Why lectures (and sermons) switch off your brain.

In the past, people thought the best way to teach was to place people in rows and talk at them. The assumption was that the teacher was the expert, and the students were sponges, ready to absorb any information presented to them.

The problem is, most of us have a very short attention span for this didactic, educator-centred model of teaching. A number of studies show that we usually have a significant lapse in concentration after around 15 minutes of listening to someone speaking.
Our brains aren’t designed for long periods of passive listening. They literally begin to “switch off” unless we are engaged and actively involved in the learning process. When you consider that most sermons are considerably more than 15 minutes, and that the congregation have had to listen to a great deal of talking before the sermon even begins, that means not many people are really getting much of a “take-home message.”

Listening is harder than it looks. We actually have a very short auditory memory, and it needs as much help as possible from other parts of the brain to turn spoken words into meaningful concepts in our minds. We are only able to hold a few pieces of information in our working memory at one time, scientists suggest seven items at the most. The brain then needs some “downtime”, or thinking space, to process that information before it can take in anything else. If it reaches overload, our brain switches automatically into “downtime” mode and stops taking in anything else. The more conceptual the subject matter, the harder the brain has to work. Big words, multiple facts, new concepts and challenges to preconceived notions put extra pressure on the learning centres. In order to listen to an extended monologue, people have remember multiple pieces of information, hold them in their head in the correct order, link information to what they already know, sort out relevant from irrelevant information, continue to pay attention to what is being said and comprehend the overall theme. If they lose focus even for a minute or two, they may lose track of the message, and won’t be able to make sense of what is being said.

When no response is expected of us, we don’t have the motivation to perform the mental gymnastics required just to comprehend what is being said. For many of us, the beginning of a speech triggers an automatic shutdown of attention. In a formal presentation, people are unable to ask for repetition or clarification, as they would in any other interaction. Some people have developed the skills to listen really well, but most of us are just not biologically designed to get as much out of the message as the speaker hopes we will. The good news is, there are plenty of other ways to stimulate people to learn. Did you notice I used the word “learn”, rather than saying there are many ways to “teach”? There’s a huge difference.

Most adults in the Western world have been trained over many years of schooling to sit quietly in rows and show outward signs of polite listening behaviour. However, their brains are often disengaged and distracted, and they rarely remember much of what is said, and are probably not going to think about it again or try to apply it to their lives. Our brains are designed for learning. Unfortunately, the way we are “teaching” just isn’t getting through.

We need to creatively find ways to engage people in active learning at church, not passive listening for long periods of time. If people are involved, thinking, talking and interacting, they will understand the information better, remember it better, communicate it to others and apply it in their lives. Churches need to be brave enough to move beyond sermons and empower God’s people to become active learners, not passive listeners.


7 thoughts on “Why lectures (and sermons) switch off your brain.

  1. Pingback: Tomorrow’s church – Part 6: From spoon-feeding to hands-on learning | Church in a Circle

  2. Pingback: Tomorrow’s church – Part 7: Learning through shared experiences. | Church in a Circle

  3. Excellent points. Thank you.
    I can’t recall who said:
    “Tell me – & I’ll forget,
    Show me – & I might remember,
    Involve me – & I’ll understand.”

    • It’s a great quote, Kevin, and has a deep truth to it. I think it is a Chinese proverb.


      – Kathleen

  4. “Churches need to be brave enough to move beyond sermons…” False. Churches need to brave enough to continue to embrace sermons and preaching in spite of emerging generations who want to be heard more than they want to listen and behold.

    A sermon is not a lecture. If the only intention of a preacher is to transfer information and knowledge then he has missed the point. A sermon that aims at the head and misses the heart should be forgotten. Listening to a sermon should be more like watching a painter paint or listening to a violinist play her instrument. No one in these cases pipes up and says “Ok. My turn!”

    • I disagree with you Jayson. Lectures and sermons switch my brain off (depends how interesting they are, and how long they are), but I think that the church has put so much emphasis on sermons. They give sermons every week, and it takes up sometimes more then half the church meeting. I don’t want to go to church and get lectured to. I want to go and engage. I want to hear about different peoples lives and how they are journeying with God and what they’ve been learning, and I want to spend time with God individually and as a group, and I want to share something of my journey with some people. Relationships with God, and relationships with one another should be the focus of church; many churches I’ve been too have the sermon as the focus, and the relationships as an afterthought.

      • I love how you’ve expressed it, Isaac; “relationships with God and relationships with one another should be the focus of church”. Our church life is incomplete without one-anothering (and morning tea chit-chat doesn’t count).

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