What does it mean when we say we have learned something? Why do we forget so much of the information we are taught in church? Perhaps how teachers teach is not necessarily how learners learn?
Our book, The Learning Cycle: Insights for Faithful Teaching from Neuroscience and the Social Sciences (InterVarsity Press, 2020) illustrates how to teach with the brain in mind so learners are more likely to ground their behavior in biblical truth. We offer teaching strategies that respect recent scientific findings on learning and contribute to sustaining faith habits that strengthen character and build Christlikeness. These strategies help preachers preach (and teachers teach) for deep learning that transforms minds, emotions, and actions.
As educators, we try to make informed decisions about teaching and learning that draw heavily from the social sciences and, more recently, neuroscience. As students of biblical theology, we have been astounded at the insights that general revelation (creation truth) bring to special revelation (biblical truth). As Christian educators we seek to synergize the two.
Neuroscience findings illuminate what happens in the brain during learning. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) has allowed researchers to determine which parts of the brain are active (or inactive) given particular information input (stimulus). For example, it was once believed that affect (feelings, emotions) was contained in only one part of the brain. But, when a young man is shown a picture of his girlfriend, his fMRI tended to register activity in twelve parts of the brain. Emotions, often ignored in learning, are now declared to be a necessary component for learning. What does this mean for preaching, teaching, discipling, and leading?
The outline below has been used globally and in a multitude of settings, from seminary faculties to poverty-lending programs. About ten years ago, neuroscience yielded important scientific support for each level of this model, prompting us to write the book at the request of and for the benefit of others. Consistent faith habits will grow character, integrity, wisdom and ultimately Christlikeness. Note that every level of the learning cycle is grounded in recall, remembering the truth.
Researchers define three stages in memory: short-term-memory, working-memory (or intermediate), and long-term-memory. Most of what occurs in the classroom lecture or sermon generally enters the short-term-memory—a good beginning that produces few long-term results. How do we promote long-term results? By prompting information (Scripture, sermons) to enter working-memory. How does that happen? We will see, but our ultimate goal is not even working-memory; it is long-term-memory. Why is long-term-memory so important? Because only what enters long-term-memory will produce stable beliefs, sustainable behaviors (see J. E. Zull, The Art of Changing the Brain: Enriching the Practice of Teaching by Exploring the Biology of Learning [Stylus, 2002], 77), and character development—Christlikeness.
Seminaries tend to emphasize the preeminence of the mind. This is done in the name of academics or excellence. Good grades, honors at graduation, and even one’s sense of spiritual health all seem married to academic performance. But Scripture always defines excellence differently—as faithfulness to God and service to church and humanity: “it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy” (1 Cor 4:2 NRSV). Academic excellence is a means to an end, not the end itself. Faithfulness is.
Many seminarians find preaching the most satisfying. Rightly so; proclamation has been important throughout history, including among the OT prophets. Some preaching holds us spellbound; other preaching, not so much. Why? Brain research may help.
If truth is to be retained by listeners, it must make sense and have meaning (David A. Sousa, How the Brain Learns, 5th ed. [Corwin, 2017], 89). Making sense suggests that listeners understand and can faithfully repeat in their own words what you said. Want to test this idea? Call some people on Monday and ask them to summarize the sermon in one or two sentences. It can be discouraging. Here are two ideas that might help: before the benediction have the listeners write on their bulletins (or speak to their neighbor) a one-sentence summary of the sermon. This brief activity engages their brains. It also moves information from short-term-memory into early stages of working-memory. You might suggest they share that thought around the dinner table. More activity stimulates the brain and grows the neural pathway. Working memory is now more robust. The more the thought is rehearsed, the stronger the neural pathway becomes. Rehearsing the thought helps people reflect on what God was saying and increases the probability of that truth entering their long-term memory, where it affects beliefs, behaviors, and character.
Meaning, or relevance, refers to a connection the sermon makes with the present or past experiences of the listeners. Information is meaningful when it stimulates memories stored in other parts of the brain. Typically, the brain doesn’t register information that doesn’t connect with the person’s reality. So, referring to the worlds and experiences of your congregants will help connect in ways that engage their brains. But there is more. When you make that meaningful connection, the Holy Spirit can use that to convict, encourage, motivate, or prompt action.
You can do more to make material memorable and life changing. Research on retention, what we remember or retain, during a sermon or lecture, reveals several interesting facts. First, the brain is most alert at the start of the sermon/class. Therefore, don’t waste time. Jump in with some declarative or provocative material. The brain loves a challenge. Second, fMRIs also reveal that there is a gradual decrease in the listeners’ focus. At the 16–18-minute mark they tend to “drop out”—and that lasts approximately 8–10 minutes before they reengage. The alert speaker will note this and compensate. To stop the decline in retention, ask a question, even a rhetorical one to recapture attention. Questions hijack the brain. Immediately the brain’s full attention searches for an answer. How do speakers you like capture or recapture your attention?
An illustration does the same. A story engages more parts of the brain than virtually any other approach. Also, pausing, shifting voice modulation, or suggesting importance (e.g., “Hear me on this” or “Listen to God’s own words”) work. You get the idea. A simple technique at the right time creates a “reset” in our brains and attention returns for another fifteen or so minutes.
Most of us have had favorite subjects and favorite teachers. Positive emotions are the gatekeeper for good learning while negative feelings hinder, even negate learning. fMRIs show that when learners feel positive toward the teacher and environment, the rational, thinking part of their brains are highly active. When learners feel fear, anxiety, or boredom in the classroom, rational activity in the brain nearly disappears.
