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The neuroscience of helping people put into practice what they hear

The neuroscience of helping people put into practice what they hear

We don’t normally associate neuroscience with sermons. After all, when you’re at seminary, it’s hard to squeeze in a chemistry class between Greek and systematic theology. But understanding how God has wired our brains and nervous systems is key to helping people learn to do what they hear in your sermons.

Consider the basic three-step process people use to learn anything new:


First, a trusted authority explains how something is done. For example, a child’s mother may talk about the importance of getting on a bike and pedaling right away in order to keep her balance. If done well, it stimulates the child’s desire to see it being done. 


The mother now gets on the bike and starts pedaling to help the child see what it looks like. We sometimes call this second step “engraving.” If done well, engraving sparks a subconscious signal that leads the child to think, “That is who I want to be.”


Now the child is motivated to try it herself. She gets on the bike and starts pedaling. The mother coaches the child by telling her to start out slow and to keep trying when she falls down. The child keeps trying until she can pedal correctly.

(The mother then explains and demonstrates the other components of riding a bike: braking, turning, and switching gears. With practice and repetition, the child masters these components, eventually riding her bike with ease.)

Why is it necessary to tie together HEARING, SEEING, and DOING? The answer lies in something called myelin, a layer of insulation that wraps around our nerve fibers. Like rubber insulation on a wire, myelin keeps our signals strong. This is important, because each of our movements and thoughts is an electrical signal traveling through our nerve fibers. The more times a person does or thinks a certain thing, the thicker the myelin gets, and the more repeatable that movement or thought becomes. When a person is good at something, it means that he or she has built up a myelin sheath around the nerves that control that behavior.

myelin, sermons, essential practices

The child who hops on a bike and disappears around the corner can do so because of myelin. And a congregant who takes what you’ve taught and puts it into practice has not just listened to you; he or she has seen other people do it and had the chance to practice it (during the sermon, in a small group, at a spiritual retreat, etc.). 

So, what should you do in sermons to help congregants build myelin?


Big behavioral 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 that enhance hearing, MENTAL IMAGES that enhance seeing, and COACHING SUPPORT that enhances doing, people will begin to act on what 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 they get home.

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Essential Practices
Essential Practices

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