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

What is the point of the sermon? What does the average listener hope to receive from it? What does the average preacher want from it?

For me, as a hearer, I want to learn something. I don’t expect the message to be a brand new revelation every week, but I hope for something that makes me see things in a new way (which can also be called repentance). Of course, I am not simply speaking of “head knowledge” but learning that leads to transformation. I want to be in a lifelong process of becoming more like Jesus. The sermon should be one of the tools moving me in that direction.

Obviously, this has to do with the Holy Spirit. The teacher/preacher was hopefully open to the Holy Spirit while preparing, and I am hopefully open to the work of the Spirit while I listen. And in both instances, an ongoing encouraging of that relationship with the Spirit is crucial. God can break through my hardheartedness at any time he chooses. But fostering that relationship throughout the week will put me in a much more likely place to hear him. 

All that said, I like an engaging sermon far more than a boring sermon. I prefer that the speaker (which could be a man or a woman) has worked on their craft and puts effort into being a good communicator.

Over the past few decades, technology has increased the “entertainment quality” of the sermon. Often that is spurred by mega-churches or conferences. People see what can be done and then try to scale it for their congregation. (I know I read more than a few books and articles on creating better slide presentations back in the day.)

But here’s the thing. A study was published recently that essentially examined how learning happened with what the study referred to as “fluent” and “disfluent” instructors. Basically, speakers using strategies to hold people’s attention and speakers who were not.  The study was clearly looking at teaching within classroom settings, but there is a clear correlation to the sermon.  One of the critical issues the study looked at was the issue of overconfidence. Here is a quote from the research:

Understanding the factors contributing to overconfidence is important, as overconfidence could have the potential for detrimental consequences in educational settings. If students do not have a good grasp of what they know and do not know, for example, they may not develop the skills needed to effectively regulate their own learning. (Page 3)

Instructor fluency leads to higher confidence in learning, but not better learning

Again, that clearly applies to church settings as well.

So, what did the study find? A couple of crucial things:

1) Students learned the same amount regardless of whether the speaker was fluent or disfluent. Likewise, retention of what was learned was not impacted.

2) However, those who watched the fluent speaker believed they learned more than they did. What the study referred to as an “illusion of learning”. People who watch/hear a better (more fluent) speaker don’t learn any more than those who hear the same information in a less fluent manner. They do become overconfident and think they know more than they do.  I want to look a bit more at this issue tomorrow. But for now, a couple of things I am thinking about:

One of the qualities of Jesus followers is humility. If one of the core things the church does, the sermon, is fostering overconfidence in people, that needs to be addressed. (Understand I am not advocating for boring sermons…we have enough of them). 

It is abundantly clear on social media and elsewhere (online and in-person) that far too many who call themselves Christians, suffer from overconfidence and communicate in a manner that is arrogant, condescending, angry, and unloving. I am not saying that good sermons are the cause of this. There were arrogant, condescending, angry, and unloving people calling themselves Christians before the internet or PowerPoint.

If something central to the life of a church is leading overconfidence (rather than humility), should that be addressed?

As I mentioned, I dig a bit more into this tomorrow. In the meantime, any thoughts?

[if you missed it above the research cited can be found here: Instructor fluency leads to higher confidence in learning, but not better learning.}

Photo Credit: Photo by Teemu Paananen on Unsplash