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Right-Brain Preaching:
Capturing the Imagination of Your Listeners

By Doug Oss and Mark Batterson

Nothing in the medical universe is more fascinating than the 3 pounds of gray matter housed within the human cranium. The human mind is the magnum opus of God’s creative genius.

Neurologists subdivide the brain into regions that are responsible for a variety of neurological functions. The visual cortex handles input from the optic nerve. The posterior hippocampus stores spatial memory. The ventral region of the medial prefrontal cortex is the seat of humor. Whether you are humming a song, solving a Sudoku, or interpreting facial expressions, a unique part of the brain is responsible for performing those functions.

The brain is also divided into two hemispheres: the right brain and left brain. Those two hemispheres are connected by approximately 300 million nerve fibers called the corpus callosum.

Think of the two hemispheres of the brain as parallel processors. They overlap in function. This is a gross simplification of something that is divinely complex. The left brain is the logical half of the brain, and the right brain is the creative half of the brain.

Now juxtapose brain topography with Matthew 22:37: “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind” (NLT).1

Loving God with half your mind does not cut it. Half-minded is no better than half-hearted. Many preachers, nevertheless, are trying to preach with half their brain tied behind their back, which is about as effective as running on one leg, clapping with one hand, or twiddling one thumb.

Half-formed Imaginations

During the modern era, seminaries focused on left-brain logic. We studied systematic theology. We developed three-point sermons with alliterations in homiletics. We learned to put together an order of service in practical theology. Such preparation is worthwhile. There is nothing wrong with having an order of service. Our sermons need to be logical, and we need to develop theological paradigms. But the key to preaching in today’s world (postmodern, or post whatever) is combining right-brain creativity with left-brain logic.

C.S. Lewis is the patron saint of whole-brain preachers. Can you think of anyone in the last century who was more left-brain logical? Consider his theological writings, from Mere Christianity to The Problem of Pain. Lewis, however, combined left-brain logic with right-brain creativity. The Chronicles of Narnia series has captured the imagination of children since it was written.

Lewis once referred to himself as the most reluctant convert in all of Christendom. The night before his conversion, Lewis had a long conversation with J.R.R. Tolkien, author of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Tolkien tried to convince Lewis of the credibility of Christ, but Lewis was full of objections. At one point, Tolkien countered Lewis’ objections by saying that his inability to understand stemmed from a failure of imagination on his part. Maybe a lack of faith is a failure of imagination?

In his book, The Celtic Way, Ian Bradley writes about the celebration of the imagination in the Celtic tradition. Celtic Christianity may offer us a lifeline in the form of an approach to faith that is rooted in imagination. Too many Christians today, brought up on the penny plain prose favored by Rome and even more by the Reformers, have half-formed imaginations. God wants to sanctify our imaginations and use them for His purposes.

The first verse of Hebrews strikes me as a good definition of right-brain preaching: “In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways” (TNIV).2 God does not say the same thing the same way every time. He mixes it up. He finds new ways to say old things.

When you examine how the Old Testament prophets communicated, it borders on the absurd. Jeremiah hid his belt in Perath. Hosea married a prostitute. Poor Ezekiel baked his bread over cow dung for 390 days. Definitely right-orbit illustrations, but one thing is for sure: God is not a broken record; He loves to communicate in various ways.

Berlyne’s Law

According to the research of psychologist Daniel Berlyne, what strikes us as good art is usually a slight derivation from our expectations.3

Art that is too large a deviation from what we already know is considered bizarre. Art that fits our expectations perfectly is considered boring. Good art is somewhere in between. We like mild surprises that fall somewhere between boring and bizarre. What most people consider great art is a modest change from the status quo.

This idea has huge implications for preaching. To stay connected with contemporary minds preaching needs to say old things in new ways. Preaching should approach truth from slightly different angles, almost like turning a kaleidoscope. Great preaching is a slight deviation from expectation.

Sir Thomas Moore said, “It’s my conviction that slight shifts in imagination have more impact on living than major efforts at change.” Slight shifts in imagination is what right-brain preaching is all about. How do we produce slight shifts in imagination? The key is using metaphors.

Aristotle said, “The greatest thing by far is to be the master of metaphor.” No one was more masterful than Jesus. The parables are case studies in right-brain preaching. Hear them once and you remember them. Why? Jesus used metaphors that created mental pictures in the right brains of His listeners.

