It's Sunday afternoon, and you have just delivered a powerful, life-changing message to your congregation. However, Sister Million Questions and Brother Doesn't Understand have cornered you again. They didn't understand your message even though they had shouted amen the loudest.
Sound familiar? This scenario takes place in more churches than we might realize or care to admit.
Most preachers are trained to be great orators and to provide the correct exegesis of the Scripture. But these skills address only one of the three different types of personal learning styles. Those who fall into the other two learning style categories will become the "Sister Million Questions" and the "Brother Doesn't Understand" who just never seem to grasp what you are saying.
During the last several years, the concept of learning styles has been at the forefront of discussion among educators. Those in the field of education are being asked to recognize that people prefer certain styles of learning, just like they prefer certain styles of clothing.
The challenge for the pastor is to match the learning styles of everyone in the congregation into one message. Understanding learning styles and the role they play in the church is essential for pastors who truly desire to see peoples' lives transformed. "Learning styles" is the phrase used to describe how people learn. The reason understanding the different styles is so important is because everyone learns differently.
Many theories are associated with learning styles. One theory relates learning styles to the five senses. Learning styles under this theory are categorized as auditory, visual and tactile-kinesthetic. All three types of learners are in your congregation.
Auditory learners comprehend best by talking and listening. They learn when they are using their voices and their ears.
Visual learners like to see the words they need to learn written down.
Tactile-kinesthetic learners are those who need to be up and doing. They learn what they are able to do.
Applying Learning Styles
Let's suppose it's a typical Sunday morning, and you are teaching on the importance of daily prayer.
For your auditory learners to learn, they will need to talk and listen. This may mean you take time in the message for the congregation to repeat some of the key points so that they have the opportunity to use their own voices.
Auditory learners enjoy answering questions and providing feedback. When this dynamic occurs, your message has matched their learning style, and you can be assured they are learning. However, this will only be a percentage of the congregation. You can't stop yet.
You also need to move around, so as to adapt your teaching to the needs of visual learners. People who have this preferred learning style learn best by looking at pictures, diagrams or charts and like to see information written down. So you may need to move to the overhead projector and show some transparencies.
You might show a picture of someone praying. You could display a list of all the things that can come up to keep believers from praying every day. This could be done in a graphic form such as a dagger or arrow aimed at the phrase "daily prayer."
Think about using a flip chart on Sunday morning to diagram key visual aspects of the message, or develop slides with a software program such as Microsoft's PowerPoint and use your laptop and a display projector with a handheld remote control.
Visual learners in your congregation will also benefit from a written summary of your message that they can take home and read. They are the most likely to take notes when you preach, and they actually go home and refer to them.
And then there are the tactile-kinesthetic learners. They want to get up out of their seats and do something. They don't want to be told about prayer. They want to pray. Sitting still is not for them.
In order to prepare for tactile-kinesthetic learners, you will need some planned participatory activities. You might try a role-playing exercise, such as having everyone pair off with the instructions that one person act out getting ready to pray while the other gives them a good reason to put it off until later. Then they could switch roles.
Notice in the example above that one thing we did not do was limit the delivery of the message to a lecture. If that had occurred, two-thirds of the people would not have grasped all the material that day because only the auditory learner can learn from a lecture.
I am not proposing that you launch a new preaching model in which you target auditory learners on the first Sunday, visual learners on the third Sunday and tactile-kinesthetic learners on the last Sunday. Rather, I am suggesting that every time you minister the Word of God you match every learning style.
Is this a lot of work for the pastor? Yes! Will the learning curve in your church escalate? Absolutely!
It just takes a commitment to ensure that your powerful, life-changing message has the opportunity to change the lives of everyone in attendance. This is done by creating an active learning environment. It's time to move away from the days of "stand still and lecture" while the congregation sits still and listens.
The percentage of people in your congregation who will not learn in a lecture environment is too great. Although you cannot deliver your sermon three times, you can match the three learning styles on key points throughout the message.
Many pastors today work hard to keep up with the times and to make certain their examples and illustrations are relevant.
In a sermon on daily prayer, for instance, a pastor who integrates relevant examples might show the congregation a list of typical distractions that keep people from engaging in daily prayer. For the children it might be computer games and cartoons; for the teens it might be phone calls and social activities; for the adults it might be spending too much time at work or on the Internet.
It is important, however, not to confuse the concept of relevant examples with that of learning styles. Making sermons relevant is an important move. But that alone does not address the learning styles of the congregation. Relevant examples must be integrated with learning styles.
It is equally vital not to confuse learning-style concepts with the importance of using a vocabulary the congregation can understand. Vocabulary also must be integrated with particular learning styles or it will not be effective.
