of the drive for understanding within us. It is this kind of learning that seems to take us beyond the bounds of time so we aren’t looking for ways to distract ourselves until the sermon is over. It is this kind of internally motivated learning we long to see when we stand to preach!
Starting with a puzzle
So where does this curiosity, this wonder, come from? What awakens this desire for learning? Peirce described it as “the observation of some surprising phenomenon, some experience which either disappoints an expectation, or breaks in upon some habit of expectation.” That is, there is a puzzle we can’t yet see through. As Peirce said, the push to learn is “the starting of a question, no matter how small or great … causing an irritation which needs to be appeased” (in How to Make Our Ideas Clear).
Recently I was camping with my family in the Adirondack Mountains. We were walking down a trail in the woods and came upon a leaf that was floating in the middle of the trail about three feet off the ground! We couldn’t see anything supporting it, and nothing was making it move.
Neither my wife nor I had to prompt our kids to stop and look. We all just naturally stopped to look – to try to find what could explain this thing that broke in on our normal expectations. Then we explored various possibilities until we discovered an explanation. As Peirce described it, this surprise stimulated us to an inquiry until we could find something that destroyed the doubt or surprise. For us, we searched until we could locate the invisible threads from a spider that had suspended the leaf. The surprise we felt at seeing a levitating leaf took us on a brief and exciting journey until we found an answer.
Doubts, surprises, and puzzles naturally engage us in a search for a solution. When I was in college, I experienced friction climbing which can be a very unnerving experience. It involves walking on steep rocks that offer no handholds or footholds, and you climb without ropes or anything else to hold you up. Rather, you depend upon friction to keep you from slipping down the rock.
You must put all of your weight on your feet in order to have enough friction to keep from slipping. The problem is you want to lean on your hands because you fear that your feet will slip! When I was in that situation, I desperately wanted something to hold on to, like a tree or even a clump of grass, anything that offered some sense of stability. Once I got to a place in the rock that had the tiniest of ridges in it, I was finally able to rest because I had escaped the slippery areas.
In the same way, doubt or uncertainty can be like trying to stand on a slippery hill. No one has to tell you to try to find something that offers stability. You automatically begin the search. When you experience intellectual or emotional disharmony or surprise, no one has to convince you to try to work it out. You naturally begin to inquire until you have resolved that puzzle.
Puzzles in Preaching
So how might we use this strategy to address our puzzle about internally-motivated listeners in preaching? Peirce’s strategy would suggest that a sermon that begins with a puzzle – with something that doesn’t fit our expectation – is a sermon to which we naturally would want to listen. For example, we might focus people’s attention on the statement of Scripture that if we ask God in faith for something, He will give it to us. It is an incredible promise! The problem is that we have all known times in our lives when we prayed for good things and they didn’t come. Perhaps we prayed for someone to be healed from cancer, or to be released from the grips of depression, or to come to a saving knowledge of Christ.
On the one hand, we say we believe the Bible can be fully trusted, and it seems to promise us that we can have what we ask for in faith. On the other hand, we know all too well the times when our prayers, prayed with the best faith we can muster, went unanswered. So we ask, what is wrong? Do we just not have enough faith? Or is the Bible not as reliable as it appears? Does that mean other things that seem so obvious in the Bible aren’t actually what they appear to be?
With an introduction like this, people feel again the slippery hill they’ve been on before, and they are looking for something to hold on to that will give them a solid footing again. They are anxiously awaiting the answer – the truth – you can offer to give them stability again.
Having raised this puzzle, the task of the sermon is to resolve it using Scripture. You’ve made the implicit promise to your listeners to resolve this puzzle. If you sit down before you solve the puzzle to their satisfaction, they’ll feel cheated because you’ve failed to do as you promised. On the other hand, if you solve this puzzle but keep talking, they’ll naturally be inclined to look for the clock since the puzzle has been solved and their natural desire to hear you already has been satisfied.
How to start a sermon with a puzzle
Given the power of puzzles to initiate internally motivated learning, how do we do it? I propose a three step process for developing a sermon that prompts listeners to be highly motivated to listen.
1. Identify the big idea of the biblical passage.
2. Identify a puzzle in life that this biblical idea solves (without solving the puzzle yet).
3. Determine how this passage solves the puzzle.
The sermon itself will embody the big idea (step 1) by starting with the puzzle (step 2) and then resolving the puzzle (step 3).
