When you stand to preach, what happens? Are all your parishioners docile receivers waiting with open hearts? Is all resistance melted? Does all indifference and hostility evaporate when the congregation enters the sanctuary?
What happens in the brains of your parishioners? Is the pew your regular meeting place for full, open and friendly sharing? Or does the congregation bring elements of challenge, resistance and encounter to Morning Worship?
Is everyone as eager to hear your sermon as you are to preach it? Or are there built-in barriers for even the best-built, most creatively constructed sermon?
Even a partial overview of scientific literature can shed light on these questions and solve the problem of getting through to our people. Recent brain research unveils long-standing mysteries about how, when, and why people listen and respond as they do. Or why they don’t.
When we preach today, we face the challenge of the triple brain. We’ve all heard much in recent years about right and left brain, but what is this about a triple brain? Current literature discusses the three levels of the human brain as R-complex, the limbic system, and the cerebrum.
The brain stem or R-complex constitutes the innermost, basic, lowest level of the human brain. The limbic system or middle area of the brain contains the emotions, feelings and motivational aspects of life. The cerebrum can boast of its highly developed, most human part of the brain we usually think about as our intellectual power — that heritage separating us from the lower animals.
Every human being has all three parts of the brain. So unless your congregation stacks heads in the narthex before the service, they bring all three to church. And that means we ought to recognize the implications for our preaching.
I. The R-Complex
The R-complex produces instinctive behavior. For example, we automatically shorten our breaths, we reduce the stroke of our gestures, we unconsciously keep our hands nearer our bodies when we encounter anyone who causes us tension.
The chief concern of the R-complex part of our brain is comfort level. A reptile with only its R-complex brain can find the warmer rock if temperature varies but 1/1000th of a degree. Some parishioners seem to carry such comfort gauges in their pockets.
Here you face a basic characteristic of people in the pew. Everyone has the innate urge to get comfortable. Be aware of the force of this native bent. It’s more than a problem — it’s human nature.
We walk a fine line of brinkmanship when we preach. We need to capture and hold their attention. We may need to keep jabbing them into continued consciousness. We must be graphic to sustain their interest, keeping them awake without alienating them.
Do you have a knack for using discomforting words? Snarl words, growl words like scab, scowl, scum, greed, grasping, and grouchy may become cockleburs under the saddle. Be aware of the congregation’s comfort level. Why turn them off before they hear our message?
This brain-stem level of consciousness called the R-complex can yawn with closed mouth. It can sleep without blinking, staring piously straight ahead. This lowest level of human awareness may enable listeners to accept your preaching passively without response, involvement or participation.
Do creaturely comforts constitute your congregation’s highest level of awareness? Possibly. This R-complex part of the brain always goes to church.
2. The Limbic System
The limbic system or “visceral brain,” closely connected to control centers for drive and emotion, responds to the feeling level of the sermon. Everyone feels. Even the genius yearns to share emotions. Sometimes feelings are throttled; sometimes they race unbridled; but everyone feels.
Jesus says, “Come to me all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Mt. 11:28-30 NIV).
The emotional level rises in these feeling words of Jesus. Where is their logical appeal? You’ll find none. Here the appeal is to feeling — universal feelings, rather than to the intellect.
Some preachers depreciate feeling as second rate. For others, emotions seem to constitute the total appeal.
Educators estimate the emotions influence from 40-85% of all our real life, but formal education devotes only 5-10% of instructional activity to this affective domain. Probably 85-90% of school activity is devoted to developing our cognitive domain. However the influence of the intellectual realm in our real life is only about 20-30%.
How should we appeal to the emotional, limbic system of our listener’s brain? Emotional appeals come in two broad types: Faith-promises and Fear-threats. Aristotle’s discussion of opposites in motivation along with subsequent studies underscore this wide range of feeling.
Emotional appeals and strong feeling seep out of Scripture like water from a saturated sponge. Deep feeling and lofty thought combine in the Bible. From Genesis to Revelation strong contrasting emotions stand in apposition like magnetic fields:
Ivy League research a few years ago showed optimists responding more to the promises. Pessimists react more to threats. A modern congregation will have people from both orientations so we’ll need both faith and fear appeals.
Every sermon contains motivational appeals either direct or indirect. They may be strong as a shout or weak as a whisper, but emotions are there.
Jesus appeals by using more promises than threats. Some 60% of the Sermon on the Mount shows faith-promises. About 40% depends on implied fear-threats.
Promises (33,000 of them) fill the Bible. Yet all true prophets in the Bible use some appeal to fear. Most of us need both kinds of appeals to feeling — faith and fear — to move us into action.
Every paragraph of a sermon should contribute either directly or indirectly to the promise of faith or the threat of fear. The raucous 1890 types of fear-threats have lost their credence, their influence in our more sophisticated, scientific age. And the Pollyanna optimism of Horatio Alger leaves something to be desired, too, in the face of global starvation, nuclear war and environmental disaster. But milder forms of feeling appeals bombard us daily.
The experts say the average American faces 600 emotional appeals each week. Every member of the congregation said “No” to 590 appeals for action before coming to church. Now they’re primed to say “No” to your message as well.
How can the minister arouse response acceptably? Reference to life experience arouses feelings and response. But the experiences must be clarified, intensified and made real.
