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Rewiring Your Preaching: How the Brain Processes Sermons

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What preachers preach is not necessarily what hearers hear. Have you ever wondered why some hearers are affected by a sermon but not others? The issue may not necessarily be the content or delivery of the message. It may be how your hearers' brains process what you say. Modern neuroscience illuminates how our brains understand and hear sermons. Verbal stimuli can be accepted or rejected depending on the context of how they are received. The brain processes new information differently than information that reinforces already-held beliefs. To have long-term effect, new information must connect with previous memory. Psychologist, physician and preacher Richard Cox shows that better understanding of the brain can help preachers be more effective in their preaching. Intentional, purposeful preaching can actually produce new neural pathways that change how the brain thinks and how its owner acts. Our brains are intimately connected with how our bodies work, especially in how brain stimuli produce behavioral responses and how people experience comfort and healing in times of pain. God is at work in our brains to enable his people to hear him. Preach with the brain in mind, and help your hearers grow in mental, physical and spiritual health.

182 pages, Paperback

First published November 14, 2012

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Richard H. Cox

26 books2 followers

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Displaying 1 - 8 of 8 reviews
Profile Image for James.
1,493 reviews107 followers
January 17, 2013
In Rewiring Your Preaching: How the Brain Processes Sermons Richard Cox ((M.D., Ph.D. D.Min) issues a call to purposeful preaching . Cox is an ordained minister (PCUSA) and teaches in the department of psychaitry and behavioral sciences at Duke Medical School. He believes that knowledge of modern medicine, psychology and neuroscience illumines how the brain makes sense of the sermon (or rejects it) and that this knowledge will help us preachers attend better to our task of proclamation. The Spirit of God is at work enlivening our preaching and speaking to hearts and minds in the congregation; however knowledge of how listeners’ brains process external stimuli can aid us in our sermon writing and presentation.

In fourteen chapters, Cox covers a number of aspects of preaching and the brain. In the first three chapters he addresses how the brain processes external stimulus, and in particular, preaching. It turns out that while the brain processes sermons like other stimuli, it also sees preaching as unique. Only in a church is truth proclaimed from a pulpit, and despite scandals of clergy misconduct, people still regard preaching (and the preacher) as an authority in religious matters. Whether or not the preacher’s message ‘connects’ with a hearer depends on how well the brain is prepared to ‘hear.’ All sound is heard and enters the brain, either as new information or confusion to be discarded. The difference is how the brain is prepared to hear the message and add new information to old. Cox calls the process religare- meaning ‘tying back.’ Through repeated listening to sermons and other messages about faith, the human brain is able to tie things together and make new connections.

In chapters 4-7, Cox describes the power of the spoken word to impact the brain. He argues that brain-based-preaching brings healing because it provides the integration, synthesis and hope that the brain longs for. Furthermore, Cox asserts that preaching allows the brain to rethink and construct new neurological pathways. Through preaching, people can enter a new way of thinking and this has implications for behavioral change as well.

In chapter 8 Cox describes the way the work of ’the pastor’ differs from the work of ‘the preacher.’ Each role that a minister takes (preacher or pastor) occupies it’s own unique sphere and requires particular skills. On the other hand each role reinforces the other (a good pastor enlivens the hearing of their congregation, a successful preacher is able to care well for the flock).

In Chapters 9-14 Cox talks about the nature of healing, the brain and preaching. In chapter 9 he discusses the unique contribution of theology (and the power of sacrament, symbol and liturgy to help people make new connections). In chapter 10 Cox looks at how the brain processes pain and the way preaching can bring hope and peace to the one suffering. Chapters 11-13 discuss the way the brain interacts to bring healing to the soul, the mind and the body. Cox argues that the spoken word has real power to impact a person’s whole well-being. In the final chapter Cox discusses how the brain is impacted by social realities and how a word rightly spoken from the pulpit may bring healing to community.