One key to right-brain preaching is cross-pollination — redeeming metaphors from a variety of disciplines and using them to communicate spiritual truth. Consider the sciences, for example. In a recent series that Mark Batterson preached at National Community Church called The Physics of Faith, he borrowed basic laws of physics like Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, Bell’s Theorem, and the Law of Entropy and used them to talk about spiritual principles. Each message in that series was a scientific parable. Metaphors enable us to reframe truth in ways that are biblically accurate and culturally relevant.

Cross-pollination also gives you intellectual leverage. Quoting Scripture gives the speaker credibility with people who are churched and unchurched alike. Nonbiblical quotes give him added credibility with people who are unchurched. When the speaker references a law of physics, quotes Aristotle, or cites a Fast Company article, he scores points with skeptics. The searcher-for-truth, though, is still profoundly interested in what the Bible says.

Cultural Exegesis

Too many pastors get As in biblical exegesis but Ds in cultural exegesis. We know Scripture, but it is easy to lose touch with the times. The result is a gap between theology and reality called irrelevance. As one of our favorite philosophers, Yogi Berra, once said, “In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. But in practice there is.” When we withdraw to the comfortable confines of our Christian subculture, we can lose touch with whom we are trying to reach — the unchurched and dechurched. We need to exegete our culture to close the gap. That is what incarnation is all about.

According to Anthony Mayo and Nitin Nohria, all great leaders share one common denominator regardless of their age or industry: “They possessed acute sensitivity to the social, political, technological, and demographic contexts that came to define their eras.” Mayo and Nohria call it contextual intelligence. After studying 1,000 leaders they concluded that contextual intelligence is “an underappreciated but all-encompassing differentiator between success and failure.”4

First Chronicles 12:32 says the men of Issachar “understood the times and knew what Israel should do.” They had tremendous insight — they understood the times. And they had tremendous foresight — they knew what Israel should do. Another way of saying it: They had foresight because they had insight. They were visionary leaders because they were experts in cultural exegesis.

At times there is a fine line between redeeming culture and compromising truth, but it is a line we must be willing to walk.

God is omnirelevant. He speaks more than six billion languages. Redeeming culture does not mean watering down or dumbing down the gospel. It means translating the gospel into a language that people can understand. It is using culturally relevant metaphors so people can grasp spiritual truths.

Isn’t that what Jesus did? He used agrarian metaphors to communicate spiritual truths. We call them parables.

Every generation needs to redeem cultural lingo and use it to communicate timeless truth. The only alternative is irrelevance, and irrelevance is irreverence.

The key to unforgettable preaching is packaging truth in ways that are biblically sound and culturally relevant. Let me borrow from the Parable of the Wineskins. Think of biblical exegesis as the wine. Think of cultural relevance as the wineskin. If you have one without the other, you will not quench anyone’s thirst. You need the substance (biblical exegesis) and the container (cultural relevance).

If we divorce biblical exegesis and cultural exegesis, we end up with dysfunctional truth that does no one any good. Either we answer questions no one is asking, or we give the wrong answers.

Every year, National Community Church and Capital Church in the City do two sermon series that redeem culture: God @ the Box Office/God @ the Movies and God @ the Billboards/God Behind the Music. The reason is that 60 percent of Americans who do not attend church get their theology from movies and music. For better or for worse, musicians and moviemakers are the chief theologians in our culture. Troy Champ, lead pastor at Capital Church (Salt Lake City), uses the central propositions of movies and songs during these series as metaphors to examine conceptually related biblical principles.

The 18th-century Scottish thinker, Andrew Fletcher, said, “Give me the making of the songs of a nation, and I care not who writes its laws.” Our culture is shaped, even more than we know, by the movies we watch and the music we listen to. God @ the Movies and God Behind the Music are attempts to exegete the movies and music that are shaping the cultural consciousness of 175 million unchurched Americans. Then we juxtapose them with Scripture.

Those two series are among the hardest hitting series NCC and Capital do all year. The reason is simple: Movies and music are brutally honest about the human condition. They may not contain the truth, but they are in touch with existential realities. Ravi Zacharias says, “I credit them with a greater degree of honesty and unmasked vulnerability in recognizing the anguish within the human heart than the academician, who often conceals such a struggle behind a façade of self-assurance.”

Sermon Branding

John 12:49 is a poignant preaching mantra. Jesus said, “I did not speak of my own accord, but the Father who sent me commanded me what to say and how to say it.”

What is sermon content?

How is a sermon branded?

Try this core preaching value: The greatest truths need to be communicated in the most unforgettable ways. When it comes to communicating things in unforgettable ways, how is just as important as what.

Sermon branding is nothing new. The ancient prophets used God-inspired props to make their messages stick. Jesus took the Old Testament art form to a new level. No one was better at branding truth than The Truth. His parables are pure genius.

