Thinking like a Scientist

This is post number five in a series I am writing about sermons. (you can find others in this series here.) Yesterday I wrote about a study on learning and overconfidence. The idea was that people who see a more polished presentation do not learn or retain any more than those who see a boring presentation. […]

by bob

Aug 10, 2021

This is post number five in a series I am writing about sermons. (you can find others in this series here.)

Yesterday I wrote about a study on learning and overconfidence. The idea was that people who see a more polished presentation do not learn or retain any more than those who see a boring presentation. The big takeaway was that those who see the more polished presentation think they learned more than they did.

Since I first heard about that study, I wondered how that impacts people who listen to a well-written and well-presented sermon. Especially now that technology to vastly improve presentations, and sermons that can be downloaded with a click are both readily available.

I also pointed out that far too often, the interactions of Christians online (and in-person) are not only overconfident but arrogant and condescending. And while there are clearly humble, loving Jesus followers communicating out there, they tend to be drowned out (and often attacked) by the first group.

That made me think of two books written by scientists. First was Adam Grant’s recent book “Think Again”. In the book, he cites a colleague who discovered that when people talk, their tendency is to slip into one of three different mindsets.

We go into preacher mode when our sacred beliefs are in jeopardy: we deliver sermons to protect and promote our ideals. We enter prosecutor mode when we recognise flaws in other people’s reasoning: we marshal arguments to prove them wrong and win our case. We shift into politician mode when we’re seeking to win over an audience: we campaign and lobby for the approval of our constituents.

Think Again by Adam Grant (p. 18)

His point is that we spend so much time defending our beliefs, telling others that they are wrong, and trying to convince people to our point of view that we never stop to reexamine our beliefs.

Grant suggests instead of preacher, prosecutor, or politician, we instead go into scientist mode. He writes:

We move into scientist mode when we’re searching for truth: we run experiments, to test hypotheses and discover truth.

Think Again by Adam Grant (p. 20)

Sadly, the church has a history of not being a place for this type of discovery. Doubts and questions aren’t allowed; just believe what we tell you.

But the way we come to maturity is not simply believing what some authority figure tells us to believe; it is when we discover truth for ourselves. That is when it becomes part of us and changes us.

Now, perhaps some reading this are thinking, okay, Grant may be a solid psychologist, and the education research was interesting, but that has nothing to do with church…or sermons.

The other scientist…a doctor named Luke, who wrote a couple of books called Luke and Acts, and he says this:

11 Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true. 12 As a result, many of them believed, as did also a number of prominent Greek women and many Greek men.

– Acts 17:11–12

I’ve been in a lot of pastor’s meetings over the years. And a common complaint is that people hear sermons, but it doesn’t make a difference. And for the most part, they are right. And doing “better sermons” does not seem to be the answer either.

One key difference between a classroom and a sermon is that the classroom tends to be somewhat interactive. The sermon usually involves a passively consumed monologue. A second difference is that those hearing classroom lectures will be graded on what was taught. We can generally forget a sermon the moment we leave and experience no tangible consequence.

So if you were trying to help Jesus followers change their mindset to be more like a scientist or a Berean, what are some things you might try?

photo credit: Photo by CDC on Unsplash

What about…

I grew up in Western New York and have started and led missional church planting efforts for a little over 30 years. As you might gather, I have opinions about the church, and I share some of them here.

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