The sermon was the centrepiece of 20th Century church. Seminaries trained students in the crafting and delivery of a monologue presentation, to communicate God’s message to the world. Many of us have come to faith by hearing powerful sermons. Most of our theology and doctrine has been taught us through sermons. For many years, sermons have been the primary, if not the only, way to learn about God in church.
Unfortunately, there are limitations to the sermon format of communication. You see, not everyone is skilled at learning-by-listening. I personally am a read-write learner. I learn quickly and easily by skimming through written text, and like to mull things over with a pen and paper at hand. My husband is a visual learner. To him, a good diagram is worth a thousand words. When he wants to think things through, you’ll find him sketching on a whiteboard, or drawing mind-maps on his iPad. My son, on the other hand, is a kinaesthetic learner – he prefers to learn-by-doing. He is constantly constructing and drawing. He prefers to be physically involved in an activity than passively listening or watching. None of us find it easy to concentrate and listen during sermons.
Fleming’s VARK model suggests we all have different ways of learning. Some of us are visual learners, who prefer to represent concepts through charts, diagrams and symbols. Some are auditory learners, and enjoy learning through listening/talking. Then there are the read/write learners – and our education system favours these, and is perpetuated by them. Still others are kinaesthetic learners, who like to learn from real experiences and examples. The truth is, we are all multi-modal creatures, and we learn through all of these modalities. Research shows the most effective learning takes place when information is presented in multiple modalities, not just one.
“Action-Reflection” is one alternative learning format to the sermon. Get people involved. Get them doing something, whether it be a fun group activity involving teams and blindfolds, or a real-life, hands-on experience. Then create space to explore and reflect on what happened and what they have learned. You can approach the Bible as an “action-reflection” learning experience too – tell the story, then let people retell it in their own words and explore it in small groups. You will find people become more involved, more engaged, and learn far more than they can from a lecture or sermon. They will be learning through all four modalities, and they will feel a sense of pride and ownership of their learning.
21st Century technology provides us with more options for learning than ever. There is no excuse to stick to a one-size-fits-all, single-modality approach to learning which keeps a large part of the population from accessing God’s message. It’s time for the church to get creative and move beyond sermons as the only way to discover God.