Cox is able to effectively communicate knowledge of the brain in non-technical language. He offers much food for thought. I particularly was struck by his insight that symbol, liturgy and sacrament open up the brain to process and make sense of new stimuli. He also makes an impassioned case for purposeful preaching: preaching should call people (their brains and all) to action. Cox is able to demonstrate that it is impossible for the brain to process information and not act on it; either by synthesizing or discarding it. Effective preaching should enable congregants grow in understanding, faith and aid in their spiritual transformation.

Cox has many wonderful things to say about what is going on in the brain when we preach. If his only contribution was to show how fearfully and wonderfully humanity is made and how our brains interact with the spiritual life, it would be enough. Yet all who preach will be encouraged and exhorted by this book. This is not a ‘how to’ book on preaching. But it will get you thinking about your role as preacher and the ways you can preach more effectively.

Thank you to InterVarsity Press for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for this review.
Profile Image for E.
128 reviews11 followers
July 14, 2022
4.5 Stars

Highly recommend for any Preacher, as well as to the Bible Study or Sunday School teacher. Written in an easily digestible and pleasantly simple manner- well worth the easy read.

-Wasn't quite sure what to think about in relation to the "Energy" aspect in Chapter 6

-There are A LOT of brief mentions on certain ideas or aspects, but then backtracking and claiming the inability to delve into the ideas more throughly due to the subject matter being too extensive to write out.

*Additional notes (later use for me) I wrote down through the read:
-"Some pastors produce psychosocially appealing sermons, hoping not to upset the saints too severely, and even entertain them a bit, and to appeal to the unchurched." [PREFACE];
A sentence- coalescing in an equally gut-wrenching paragraph- that should pierce the conscience of any aspiring preacher/pastor/teacher. In response to Peter’s sermon during Pentecost, Acts 2:37 "Now when they heard this, they were katanussó (:to prick violently; "emotionally pierced through") in their heart...", we see the crowd's reaction and repentance come not through a watered down 'feel-good' message but from one that boldly echoes the OT prophet Nathan's words of declaring "Thou art the man" (2 Sam. 12:7). God forbid teaching/preaching becomes merely a source of entertainment for the speaker as well as the listener, or that, especially in today's society, we become so afraid of cancel-culture/stepping on people's toes that we become truly inept and afraid to wield the 'sword' [Hebrews 4:12] at all.

-"Churches that have largely eliminated traditional symbols have elected to forsake many powerful messages. Some people consider such symbols unnecessary—so much so that in some megachurches, there is no indication that it is a church. The auditorium has no religious symbolism. Therefore, what is the message? Has this church eliminated symbols? No, of course not; it has simply substituted the symbol of secularism or nonreligious symbols for the traditional stained-glass windows, icons and other “churchy” accoutrements. The commercial and industrial worlds have learned well how to use every gate possible for marketing temporary pleasures. Why should the church be less wise with its powerful symbols and resources?" [Chapter 2];
Agree to disagree with the face-value of what he's saying. I don't necessarily see the necessity to adopt 'traditional' churches decked with ostentatious symbols- a nice and clean church will leave the same effect if hosted by wlecoming saints and a power-filled anointed word.

-"It is impossible for the brain to receive external stimuli without producing a behavioral response. The response may be to accept, to reject, to file away for future reference or to make an immediate decision. How we behave is based on what we believe, and what we believe is based on what we already believe plus new stimuli. John Buchanan, former pastor of the Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago, speaks pointedly about preaching for decision: “If we wrap up the Sunday morning service without posing a question to be answered, a challenge or an invitation, we have left critical work undone.” [Chapter 7];
The most important part of any service is not in the preaching but in the 'Altar Call'.

-"The brain can’t refuse information. It can, however, refuse to assimilate and/or accommodate it, which results not in refusal of the hearing or the listening but in assignment to a pathway that will end either in stagnant storage or in an engrammed pathway for selective use in decision making." [Chapter 7];
This! This is why it is so important to moniotor what we allow have access to us, whether through entertainment, music, books, etc.