Experience doesn’t become the basis of our message, but it can validate what we’re saying. It can serve as common ground to capture and hold the attention of our listeners. Our emotions are tied to experience.
Sharing experience arouses emotion and guarantees involvement in the sermon. Mutual experience thus becomes both process and content material, serving to heighten their feeling, maintain their interest and secure their personal involvement in our preaching.
The preacher can disarm listeners, establish rapport, gain attention and maintain interest. How?
Spurgeon discovered another way. He learned to preach in an interesting manner by noting the sensory appeals of Isaiah. The prophet appeals to seeing, hearing and feeling primarily. Since Spurgeon suffered from gout he didn’t major on taste and smell appeals.
Style also greatly influences the response to your sermon. We’ve all heard sermons we could almost endure.
Our best preaching style is an oral style. Any good style shows clarity, energy and interest. The oral style of conversation differs markedly from the written style we’re taught in English Comp 101.
The Bible models this kind of oral style. It’s graphic, warm, personal. It’s not clinical, factual and neutral like a formal written style may be.
Other contributing factors affecting the emotional level of a sermon include the speaker’s display of genuine emotions, appeal to memory, imagination, mood, unity, conflict, suggestiveness, emotionality, intensity, reference to experience, and emotional identification.
We see the limbic or feeling level demonstrated in the Bible, in the significant sermons of 20 centuries and in so much of life today. Unheralded, unsung and untutored, it still moves human life and culture as a significant element of the triple brain.
3. The Cerebrum.
This third, better known, and highest cognitive level of the brain is divided into hemispheres. Evidence discovered especially since 1961 indicates the ongoing difference between the two halves of the human brain. “Being of two minds” accounts for much of our intellectual variety and many of our individual differences.
The left hemisphere does the chores — readin’, ‘ritin’ ‘n’ ‘rithmetic. Schools train the left side — language, grammar, math and linear logic. Our culture rewards left brain activities: business, finance, reading, rules and analysis. This is the verbal half.
Right brain activities may be considered second rate by educators: art, music, sports, intuition, feelings, relationships, patterns, imagination and synthesis. This is called the creativity/visual half of the intellect.
TV feeds the right brain. You’re bombarded with stimuli from all sides. Flashbacks, fadeaways and multiple cameras ignore sequence, rules of time — the elements so stable in our reading process.
Most formal education accents the left brain. Seminary training traditionally slights the right hemisphere. Theories, abstractions, theology and homiletics all lean to the port side — solid left.
But the example of Jesus shows right brain accent. He’s visual in his appeals. He cites experience. He relates to persons. He respects individuals much more than tradition, rules and laws of custom.
The words of Jesus comprise twenty percent of the New Testament. His words equal twelve sermons thirty minutes long. That’s enough for us to study. We should be able to find his principles and his priorities for preaching.
The preaching in the first century was largely narrative. Every preacher was prepared to tell the story of his/her life with God’s interventions. However, the second and third centuries turned preaching upside down.
By the start of the fourth century, instead of the narrative preaching of Jesus, of the apostles and of early Church fathers, sermons had become more homily, more hortatory, more homiletical. Greek rhetoric brought into preaching more logical structure, rules of homiletics, universal abstractions and hortatory accent with fewer examples.
So how does right and left brain research relate to preaching? The whole brain accent in Jesus’ preaching to his largely pre-literate audiences may compare vividly with TV appeals today.
Jesus accented the visual rather than mere verbal appeal. He shared deep feeling, intense relationship, many comparisons and those distressing parables from the experiences of daily life. “Without a story Jesus wouldn’t preach,” the New Testament says (Mark 4:34).
Jesus included in his sermons many ingredients characteristic of the right hemisphere of the human brain. Scribes and Pharisees majored on left hemisphere — factual, rules, analytical. Jesus stressed right brain activities — feeling, function, synthesis, relationships.
The Bible itself majors on right brain accent. Remove the narrative content from Scripture and only fragments remain. See the relationships, the broad landscape of life and salvation. The particulars of life lead to general conclusions. The cumulative effect of the unfolding Scripture is like an oriental rug being slowly unrolled in the marketplace. The Bible gradually reveals God’s plan from Eden to the New Jerusalem.
We can find much to challenge us in today’s right and left brain discussions. Such research underscores the need for sensitive, visual, intuitive and varied sermons if we’re going to involve the third level of our listeners’ brains — the cerebrum.
So what implications for preaching do we see in the triple brain challenge? If we look at Jesus and the preachers in the Bible we see the whole brain approach. They preach with an awareness of the comfort-discomfort level. He fed the hungry multitudes upon occasion. The prophets and others relate to needs, desires and the relationships of daily life.
Bible preachers combine a strong cognitive concern with these R-complex and limbic system emphases. But the facts of history are feathered into the narratives of life. Any left brain kind of analysis, rules, abstractions, laws, theories and rigid logic blend with right brain stuff in their sermons.
Our secular culture brings the triple brain to church: R-complex, the limbic system and the two hemispheres of the cerebrum. It’s going to take more than the usual learned, left-hemisphere kind of sermon to hold attention and meet the human need of our secular age. Our traditional preaching too often has appealed to only one part of our congregation’s brains. If we’re going to elicit the kind of response we desire and get across God’s message in an effective and powerful way, then we must remember and preach to every part of the triple brain.

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