Can preaching change behavior? Of course. Can preaching change behavior easily? Of course not. For behavior to change, preaching must deal with issues listeners care about, and the listeners must understand what is said and how it applies to their personal lives.
That's the great challenge of preaching. To reach listeners' concerns, to be understood by them, is no easy task. Every sermon should have some milk to nourish young Christians and some meat to challenge more mature ones. The immature, often unaware of their limitations and easily threatened, need to hear the familiar often enough to ward off their uneasiness. If questions are raised, they want answers, or they're likely to reject the preaching enterprise and the preacher. The "mature," on the other hand, may be impatient with the familiar; they need to be stretched in their thinking, asked questions with no obvious answers, and invited to explore new meanings, relationships, and values.
What keeps listeners tuned in? The most compelling preachers have an intensity arising from a strong conviction that what they are saying is essential. Experienced preachers know more excellent ways to motivate than by seeking belly laughs. The connection between entertainment and motivation is tenuous at best. And besides, entertainment rarely changes behavior.
Three ways of promoting learning and behavioral change
Three research-based concepts help us understand ways to promote learning---and resultant behavior change---from the pulpit.
Positive reinforcement. Consider Elisha encouraging his servant. Here we have a thematic approach for every God-fearing preacher: He who is for us is greater than he who is against us. Reviewing guilt-producing sermons in my files, I flinch; in contrast, memorable messages from influential preachers provide positive reinforcement. While acknowledging that our task is to "afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted," we should steadily assure people of God's loving affirmation. That, more than anything else, can lead to the motivation that will change behavior.
Human curiosity. Everyone has interests to nourish, values to examine, information gaps to fill, and beliefs to strengthen. The preacher needs to discover what will stimulate the listeners (juniors to retirees) to want to know more. Listeners initially come to worship wondering what lies ahead. We need to capitalize on this anticipation, so evident in the crowds that followed Jesus. Imagine their remarks as they returned home: He wrote in the sand, He sat a child on His lap, He rode triumphantly into town, He placed a mud poultice on a blind man's eye.
Unfortunately, some have come to expect nothing at church that illuminates their curiosity or compels them to examine their behavior. Church and preaching lie at the bottom of too many people's must-do lists.
Preaching, therefore, becomes a demanding task. What should encourage preachers, however, is that their listeners bring no life situations to church that have not been addressed in the Bible in narrative, story, or didactic form. The preacher's task is to make the connection, to bring this home to the listeners, to give them the nourishment they need in order to make behavioral changes in their lives.
Illustration. People tend to remember what they understand. Few lives are changed by what seems incomprehensible to them. That's one reason illustrations are so important in preaching. A good illustration helps make abstract ideas concrete and practical. People who hear a preacher say "We need more faith" need a picture of what faith looks like. It should be a highly believable example of someone exercising faith; for example, a family in the congregation that left their homeland to avoid religious oppression. It's worthwhile to picture the family leaving the country, the bank account, the family flat, one suitcase each; working six months in an adjacent country picking grapes, believing that God will lead them to a place where they can practice their faith freely.
In promoting Christian education, for example, a preacher needs to do more than recite a series of "oughts." The oughts need support with examples. It could be Mrs. C, sent off to an Adventist academy at the age of 14 when her parents despaired of con trolling her. "Today, after 60 years of church membership, she is the academy's staunchest supporter. Listen to what she says about the profound effect of her first brush with Adventist education..."
When the preacher juxtaposes an idea with illustration, listeners are more likely to integrate the idea into their own experience. Repeatedly dealing with the same idea or concept in varied settings will emphasize its efficacy.
Congregational participation and over-learning
Revelation seminars have helped us understand the importance of active participation in learning. Studying lesson sheets, getting to ask questions and hearing peers' comments promote a searching, empowering experience. Participants "over-learn" to the point of being able to make connections between new data and threads of history, morality, values, and the "God-consciousness" that they bring with them.
Providing handouts in the church bulletin related to the sermon involves the listeners with meaningful sermon material. For example, if we're looking at a biblical passage dealing with God's providence, the handout may ask the worshipers to recall a time when they experienced or observed God's providence at work. If our theme is church worship, a series of items may ask for a priority rating like this one: Which would you prefer in church: (1) a prayer that is read, (2) a repetition of the Lord's Prayer, (3) a halting prayer by a child, (4) a prayer that lasts five minutes. Each item will have proponents and opponents and is worthy of consideration.
It is crucial that listeners repeatedly see a loving, caring, fair God in sermons. This over-learning about God becomes lifesaving when a traumatic experience comes that would blemish or distort the picture of God as portrayed in Scripture. Here is where preaching can make a significant difference, really changing someone's behavior. Facing the cruel twists of life, listeners are fortified by biblical concepts that have been reiterated in different garbs and guises so that they become immovable reference points.
Handling controversial concepts
When controversial issues arise, with characteristic major misunderstandings accompanying them, it's often important to explore the assumptions fueling the problem. For example, those who assume verbal inspiration of the Bible will produce interpretations quite different from those who assume thought inspiration. There's no point in arguing about interpretations when the assumptions have not been examined.
Helping listeners handle important ideas relating to difficult concepts such as the inspiration of the Bible or styles of worship is one of the preacher's greatest challenges. To pose a concept, the preacher brings together shared features of otherwise discrete events. For example, what relationship does "good worship" have with involvement and participation, music, prayer, praise, giving, enjoyment, and/or confrontation?
Valuable communicative resources
In an age of visual/oral stimulation, a sermon accompanied by visual material and/or worksheets enriches the teaching setting. In a recent series, I used a large poster as a visual chart every Sabbath, each week adding a feature to the chart. Every week's bulletin included a homework hand out for the next week's sermon.
Another valuable resource for concept preaching is church history. In a series of sermons on church history, we traced the development of concepts regarding spiritual experience in the reformed church of Europe and the subsequent immigration to America of people with distinctive ideas about spiritual experience. One group particularly rich for study was the German pietistic community of Ephrata, Pennsylvania. We looked at its influence on later spiritual experience in several denominations.
A case study approach, typical in law school, provides a high-interest level, particularly when we see its modern parallels. Consider themes of submission, forgiveness, compassion, deceit, and anger in the family stories in the Old Testament.
Looking prayerfully and thoughtfully at preaching, we should be humbled by its demands. The challenge is not just to dispense information, even good information. The challenge is to dispense it in a way that can change lives. Of course, it is staggering even to presume that we finite creatures can deal effectively with the questions of sinners in the light of the person of God in Jesus. But that's what we are told to do; that's what preachers have done for centuries. Countless souls have been blessed and saved; countless lives have been impacted for the good; and an untold number of behavior patterns changed. To see God's presence thus demonstrated in believers' lives and to see this reality manifested in the way people behave—this becomes the essential reward of the preacher.
Can preaching change behavior?
It had better!
This article is the final of a three-part series.