Most people don’t remember anything that happened to them before the age of two. Which, as a parent, makes you wonder why you bother. Feeding, changing, bathing, going to the park, pretending you can’t see them when they put their hands over their eyes, and reading the same story over and over again – none of it gets remembered. So why do it? Why not take it easy for a couple of years, then start to be nice just when you think they’re ready to remember? You know, like politicians do in an election year.
We don’t do that, of course, because we know that our relationship with our kids is built on more than just the things they can remember. While the memory of the events may vanish, the bonds of trust that are built endure. They might not remember precisely what we’ve done with and for them, but they remember that they can trust us to be kind to them. They remember that they like us, even if they can’t tell you why. They remember the connection made, even if the content has faded.
Much of the research about the impact of preaching is focused on whether people remember the content. As you’d probably guess, the results aren’t good. By Monday morning, even a clear, well-presented sermon won’t be remembered – beyond, maybe, the main idea and a few key phrases or images. And let’s not talk about how well unclear sermons are retained. Or whether a month later anyone can recall anything of what was said.
At my church, I was one of the regular preaching pastors for eight years. At first, I used to worry about doing “reruns” in the holidays, thinking people might notice. But after a while, I realised that my fears were unfounded. In fact, anecdotal evidence suggests people only remember two of my sermons from that time: one involving volunteers drinking coffee and Coke of varying temperatures (Rev 3:15-16), and the other featuring me burning WeetBix doused with methylated spirits (the grain offering in Lev 6:15). There could have been a third from Revelation 6, but the deacons wouldn’t allow four horses in the church building. Talk about quenching the Spirit.
But if that’s all that’s remembered after eight years, what’s the point?
Now I know I’m painting it worse than it is. For a start, when people’s memories are jogged by reading the text you preached on, you might find that some of the content is there locked away in the recesses of their mind. A few times I had the experience of being in a group bible study and someone explained something in a way that sounded suspiciously like what I’d said a few years back on that passage. More than that, over time you’re modelling a pattern of understanding and interpreting Scripture that for many in your congregation becomes their pattern. And of course, if the main aim of preaching isn’t the communication of content but the transformation of attitudes and behaviours, then we should be more interested in whether people have changed than whether they remember. (I haven’t seen any research on that question, but I suspect it might be similarly disheartening.)
But still, given all the work that goes into preparing even one sermon, is it worth it?
I think it is. Just like it’s worth being nice to your kids before they’re even old enough to remember. Because I think one of the main roles of regular, biblical preaching is to build a relationship with God. An “attachment” to him, if you want to speak in psychological terms. So whether or not people remember much of the content of sermons, or make significant behavioural changes in light of those sermons, they’re still spending time connecting with God and his story.
The four aspects of application
Daniel Doriani*, one of my favourite preaching writers, talks about the four aspects of biblical application. The Bible teaches us:
- Our duty – what we should do in response to God’s mercy.
- Our character – who we should be in light of God’s character.
- Our goals – what we should pursue in view of God’s purpose.
- Discernment – or what I prefer to term worldview – how we should see the world through God’s eyes.
The last one, worldview, is probably the most foundational, although it’s often the most neglected in preaching. Because once you see the world how God sees it, the rest follow – how we behave, who we are, and where we’re heading. Worldview, I think, is the primary driver in transformation. Which is why Elisha prayed for God to open his servant’s eyes to see God’s heavenly army on the hills (2 Kings 6:17). Why Paul prays that “eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, and his incomparably great power for us who believe” (Eph 1:18-19). And why God invites John to come through a door in the heavens (Rev 4:1) to see the world how he sees it.
Our story and God’s story
And yet, I think there might be a fifth, less-tangible aspect: connection.
Each week, we come to church to hear (hopefully) God’s story. We’re reminded of who he is. Of what he’s done for us in Christ. And how this means that our story can now find its place within his big story. It anchors our existence and gives our life meaning within a much bigger framework. It reminds us of who we are in light of who he is. Just like Israel gathered to recite God’s story (e.g. Ps 105-106; the Song of Moses in Deut 32).
Over time we might forget the content of each message. Our attitudes and behaviour might be transformed only incrementally. But each week, we build the connection as we hang out with God and his story. Even though we might not be fully conscious of what’s going on, we’re enjoying the feeling of sitting on our heavenly Father’s knee and having the same story read to us over and over again. And it’s that feeling of connection that builds the bonds of trust and affection and love.
Does it mean that duty, character, goals, and worldview aren’t important? Not at all! But when we trust and love God, we’re more likely to want to do what pleases him, to be more like him, to pursue his purposes in our lives, and to see the world around us through our Father’s eyes. Hosea 11:1 “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. 2 But the more they were called, the more they went away from me. They sacrificed to the Baals and they burned incense to images. 3 It was I who taught Ephraim to walk, taking them by the arms; but they did not realize it was I who healed them. 4 I led them with cords of human kindness, with ties of love. To them I was like one who lifts a little child to the cheek, and I bent down to feed them. 5 “Will they not return to Egypt and will not Assyria rule over them because they refuse to repent? … 10 They will follow the LORD; he will roar like a lion. When he roars, his children will come trembling from the west. 11 They will come from Egypt, trembling like sparrows, from Assyria, fluttering like doves. I will settle them in their homes,” declares the LORD.
* Daniel Doriani, Putting the Truth to Work (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2001), 97-121.