Notable Quotes:

-Transport Peter to the present and place him on a stand in Times Square. Other than speaking to a more secular audience, the modern-day Peter must understand what is now basic to the neurosciences. First, the sensory organs gather the words of Peter, filter them, and move them forward to higher (and lower) levels of the brain, a brain that is far more than a transmitter. This brain, altered through the exposure to our very complex modern environment, attempts to make sense of the surrounding world. Peter must compete with shortened attention spans and with distractions that include smartphones, tablets, massive flat-screen monitors and a pace of life that is dramatically faster than in Jerusalem. We don’t know the length of Peter’s sermon, but if it lasted even thirty minutes, an audience accustomed to fifteen-second sound bites would not linger for the punch line. If this is the end of the story, it is not an encouraging story for Peter or any would-be Peter in the twenty-first century. [FOREWORD]

-Our growing understanding of how the brain works can be a means to uncovering the desired goal of those who deliver a sermon, but it should never be considered the end product of the sermon. Sermons can change brains (Cox correctly emphasizes the plasticity of the brain), yet the purpose of the sermon is not to change brains but rather to change persons. The essence of personhood supervenes on the brain. In other words, the brain is necessary but not sufficient for personhood. At the interface of the person with his or her God rests the mystery of the sermon. The sermon is carried by the Spirit to the person via the brain, not to the brain via the person. [FOREWORD]

-So we have a problem. Is there an answer? Would powerful, purposeful preaching save the day? It’s hard to say, but it’s not hard to see that without such preaching, simply keeping the doors open does not fulfill the church’s purpose.
Without powerful preaching, is caring for the poor and feeding the hungry sufficient to make the church more than the United Way or Red Cross?

-A congregation that is half asleep may be worse than none at all.

-But because God is capable of blessing poor sermons is no excuse to preach poorly.

-Perception is everything to the brain. A child who has been burned by a hot stove may avoid the stove even when it is cold, because the brain has been conditioned to believe that stoves are hot and burn. That child may also perceive that his or her knee is broken when it’s only scraped in a fall. Perception is a combination of fact and feeling.

-Theologian Richard Lischner correctly asserted, “This church exists for the world, but it renews its identity when it gathers for worship...."

-Chapter twenty-eight of the book of Isaiah gives us a beautiful illustration. When the people of Israel would not hear the word of the Lord, we are shown one of God’s methods. Isaiah said, “Whom will he teach knowledge, and to whom will he explain the message? . . . For it is precept upon precept, precept upon precept, line upon line, line upon line, here a little, there a little” (vv. 9-10). Notice that even in describing the process for repetition, repetition is modeled. Over and over in the story of the Israelites, repetition is the technique described for leading the people into understanding. The brain responds to repetition.

-Looking at the preacher as a technician—a soul technician—helps us to understand the requirements of the profession. Preachers who know the basics of human knowledge understand attention span, make allowance for age differences within the congregation and choose precise phraseology and vocabulary. Often ministers don’t carefully choose the specific “tool” for a given sermon, a specific audience or a unique occasion for which a specially prepared sermon is needed. Yet no repair technician would attempt to repair an appliance without the special tool and knowledge of the occasion. The preacher should be no less prepared than an appliance technician, who must know the product;
know what the product is built to do;
have a depth of knowledge of the product manual;
understand the mechanism of action;
be acquainted with the more common problems;
know how to be certain the problem is fixed.
Corollaries to this analogy may be found in preaching. The “product” is the congregant listener; the function is holy living; the product manual is the Bible;
the mechanism of action is the work of the Holy Spirit in soul, mind and body;
the common problem is “being human”; and a changed lifestyle and daily living demonstrate that the problem has been fixed.

-Unless future necessities are made to have importance at the moment, memory of new information is stored for a future time and therefore has little immediate value—unless the future need is made clear. Maturity plays a major part in this process. The younger the child, the less he or she understands that what is learned today will be needed tomorrow. Similarly, many elderly people fail to accept new information, believing that they are so old that they will not need it in the future. Both are erroneous positions. This may be why adolescence and young adulthood are the optimal times for the integration of new knowledge, particularly sermons that present real-life lessons. For example, a college student may have little if any interest in a classroom lecture, but the immediate need is to learn information for an upcoming exam that will determine a course grade.
Since sermon information is for today, tomorrow and beyond, learning how to make the sermon message an immediate need is mandatory.