Identify an Idea
In preaching, our most critical step is to identify what we have to say. The idea we want to help people see or understand is the foundation for the rest of the building. Once we find it, then the rest should be built on top of it. Without a clear idea, the rest of our work may just result in noise, or perhaps when done very well it may be mere entertainment. When time and distraction do the work of erosion, the effect of a sermon without a sound foundation will crumble and wash away.
Furthermore, in expository preaching the idea we preach must be the idea of the passage we are preaching. We must find what the original author was saying about God and people. For example, let’s consider Paul’s discussion of his ministry in the latter part of 2 Corinthians. In
Then he does a very surprising thing. He boasts about unanswered prayer. In
Paul’s idea is that humility is your greatest asset, for when you recognize your weakness, God’s strength can be active in you. So the greatest good God could offer to Paul regarding this thorn, this ongoing problem, was to leave it there! One way to express the idea of this passage is that things that humble us are really our greatest strength, for they allow God’s strength to be made perfect in us. So to preach an expository sermon on this passage, this idea must be the point of the message.
Note this first step takes place before we preach. In fact, it should come at the beginning of our preparation. We cannot build the sermon without being clear on what the heart of the message should be.
Identify a puzzle in life
Once we know what we want to communicate, we need to identify a puzzle or problem in life that this biblical idea solves. In preparing the sermon, we are playing the game of Jeopardy. That is, we’re looking for the question for which this passage is the answer. In particular, we’re looking for a puzzle that hits home in people’s lives, one that perhaps has kept them awake at night or that gives them indigestion when they think of it.
Like the leaf in the middle of the trail, the more surprising and intriguing the puzzle, the more engaged they’ll become. Or like the slippery slope, the more poignantly they feel that instability, the more actively they’ll be searching for a solution.
So given the idea that, “What humbles us can unleash God’s power in our lives,” what is the puzzle? One approach would be to highlight the idea of unanswered prayer as described above. People have longstanding issues in their lives that they’ve been praying God would resolve. Perhaps it is a longstanding health problem. Perhaps it is depression, great disappointment, regret, or grief. Perhaps it is a relationship that isn’t what it should be.
Whatever the issue, we pray and we pray. We long for resolution, but often we continue to live with the problem. It may even get worse. The more time that goes by, the weaker our faith becomes. We get discouraged and we begin to lose hope. We wonder, “Why doesn’t God answer our prayer? He said He would. Does He not care about me? Do I not matter? Is it foolish to continue to hope He will help me?”
Once you’ve identified this puzzle, you’ve essentially written the introduction to your sermon. It engages your listeners, setting them up for the answer that the passage presents.
Determine how the passages solves the puzzle
Once your listeners are engaged in this puzzle, they will be motivated to solve it. They will be sitting on the edge of their seats to hear what you have to say. Many of them are living in that puzzle even as you speak. Now you have the joy to help them see how the passage you’re considering solves that puzzle.
You can point out Paul lived in this exact same puzzle. He repeatedly begged God to remove this problem and God did not. Then the puzzle was resolved for Paul, not by removing the problem but by changing how he thought about it. The light was turned on and He had peace. It all made sense. What was that solution?
It is at this point that you can introduce the idea of the passage: What humbles us unleashes the power of God in our lives. God’s power is made perfect in weakness. In contrast, God’s power is not known in human strength. The power of Christ rests on us when we are in the midst of our weakness! “For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
This solution to the puzzle brings satisfaction to our curiosity, but it also brings health to our souls as we humble ourselves before God to find His strength. So how do we preach so our listeners are highly motivated to learn? According to Peirce, internally-motivated learning begins with a puzzle. When people see and experience something that causes them to wrestle with an idea or situation in life, they naturally begin the process of searching for a solution.
A sermon that begins with a powerful puzzle is one that draws people naturally to the desire to hear what comes next and to understand how it all fits together. People are convinced the world should make sense. They want to believe God is good and can be trusted even in the midst of a confusing world. So when you highlight the puzzle and suggest the Bible contains a solution to that puzzle, they’ll gladly listen.
We then have the joy of solving that puzzle with the truth of the Bible! As we do this, people gladly will join us for the journey through the text, and when they next encounter this puzzle in life, God’s truth will shape their response.