No one remembers anything anyway, so why should sermons be different?
The most persistent assumption of the weekly sermon is that it should be memorable. In my quarter-century of vocational ministry and with an entire life in the church, I’ve heard church folk voice the same criticisms of preaching you have heard:
“I hear it on Sunday, but can’t remember it by Wednesday.”
“There was nothing memorable or novel about it.”
“Why don’t you make an outline people can fill-in to help people remember?”
These criticisms have the power of being completely unverifiable (no one has ever tested their church's sermon content memory), plus no single person can make another person remember something, even when that something is deeply meaningful (see: me trying to remember which years my daughters were born).
That’s the power of these criticisms, memory is both unprovable and un-doable.
Preachers feel the sting about a failing that lies entirely inside the memory of the hearer. Some people, like my wife, remember almost everything. Others struggle to remember anything, regardless of the content. Memory is both a gift and a skill, and neither can be compelled by a preacher.
But what’s more concerning is that memorableness (which may not be a word) is a criticism of preaching that we apply to nothing else which shares a similar form. Memorability is a criticism that relies on a function of the human brain, which is seriously unreliable, namely human memory. Add to that the truth that it is an assumption that a sermon should be memorable.
Let’s start with memory.
Brains Aren’t Video Cameras
Studies, beginning most prominently in 1988, continue to demonstrate that eyewitness testimony is not nearly as reliable as we think. Research indicates that what we see and hear are not the same thing we remember seeing and hearing. According to the Constitutional Rights Foundation, over half of wrongful convictions were created by mistaken eyewitnesses.
Recently, Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast posted an episode entitled “Free Brian Williams.” For years, Williams, a former television anchor, told a story about taking fire in a military helicopter in Iraq. Wiliams is on the record having told this story multiple times, with the story being embellished in each telling. There was a problem, though. He wasn't there. It didn’t happen, at least not to him.
In the episode, Gladwell examines memory and how memory works. What does he discover? Many of our memories are made up and are constantly being revised and updated. Plus, after we tell a story enough times, our brains begin to think the events actually happen. Our minds begin to conform to false memories as if they were true. After a while, Williams’ brain didn’t think he was lying. His brain remembered it that way. That’s not merely true of Brian Williams’ memory, but all of ours.
Psychology and science bear this out. A recent article in The Guardian reported that research now indicated that even short-term memory consists of illusions.
I know this as a preacher because I have been both praised and accosted after sermons for saying things I know I did not say. In those cases, I’m not relying on my memory over someone else’s. I have recordings to verify what I did and did not say. It’s not that people are deliberately misremembering, but rather that human memory is not that much a banger skill for most of us. Yet, each week countless pastors and the hearers in our churches enter the kerygmatic moment with an expectation which will inevitably fail most of us: This should be remembered.
If Not Memory, Then What?
The scriptures come as one large story, with smaller stories embedded within, almost like deeply meaningful and testifying side-quests. This being so, the sermon might better serve the church by riding along the rails of a story form rather than bullet point form. I wrote about this last month and you can read it HERE.
Stories have a different telos than do math lessons or memorizing dates in history class, yet many preachers think their churches registered for a seminar rather than the proclamation of a story. As an avid reader and movie watcher, I can tell you one thing: I don’t have a vivid recollection of the details of most movies I’ve watched or books I’ve read. In fact, I’ve sat down to read a book only to realize I’d already read it.
What books and movies and stories do provide is an experience which shapes my worldview and offers me windows into another person’s perspective and world, namely the world of the women and men we find in Scripture. Like most folks, I have never walked out of a movie or finished a novel and said, “I got the point.” The story itself is the point.
When stories work like equations, we may do violence to the very form God chose to give us. The role of the sermon is to give us a view into a different world, the Kingdom of God, and to offer an invitation to see and experience people and the world with Kingdom eyes.
Sermons, like food, exist for nourishment, not memory. In my life, I’ve had a little over 52,000 meals. I can only remember a handful of them, but each of them fed me.
Sean Palmer is the Teaching Pastor at Ecclesia Houston, speaker and speaking coach, and author of several books including--Speaking by the Numbers: Ennegram Wisdom for Teachers, Pastors, and Communicators.