-However, methods that have proven to work with children are often ignored when teaching adults, even though humans learn by the same processes from cradle to grave.

-Here we introduce an important concept for connecting the brain to religion. Object lessons work, whereas words often have insufficient data to “tie back to” (religare). When we can’t tie new information to old, it is often lost.

-How adults think about God is directly related to the roots that have been nurtured in them as children, so that there is a basis for new thoughts to tie back to what is already accepted thinking. All thoughts must be objectified to become cognitive food for decision making and behavioral action.

-Why was the repetition important? “When your children ask you in time to come, ‘What is the meaning of the decrees and the statutes and the ordinances that the Lord our God has commanded you?’ then you shall say to your children .
. .” (Deut 6:20-21). The take-home lesson here is that we are to teach what children do not clearly understand at the time but with maturity will understand later.
This is an interesting illustration in that it recognizes the difference between what we tell children (due to their ability to understand it) and what we tell adults (due to what they have learned that can be built on). In this case, the premise is laid: Love the Lord completely; have no doubts about the love relationship. Then build on that premise: the child who asks later will be able to accept the hardships and promises of God. The foundation was laid for religare —that is, there was something poured in concrete to be tied back to.

-Children learn language (including theological language) in relationship to meaning, not meaning in relationship to language. There is a solemn but valuable lesson in this for those who teach children, whether it is theology or something else. A child must first have a repertoire of words that are grounded in meaning.

-The people then went their way with “great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them” (Neh 8:12). The key word here is understood.
Understanding is the predecessor to decision. The brain can’t change its thought process without understanding at some level—actually at several levels, although sometimes the level is purely physical, anatomical or even chemical in nature. Decisions can be made only after understanding.

-Good preaching must be applied uniquely to the preacher before it can be made public, thus allowing the power of the sermon to heal the messenger first. The preacher first digests the message and, after finding the discourse instructive and healing, is able to apply it to others. If the preacher is not made more whole by the content, there is little hope that others will benefit from it either. After the preacher has faced the truths and convictions of the Word in the privacy of the study and personal prayer, it may then—and only then—be viewed as appropriate for congregational consumption.

-The idea that preaching is simply one element among other worshipful aspects of a service places the Word in a role subordinate to what may be considered intimate or personal. Worship is communal and worship is individual. Preaching is both as well. The preached word contains the power of individual and group transformation. Worship, by definition, refers to the unique experience of relating our innermost selves to God, both in soliloquy and in concert. Preaching begins with the private, communal relationship of the preacher to the Creator of the preached Word. Only after this kind of intimacy can the preaching become an integral part of the worship—that is, the publicly proclaimed revelation that has come from the intensity of that most sacred moment when God has spoken and the preacher has listened.

-Spirit works on the soul; truth works on the brain; and both are important attributes of the Holy Spirit.
Often sermons attempt to tune listeners in to their own spirits and carefully avoid truth. They assume that relating and engaging the emotional aspects of the faith will promote true faith (or at least faithful attendance). Such assumptions are faulty, since the engagement is to a prejudicial fervor, not the spirit of “truth.”
We must carefully discern between “the wind [that] blows where it chooses” (Jn 3:8) and our own wind that blows our nonbiblical sails. This passage is no doubt speaking of the work of the Holy Spirit—the power of the Holy Spirit. The preacher can rightly be expected to provide the truth from years of study and meditation in the Scriptures. At other times, overzealous evangelists have been so caught up in what they perceive as truth that they forget the necessary ingredient of spirit (that is, the Holy Spirit) and act as if they were responsible and able to provide both.

-To identify with Christ, we are required to identify with the burdened, the downtrodden, the ill and afflicted, the poor and the prisoners.

-When talking to the woman at the well, Jesus debunked the earthly definition of worship. He made it clear that it is not where we worship, but how and what we worship. To be in worship, we must worship the One who is the message, the One whom we believe incarnates the preacher, the One who promotes the essential voice of God, which continues the worship in the brain long after the sermon has ended.