It’s simple. A positive attitude advances better learning. If one prof or class is a favorite, analyze why. Is it the prof? The subject? Something else? More importantly, how does the emotional state of your congregation affect your preaching? Or your teaching? Or your Bible study? How people feel will either open or close the learning gate. The quality of the relationships you nurture can make the difference.
In ministry, strive for three kinds of credibility: competence, character, and safety. Your seminary experience equips you for the first—competency. Most seminaries expect character to emerge through lectures and ministry experiences. Few seminaries address the safety issue. Do people feel safe with you? Do they trust you? That includes respect, concern, encouragement: Do they sense you hold them in high esteem? Does the imago Dei drive your relationships? Honoring everyone as a bearer of God’s own image and proactively affirming their dignity builds safety credibility.
How can we foster growth toward Christlikeness? To speculate means to ponder what I should do as a result of some truth. When God uses a sermon or Bible study to impress something on me, the next response should <em<not be “How nice to know this!” but, “So what?” What difference should this truth make? Too often we just leave it to the listener to decide what to do differently. Pastors (and I am one) and teachers (I am one of those too) are obligated to raise the “So what?” question. Otherwise, truth can be lost.
Some ideas: At the end of a sermon or Bible study ask: Is God speaking to you with some insight or conviction? If so, write it down. Then, I ask: What do you need to do based on what you wrote? Then: What barriers might hinder you from doing that? Finally: Who do you want to journey with you in prayer and accountability in your decision?
Another activity that encourages speculation is a “Memo to Myself.” After a class or Bible study, I ask the group to write a half-page paper on a thought that was meaningful to them, what the Holy Spirit might be saying, and what they might do about it. Then they send it to me. I read it, comment, and send it back. They read it again. At the next meeting (class or study), I ask them to share the memo with someone else in the group and later to share it with one or two other friends outside class (or church). Note what is happening: they hear a truth, write about it, read comments about it, share it with a group member, and then share with one or two others. The listener has now rehearsed five or six times a given truth or insight and a corresponding behavior—the “So What?” In doing so, their brains are prompted to move that truth from short-term-memory to working-memory. Rehearsal creates and builds a neural pathway and, under the power of the Holy Spirit, that truth will lodge in long-term-memory where it affects world view—beliefs, behavior, character. This is deep learning, transformation.
Why don’t people just practice the truth? Well, there is a catch: barriers. Barriers include fears—from “What might others think if I change a behavior?” to “What if I fail?” to “What will it cost me?” Satan poses another barrier. He cares little about your knowing (cognition) truth, or if you value it (emotion), or even if you think about how it applies to you (speculation). He does, however, become upset when you begin practicing the truth. Expect his attacks.
Those first attempts to change are precisely where real life takes over from speculation. Barriers threaten our intentions to practice truth.
For barrier analysis I use an open question: What would keep you from acting on this truth? Answering this question exposes obstacles to transformation. Once named, plans can be made to overcome them. Wasn’t that what Jesus was doing when he told the parable of the sower and the seed? He identified major barriers that keep his word from producing fruit.
Research shows that if anyone hopes to sustain a major change in behavior, that person must believe strongly that five things are true. If any one of these five beliefs are weak or nonexistent, change rarely happens. One critical belief is: “I believe I am capable of making this particular change in line with God’s word.” Imagine the powerful influence a leader can have encouraging learners to believe they are capable of doing what God requires. We develop the other four beliefs in our book, The Learning Cycle (112–15).
Helping learners name the barriers standing in the way of their practice must be a disciplined piece of the preaching and teaching experience. Anything less is negligence.
Why is new so difficult, uncomfortable, even frightening? When believers decide to begin a new faith practice, it feels awkward, even fake. During this awkward stage, pastors and teachers need to be deliberate cheerleaders. We cannot abandon learners to figure it all out on their own. Think about a particular change you have made for your faith. What helped you make that transition? Was it a group of supportive believers who asked how you were doing? Was it a ministry experience with careful debriefing? Establishing new spiritual practices requires support from a faith community with you taking the lead in showing them how.
Both social science and neuroscience findings clearly demonstrate the important role of social discourse within committed relationships for transformative learning to take hold. Believers need each other. That’s what the church is about. “Therefore encourage one another and build up each other . . .” (1 Thess 5:11 NRSV). We speak into each other’s lives and invite them to speak into ours. God’s ordained community for change into Christlikeness is the church.
What does this mean for pastors, teachers, and mentors? We must build interactive faith communities that foster life change. Pose open questions to stimulate discussion of faith practices. Debrief learners’ initial attempts trying to change. Emphasize that early failures tend to expose barriers and strengthen resolve. Remind them that anything worth doing is worth doing poorly the first time.
A habit is a specific recurring thought or set of actions that have become so internalized that we repeat it without thinking—a default setting. To create a habit, it requires thinking about a cue (the trigger), an action(s) and the sense of satisfaction, the reward. Our brains love efficiency. When we determine to sustain a new behavior with the help of the Holy Spirit, the neural network grows stronger.
This new behavior becomes our default, overruling the ungodly options. In his parable of the sheep and the goats, Jesus illustrated how their unconscious thought habits determined their actions. Remember, the surprise of both groups when the Lord rendered his judgment? “When did we see you a stranger . . . hungry or thirsty. . .? (Matt 25:38, 44) Unbeknown to them, their actions revealed their corrupt hearts.
Building faith habits begins by reflecting, valuing, and speculating on a truth. Then we must take action, deal with looming barriers, and persevere until that truth is fully integrated into our life style; it becomes habitual. Pastors and mentors can walk alongside their learners, pray for them, encourage them, and foster communities of believers who will do the same.
God calls us to a holy life (2 Tim 1:9). Our prayer is that you, the future of the church, will find ideas here to help you lead your congregations to live faithful lives growing into wisdom, integrity, and Christlikeness.