Sermon branding is hard work, but it is not optional if we are serious about engaging the right brain of our listeners as Jesus did with His parables.

Seven Steps To Sermon Branding

Develop a series title

A fine line exists between catchy and cheesy. The goal is to reduce an entire series to a single word, phrase, or symbol that captures the essence of the series.

Book titles, magazine ads, TV shows, board games, and movies are a great source of creative inspiration.

Here are some recent National Community Church and Capital Church in the City series titles: The Physics of Faith; Y: Why We Do What We Do; Soulprint; 20/20: Vision for Life; The Game of Life; Dangerous Prayers; 10: the Life Behind the Laws; Paradox; The Wild Goose Chase; Creed; Illuminate; God @ the Billboards/God Behind the Music; and Wired for Worship.

Create a series logo

The old aphorism is wrong. A picture isn’t worth a thousand words.

According to neurological research, the brain is able to process print on a page at a rate of approximately 100 bits per second. But the brain can process a picture at approximately 1 billion bits per second. Mathematically speaking, a picture is worth 10 million words.

Logos are important because of the way the brain processes information. The brain recognizes and remembers shapes first, colors second, and content third. This is the sequence of cognition. If you want people to listen to the content of what you say, you need to think about shapes and colors. If choosing color schemes seems to be void of spiritual significance read the Book of Exodus. A dozen chapters are devoted to design. God gives specific instructions about colors and scents.

Aesthetics are important.

Design a series e-vite and invite

The key to buzz is word of mouth and word of mouse. One way to generate buzz about a sermon series is to send an e-vite by way of your church e-mail list. Encourage your congregation to forward it to a friend and give them invitations to give to friends.

Brainstorm big ideas

The more you say the less they remember. The law of scope is: More is less and less is more. That is why every message needs to be boiled down to one central proposition, also known as the one big idea.

If you try to make too many points, your message becomes a bed of nails. Lie down on a thousand nails and they will not penetrate your skin. Why? The pressure of each point is diffused by the others around it. Too many sermons are a bed of nails. But a single point will penetrate the heart and soul like a single nail.

During The Game of Life series, the board game by the same name functioned as the central metaphor. The series incorporated seven spaces from the game to symbolize seven big ideas:

  1. Graduation Day: Enjoy the Journey.
  2. Tour Europe: Take Calculated Risks.
  3. Night School: Keep Asking Questions.
  4. Win Marathon: Set God-sized Goals.
  5. Start a Career: Pursue God-ordained Passions.
  6. Get Married: Fall in Love.
  7. Pay Day: Pay it Forward.

Shoot a series trailer

One way to brand a series and generate excitement is to add creative video elements. Show a series trailer the week before kicking off the series and put it up on your Web site.

For samples, visit http://www.theaterchurch.com, or http://www.capitalchurch.com.

Add sermon props

Jesus used everything from mustard seeds to Roman coins to make His messages stick. He preached from boats, washed feet, and used little children as sermon props.

The reason sermon props make messages more memorable is they involve more than one sense. The more multisensory your message is the more memorable it will be.

Over the years we have used everything from nails to pop rocks to silly putty to make our messages more memorable. You may even want to design series clothing and accessories. It is a great way of turning your congregation into walking billboards.

Add sermon staging

It will take time and effort, but try redesigning your stage for every sermon series. This is a great way to keep things fresh. A new look will generate new excitement. Have fun with it.

For example, during our annual God @ the Box Office series, NCC rolls out the red carpet and treats every NCCer like an Oscar nominee. It gives NCC an excuse to give them the red-carpet treatment.

DOUG OSS, PH.D., director of the Center for Expository Preaching, professor of Bible exposition, Assemblies of God Theological Seminary, Springfield, Missouri.

MARK BATTERSON is senior pastor, National Community Church, Washington, D.C., and the author of Lion in a Pit on a Snowy Day, Wild Goose Chase, The Circle Maker, and All In. This article is adapted from The Circle Maker.

 

Endnotes

1. Scripture quotations marked NLT are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright 1996. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Wheaton, Illinois 60189. All rights reserved.

2. Scripture marked TNIV is taken from the Holy Bible, Today’s New International® Version TNIV©. Copyright 2001, 2005 by International Bible Society®. Used by permission of International Bible Society®. All rights reserved worldwide. TNIV and Today’s New International Version are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by International Bible Society®.

3. Neal Roese, If Only: How To Turn Regret Into Opportunity (New York, Broadway), 168,169.

4. Anthony J. Mayo and Nitin Nohria,In Their Time: The Greatest Business Leaders of the Twentieth Century (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Business School Press), xv.

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