?A revolutionary methodology of preaching delivery is gaining momentum in the evangelical community. It is called multi-sensory because it interfaces with multiple senses. Unlike conventional preaching, which stimulates only the sense of hearing, multi-sensory communication stimulates multiple senses, i.e. the senses of hearing, seeing, touching and sometimes even smell and taste.
Welcome to the Revolution
Instead of engaging only the ears of your congregation, multi-sensory communication enables you to engage their ears, eyes and hands; and it brings more of the whole person into the learning process.
Conventional teaching engages only hearing. Multi-sensory teaching engages hearing, seeing and touch.
The identifying characteristic of multi-sensory preaching is the use of props, object lessons, interactive tools, video clips, drama, art, music, thematic backdrops, food, water, smells and other creative elements that stimulate sensory perception. A growing number of pastor-teachers are making use of multi-sensory communication to elevate the impact of their teaching, and they are doing so without compromising the integrity of biblical teaching.
In this series of articles, we will examine the why and how of multi-sensory preaching. We will present neurological, cognitive and theological research to show why it can elevate the level of your communication. Then, we will show how you can easily incorporate it into your preaching, especially if you are an expository preacher.
Sensitive to the Senses
Simply put, the multi-sensory teacher recognizes the senses as information receptors. In other words, the senses act as antennas, which receive information, and then transmit that information to the brain for processing, learning and action.
With that neurological fact in mind, the multi-sensory teacher aims his teaching at as many of those receptors as possible, knowing the more senses he stimulates in the teaching, the higher the levels of learning in the audience.
In addition, the multi-sensory teacher understands that people have learning preferences by which they prefer to learn and by which they learn best. Stated another way: Some people in our congregations prefer to learn by hearing; others need to see the concept in order to learn it; still many learn best by interacting with the teacher. Bible teacher John MacArthur reminds us of learning preferences when he writes: “How do you learn best? Preferences vary from person to person.”1
The multi-sensory communicator is sensitive to individual learning preferences and strategically plans his teaching to connect with all learners in his audience, not just some of them. Recognizing that a congregation will be filled with auditory learners, visual learners and interactive learners, the multi-sensory teacher varies his teaching style and mixes verbal, visual and interactive elements in his communication.
Great Bible teachers know their objective when they step up to the plate to teach. Like a baseball hitter stepping to the plate with the goal of crossing home plate, great Bible teachers come to the plate desiring to produce doers of the Word. They also know there is a path that leads to producing such doers. In fact, the path for leading your audience to action is a lot like taking them around a baseball diamond. A three-base sequence of communication objectives leads a congregation to action. Educators refer to this sequence as Blooms taxonomy of learning objectives. Lets look at that sequence.
First base in the communication sequence is gaining audience attention. An audience that has not paid attention will be hard pressed to apply what they have been taught. If the teacher loses the battle for attention, he loses the war for action.
Second base in the communication sequence is audience comprehension. Comprehension asks, “Did the audience understand what was being communicated?” Was it crystal clear? It is not enough for the congregation to be mentally engaged to the teaching; they must mentally comprehend the teaching. An audience will not be able to act on what they do not understand.
Third base is audience retention. Retention asks, “Will the audience remember what was taught? Retention is the “after effect” of learning that makes recall possible. Effective teaching is memorable and recallable. It is impossible for people to act on what they cannot remember.
Home plate is crossed when our audience or congregation actually does what we have taught them from the Word.
THE DAY I CHANGED IN THE PULPIT
I couldn’t believe the effect! People were literally sitting on the edge of their seats as they followed my sermon. I was taking a risk, but it was a risk I felt I had to take. Slip into the scene: I was the pastor of a large, multi-cultural congregation in Miami, Fla., and I was about to attempt my first multi-sensory sermon. In my quiet time, I noticed Jesus was a multi-sensory teacher. He combined verbal, visual and interactive communication to produce this powerful effect. So, I decided to experiment with His model in the exposition of a biblical text. Here’s how I prepared for the experiment.
Before the service, I set the stage area with some very simple visual props. I also asked the ushers to give everyone coming into the auditorium a small instrument by which they would interact with the message. As people began entering the worship center, attention levels immediately heightened because the stage that had looked the same for years suddenly looked different. Now there were props and visual aids atop the platform. People entered the room whispering and asking questions to one another regarding what it meant. They weren’t sure what to expect.
Witnessing the Multi-sensory Effect
Now, it was time to see if my risk would pay off. As I began to teach using the simple visuals I had placed on the stage, I saw something that took me by surprise. People were actually leaning forward, as if on the edge of their seats with interest. They were not just listening to me; they were watching me, as if I was doing something that they just had to see.
It was patently clear, audience attention levels were elevated. Later in the message, attention levels seemed to heighten even more as they interacted with the instrument that had been given to them. At this point, the audience seemed incapable of distraction. In fact, the only person who seemed distracted was me! I was momentarily distracted by the audience response. In the midst of my teaching, it occurred to me that they weren’t merely using their ears; they were now engaging their ears, their eyes and their hands. They were not passively engaged; they were aggressively engaged. They were not partially engaged; they appeared totally engaged-absorbed!