Using our example of a sermon about prayer, you may refer to prayer as a conversation, a friendly chat, a father-child talk or whatever you like—but unless you do a demonstration, the tactile-kinesthetic learners will miss your point. You might need to have them practice such a conversation, pretending as if they had a telephone in their hand.
For the auditory learners, your descriptions alone will work just fine. But don't forget the visual learners. You may need visual aids, a flip chart or an overhead transparency to drive your point home to them.
The apostle Paul seemed to understand that people learn in different ways. He told the church at Philippi to do the things they had learned, received, heard and seen (Phil. 4:9).
Does your congregation primarily hear from you, or do they get to see some action on Sunday mornings? Are the auditory learners the only ones whose learning style you match? Have you provided something for the visual learners to look at other than you standing there? Have you provided something for the tactile-kinesthetic learner to do? Most importantly, have you done this all in one message?
Jesus told us to learn of Him (Matt. 11:29). He also said that those who had heard and had learned of the Father would come to Him (John 6:45). He made a distinction between hearing and learning. Moses made a similar distinction in Deuteronomy 31:12-13.
We have an obligation to ensure that the congregation does more than just hear the Word—they must learn. This will happen when the pastor is matching different learning styles in one message.
It's time for pastors to move beyond their comfort zones and to create active learning environments. It is a lot of work, but when people become actively involved in their learning as the pastor matches their learning style, there will be more excitement in the air and people will take more responsibility for their own learning.
It has been said that we should not look at our students as buckets to be filled, where we just stand and talk and fill those buckets with words. Instead, we should look at our students as fires to be lit. And that fire is lit when you understand the preferred learning styles of the congregation and adapt your messages accordingly.
Taking the Plunge
Taking the plunge into a new style of sermon delivery will require you to spend your preparation time differently than how you might spend it now. In fact, you may have to spend more time to prepare your message.
You still have to engage in your usual study of the Word, hearing clearly what message God wants you to deliver, and you still have to outline it logically for people to comprehend it. What changes is that you won't deliver your sermon in your usual way.
You are still the messenger, but you're not center stage—the action is in the congregation. You're just the leader. In fact, in some circles of education where these changes are being made, teachers are being told that they are no longer the "sage on the stage" but the "guide on the side."
But as you transition from being a "sage" to being a "guide," there are a couple of important principles to keep in mind:
Design the learning experience. Your preparation time must be spent designing the learning experience. Your focus must include what you will say along with what the visual learners will see and what the tactile-kinesthetic learners will do.
Adapting messages to match all of these learning styles will take time and study. Learning how to do this is a process, and it is especially challenging when old behaviors have to be unlearned. Be patient in the process, and you will see results.
Move your people from passive learning to active learning. It will take time to get your congregation comfortable doing something other than just sitting and listening. They may never have been in an environment that catered to their learning styles. They may be very content as passive learners.
It will probably take some effort on your part to make people feel comfortable using their ears and voices and doing something. There may be some who will not want to do any of the activities that the different types of people need to do in order to learn. You may need to explain why the changes in your preaching style are being made. Teach your congregation that as they participate in the activity, they can view it as another way of giving to those in need.
Just as visual and tactile-kinesthetic learners have acquiesced during the years to auditory learners (though not knowingly or by choice), it is now time for auditory learners to give back. Make your switch gradually, be patient, and you will have less resistance as you make changes.
Many different questionnaires exist for the assessment of learning styles based on the many learning styles theories. One of these could be administered to your congregation, perhaps as part of a membership class.
Resist the urge to relegate changes to special services or only midweek services. Give the Sunday morning congregation the opportunity to experience learning in ways they may not have experienced in the past. Take the plunge and prepare to reach all the learners in your congregation.
It will be worth it. Learning will escalate. You will see the number of inquiries from Sister Million Questions decrease. You will watch Brother Doesn't Understand qualify for a name-change.
How shall they hear without a preacher? How shall he preach except he be sent? How shall they learn if the Word of God is not delivered to match all of the learning styles in our congregations?
The answer is, not very well. And if they don't learn well, they won't become doers. If they don't become doers of the Word, then they will not experience the transforming power of the Word of God. And seeing lives transformed is what it's all about.
The people in your congregation are crying out for the power of God to change their lives. They are hungry to learn. Are you ready to teach them?
Darcelle D. White, Ph.D., is associate professor of business and technology education at Eastern Michigan University. She is also an educational consultant, attorney, author and conference speaker. Her husband, Darrell, is senior pastor of Light of the World Christian Church in Detroit.