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Three reasons even the most engaging sermons don't lead to change

Three reasons even the most engaging  sermons don't lead to change

Some events on Sunday morning are completely outside of your control: The fidgety infant. Sudden technology malfunctions. A snowy day. A stormy day. A beautiful day.

And then there’s the part of Sunday over which you have full control (with the partnership of the Holy Spirit)—the sermon. You can preach what feels like a great sermon and people respond enthusiastically but when they return next week, they can’t recall anything that you said, and they haven’t taken any action.

Sunday after Sunday, you pour your heart out, people leave excited, but then they come back the next week (and even for months and years) and you can tell that your messages haven’t really stuck. It’s exhausting, isn’t it? Why do we even bother, if nothing ever seems to change?

It’s not that people don’t want to change. But change is hard. It always involves struggle, and most people avoid that like the plague.

Research has shown that there are three things that make it hard for people to change:

    • They aren’t sure exactly what steps need to be taken. What can look like resistance can be a lack of clarity about what needs to be done.
    • They aren’t emotionally connected to the idea of change. Just presenting information is not enough, they must be engaged emotionally.
    • They face obstacles that make it difficult to change. Sometimes by just removing these, change becomes easier and more likely to happen.

Ways to preach that lead to real change.

There are three things you must do to make it possible for people to undertake the change you’re asking them to make.


Big changes aren’t made with big solutions. They’re made with a sequence of SMALL STEPS, usually made over a series of weeks, months, and years.

The best way to help people undertake a big change is to narrow the focus of what you cover, ideally giving people 3-5 concrete steps to follow.

And never assume the steps are obvious. Craft the steps so all ambiguity is eliminated. If there is any uncertainty, people will fall back to the way that is familiar and comfortable.

Example: During his team’s practices, John Wooden, the legendary basketball coach of UCLA, ran a series of short 5- to 15-minute drills where he would explain in clear detail what to do, demonstrate it, and then have the players repeatedly do it until they got it right. His philosophy was to break the game of basketball into small chunks and teach one chunk at a time. One of his sayings was “Don’t look for the big improvement. Seek the small improvement one day at a time. That’s the only way it happens—and when it happens, it lasts.”


Using SMALL STEPS removes uncertainty, but it usually isn’t enough to motivate people to begin to change. To do that, you need to appeal to people’s hearts, not just their minds.

The best way to make an emotional connection is to tell stories that provide MENTAL IMAGES of a better future. These stories should lead people to think things like, “If that person can do it, so can I” and “I want to be like that.”

Make sure that the stories you tell are true and positive. But also make sure you include everything that is relevant to the outcome, even the negative parts. Stories that paint only a rosy picture don’t ring true and won’t be effective.

Example: Robyn Waters was hired by Target in the early 1990’s to make its clothing merchandise more fashionable. To get the buyers excited about buying more colorful, trend-setting clothing, Waters began to bring bags of bright-colored M&M’s to meetings and encouraged people to imagine the possibilities of color. Then she created samples of clothing in bright colors so the buyers could visualize for themselves the possibilities. Soon after that, the buyers started buying more colorful clothing and clothing sales skyrocketed.


MENTAL IMAGES supply motivation, but they don’t help people overcome the obstacles they’ll face when they get home (old habits, distractions, demands on time, etc.) and try to do the chunk that you’ve taught. To combat these obstacles, it is helpful to give COACHING SUPPORT during the sermon.

One way to give COACHING SUPPORT is to lead the group through the set of steps you’ve laid out. By working through the steps as a group, people feel that they have a “head start.” This helps them overcome the feeling that the change is too much to do.

Another way to provide COACHING SUPPORT is to help the congregation set an “action trigger,” a pre-made decision to go home and do something at a certain time. This makes it easier to deal with the obstacles they face out in the world.

Remember that most people need to be gently pushed to do what it takes to grow spiritually. This requires a coach, not just a teacher.

Example: A group of students was offered extra credit for writing a paper over vacation—the instruction given was to turn the paper in on or before Dec. 26. Only 33% of the students who accepted the challenge submitted the paper on time. A second group received an additional instruction—to declare up-front when and where they were going to write the paper (this was setting an “action trigger”). Of the students in this group, 75% submitted the paper on time.

When you combine SMALL STEPS, MENTAL IMAGES, and COACHING SUPPORT, people will begin to act on what they hear you say. They’ll be clear about what you want them to do, they’ll be energized and motivated to do it, and they’ll be equipped to overcome the obstacles they’ll face when the sermon is over.

Try out a new approach to delivering sermons

We’ve put together a sample sermon that incorporates these three elements. Get instant access to it and see what happens when you make it easy for people to change.

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Essential Practices
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