It was also obvious that audience comprehension levels were elevated. After the message, a number of people came up and said, “Rick, I really understood what you were saying because it was so visual and interactive.” One lady who was brand new to our church said to me, “I am a visual learner, and all the visuals helped make things crystal clear for me.” Based on these anecdotal testimonies, the multi-sensory teaching had not only impacted attention levels but had also raised comprehension levels.
The “Aha Moment”
Weeks later, I noticed that people were still talking about that message. In fact, it was the buzz around Christ Fellowship for some time. Then, the correlation hit me like a hammer between the eyes.
The multi-sensory sermon had not only elevated attention and comprehension levels but it had also increased retention levels. The verbal presentation combined with the power of visuals and hands-on interaction made the information stick like Velcro. The audience was able to remember what was taught in the sermon because they heard it, saw it and interacted with it. It seemed like the more senses I stirred in the teaching; the more the
TESTING THE MULTI-SENSORY EFFECT
I had a hunch that multi-sensory communication would elevate levels of audience attention, comprehension and retention. I had a hunch, but cold I prove it?
Working alongside my doctoral (Ed.D.) advisors at Southern Seminary located in Louisville, Ky., we came up with a research design that would either validate the effect of multi-sensory teaching or invalidate it. The experiment would seek to determine if multi-sensory teaching outperforms lecture in terms of the effect on congregational attention, comprehension and retention.
In other words, do learning levels increase when sensory stimulation increases?
I Had the Perfect Laboratory
I had the perfect laboratory to test the effect. As the senior pastor of Christ Fellowship, Miami, Fla., I had the perfect context to research and test the multi-sensory teaching theory. Christ Fellowship is a multi-cultural megachurch. At the time I conducted the research, it had people from 61 different nationalities in the membership-presently we have 76.
Speaking at Christ Fellowship may be as close to the scene of Revelation 5:9 as one can get on this earth: “from every tribe and language and people and nation.” This audience offered me a test population that would be difficult to find in any other setting.
• I had a large congregation to test.
• The test sample encompassed adults from 61 different nationalities.
• I had a cross section of race, age and culture.
• I had three services to test three different teaching methodologies.
• I would deliver nine sermons.
• I would perform the test not once but three times to ensure accuracy.
Many similar research projects proceed with much smaller audience samples. Such research, if conducted thoroughly and with integrity, is respected among researchers. The smaller sample population, however, greatly limits the application that can be made to other learning contexts. By having a large congregation to test, with adults from 61 different nationalities, application of the findings can be applied to a much wider scale. Though
we don’t claim inerrancy for the test, it was conducted with stringent integrity!
Setting Up the Test
In order to test the effects of multi-sensory teaching, three types of sermon delivery were planned. The content would be the same in all three sermons, but the delivery techniques would be different. The three communication techniques would be referred to as:
Verbal: Lecture-style teaching delivered in a verbal form, which consequently connects only to the congregation’s sense of hearing.
Verbal + Visual: Teaching delivered in a verbal + visual form, which consequently connects to the congregation’s sense of hearing and seeing.
Verbal + Visual + Interactive: Teaching delivered in a verbal + visual + interactive form, which consequently connects to the congregation’s sense of hearing, seeing and touch.
To evaluate the effectiveness of these three teaching styles, we created a series of tests that would measure attention levels, comprehension levels and retention levels. The test was conducted three times to ensure reliability. We then assembled a team of professors, pastors and other educators to oversee the experiment and to ensure accuracy and integrity. Again, we treated the audience with (1) Verbal communication, (2) Verbal + Visual communication and (3) Verbal + Visual + Interactive communication.
Then we measured and compared attention levels, comprehension levels and retention levels between the teaching styles. It was during this research that we saw the multi-sensory effect emerge as a powerful form of teaching.
To be straightforward with the reader, we anticipated better learning scores among those who were taught using multi-sensory communication. The effect, however, was more powerful than we imagined. The learning differences between those exposed to lecture and those treated with multi-sensory communication was absolutely astonishing! Our statistician told us that what we had found was highly significant!
There is more discussion on how this research was conducted and how the results unfolded in the book, but here’s the water cooler conversation. Those who were treated with multi-sensory communication clearly had higher levels of attention, higher levels of understanding, and longer lasting memory of what was taught. In fact, the difference was so great that the results came in mostly at the .001 level.
Let me quote my friend and ministry colleague Eric Geiger about these kinds of findings: “When a researcher discovers a relationship at the .05 level, he calls a friend and brags about it. When he finds something at the .01 levels, he calls his publicist and prepares to write a book. Finding something at the .001 level does not happen often. If you’re a stats person, it’s called highly significant!”
Attention Results Averaged
The average attention levels for the three weeks of testing demonstrated that multi-sensory communication consistently outperformed lecture delivery. On average, attention levels were 142 percent higher when the audience was treated with Verbal + Visual Communication as opposed to just Verbal Communication.
Comprehension Results Averaged
The average comprehension levels for the three weeks of testing demonstrated that multi-sensory communication consistently outperformed lecture delivery. On average, attention levels were 76.1 percent higher when the audience was treated with Verbal + Visual + Interactive Communication as opposed to just Verbal Communication.
Retention Results Averaged
The average retention levels for the three weeks of testing demonstrated that multi-sensory communication consistently outperformed lecture delivery. On average, attention levels were 74.6 percent higher when the audience was treated with Verbal + Visual + Interactive Communication as opposed to just Verbal Communication.
There is a heated debate in evangelical churches about the use of multi-sensory preaching. Sides are taken, and theological swords have been drawn. In this brief section, we simply want to be biblically sensible. The goal is to answer this question: Does the Bible forbid the use of multi-sensory preaching?
God Is a Multi-sensory Communicator
Thumb through the pages of the Old Testament, and you quickly discover that God is into multi-sensory communication. In fact, He is the pioneer of multi-sensory communication. God designed us with multiple senses to receive information from the environment, and He constantly seeks to connect to those sensory receptors.
Multi-sensory Natural Revelation: God teaches us about Himself from what we hear, see, touch, smell, taste. This is what theologians refer to as natural revelation because God is revealing Himself and teaching us through what we sense from nature. The multi-sensory nature of creation captivates our attention, helps clarify our understanding of God, and is absolutely unforgettable. Edwin Hubble said, “Equipped with five senses, man explores the universe around him and calls the adventure science.” God gave us this amazing universe; He communicates the universe through sound, vision, feel, smell and taste; and He gave us the five corresponding senses to perceive it.
Multi-sensory Special Revelation: God also teaches us in a multi-sensory form when it comes to special revelation, i.e. the Bible. All through the Old Testament, God taught theological and practical truth though the medium of multi-sensory communication. His sensory teachings were graphic, explicit and directly connected to the truth He wanted to communicate.
For example, God often called on His prophets to use extreme multi-sensory teaching methodologies in order to connect to the audience He wished to impact. The prophets used verbal communication mixed with visual elements as well as interactive techniques to heighten the levels of attention, understanding and memory of the people.
Hosea: Drama Ahead of its Time: For those of you who imagine drama is an unscriptural form of teaching, you need to read the Book of Hosea. In this book, God is the teacher; and to make the lesson stick, God uses a real-life drama. God Himself sets up this real-life multi-sensory sermon by having Hosea marry an adulteress woman.
Jeremiah: Video Ahead of its Time: This teaching prophet was called by God to carry an ox yoke on the nape of his neck, and the image spoke to the people as graphically as possible. Calvin Miller writes, “This image was video ahead of its time.”2 God was using Jeremiah as a walking, three-dimensional, visual object lesson to teach Israel a truth.
One could find other multi-sensory teaching examples in the Bible from God. The entire tabernacle set up, which was prescribed by God, was a visual picture of the worship of heaven. The Passover drama played out in Egypt was a visual picture of the blood of the Lamb of God on the cross. The pastor who teaches in a multi-sensory form is not mimicking the culture-he is mimicking the Creator.
Jesus Was a Multi-sensory Teacher
Few teachers relied on the power of multi-sensory teaching any more than Jesus. What we are seeing today in terms of multi-sensory teaching is not so much a revolution as it is a revival. Jesus used vines, branches, coins, water, wheat, wheat fields, children and all sorts of visual aids to graphically communicate divine truth. Roy Zuck of Dallas Theological Seminary discusses the teaching methods of Jesus:
How did Jesus engage such attention? His teaching competence is seen in His creative use of variation in teaching patterns, the way He involved His learners and His appeal to the visual.
Teachers today do well to learn from Jesus’ teaching by stimulating and motivating their students, varying their
methods, encouraging learners to participate and visualizing what they verbalize.3
New Testament Ordinances Are Multi-sensory
The ordinance of baptism paints a visual picture of a theological reality. We even remind our congregations that baptism is a picture of the death, burial and resurrection of our Lord Jesus. They say, “a picture paints a thousand words,” and baptism does just that. It is an explicit image of a great theological truth.
The Lord’s Supper is even more multi-sensory. The bread is a picture of Christ body, and the juice is a picture of His blood. But it’s more than just verbal and visual; it’s also interactive. The congregation interacts with the teaching by eating the bread and drinking the juice. In addition, there is the stimulation of the senses of taste and possibly smell. The Lord’s Supper is the ultimate form of multi-sensory teaching because it interfaces with all five of our senses: hearing, seeing, touching, tasting and maybe even smelling. Talk about graphic!
THE POWER OF EXPOSITION AND MULTI-SENSORY COMMUNICATION
Some people imagine that multi-sensory preaching is exclusively for topical preaching or even for preaching that lacks biblical content. Nothing could be further from the truth. We have found at Christ Fellowship a perfect marriage between verse-by-verse exposition and multi-sensory communication. The Bible carries the power of God; but when we connect it to communication that is captivating, clear and unforgettable the effect is life changing and church changing.
1. MacArthur, John. Why Government Can’t Save You: An Alternative to Political Activism (Nashville: Word Publishing, 2000), 69.
2. Miller, Calvin. The Empowered Communicator: Seven Keys to Unlocking an Audience (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1994), 15-16.
3. Zuck, Roy B. Teaching as Paul Taught (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1998), 178.