-The sermon must be given the prominence of Moses presenting the Ten Commandments, Jeremiah decrying the wickedness of the people, John the Baptist crying out in the wilderness, Jesus casting out the demons, Paul preaching to the masses and the apostle John proclaiming the powerful language and metaphor of the Revelation. They did not preach as if the information was elective; it is mandatory for the survival of souls, nations and civilizations. The sermon must contain things that we must hear. It must also convince us that we need to hear those things.

-A story is told of a salesman who returned to his home office without selling anything and told his boss that it wasn’t his fault because “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.” To this the boss replied, “Yes, but your job is to make the horse thirsty.” Often—maybe most of the time —the job of the minister is to stimulate thirst in the audience. They will then seek the water and enjoy being served by the water bearer.

-Powerful preaching may start where we are but proceeds to where we need to be. Sermons are not attempts to make the Scriptures congruent with our lives but to make our lives congruent with the Scriptures.

-Although all the sciences help us to understand and to preach more powerfully, there is no room to doubt where the real power comes from—God alone.
Knowledge is only a tool to demonstrate that power.

-The power is not in the method, but in the message.

-But there is no such thing as a singular sin. Sins are like stacked dominoes; no one domino falls alone.
Further, sin can’t be undone—it can only be forgiven. Deviation from God’s intended harmony produces cataclysmic waves beyond anything that can be seen. All of life is within relationship. Nothing occurs in isolation or without reverberations. Acts of disobedience to God produce waves like a pebble, whose ripples are ongoing.
This is where preaching comes in. It addresses the larger picture, which is the deepest picture—the reconciliation of the whole of creation.

-People who are able to transcend the physical and find meaning in the spiritual are often able to reduce both pain and suffering. Suffering is reduced when we see a reason for it or understand that we have power over it, even if we are unable to alleviate the pain medically.

-Christ’s humility did not start with deciding to be humble. Humanly speaking, it began with the thinking process that accepted the Father’s plan for his life, even with the knowledge that such a plan would include pain and suffering.

-It’s not enough to “make disciples”—that is, to convert others to the faith; it’s obligatory to teach them to obey everything that has been commanded, which includes the Sermon on the Mount and the entire message of God’s redemption through Jesus Christ.
Profile Image for James.
11 reviews1 follower
November 9, 2013
This is one of the most helpful books on preaching I have read in quite a while. It's not about methodology or style or technique. It is an analysis of how the brain responds to preaching and how preaching is to be a means of healing and restoring the whole person. The author is both a preacher and an M.D. Having worked in both parish and healthcare chaplaincy settings, I found Cox's approach refreshing and encouraging.
Profile Image for Bryan Spoon.
Author 3 books18 followers
June 20, 2021
Rewiring Your Preaching is loaded with tools and resources to help both pastors and congregants get more from sermons. The brain is attuned to act on information that brings healing and is useful for imminent survival. Cox puts the need for strong and informed preaching in succinct terms: "The neuroscience of human learning, patterns of memory, methods of information retention, attention spans and other factors relating to how parishioners listen, hear, think and remember are available in lay language to clergy and laypeople alike. Ministers who do not consider this knowledge may be less informed of their primary task than their parishioners are." Cox refers to the process where the brain internalizes and accepts information as “engramming.” Unless the preacher authentically accepts and demonstrates the message for himself or herself, it is highly unlikely that anyone from the congregation is going to act on it or find life in it. This is an excellent book that I highly recommend.
Profile Image for Rob O'Lynn.
Author 1 book14 followers
June 20, 2018
Modest attempt at blending neuroscience with sound homiletic and learning theory. The problem is that Cox, who is a trained neurologist and lay minister, waxes philosophically more than he writes factually about how the brain works, especially in the process of learning.

Since this is an emerging field in homiletics, it is a suitable offering. There is more science here than in either Rick Blackwood's The Power of Multisensory Preaching and Teaching or Julius Kim's Preaching the Whole Counsel of God, however Jeffrey Arthurs' Preaching as Reminding still offers the best discussion of the integration of neuroscience and homiletics.
Profile Image for Bret Hammond.
Author 3 books9 followers
December 19, 2021
There's some good stuff in here. Very uneven writing, though. Check out my highlights for the good parts. It seems every few years scientists re-write what we know about how the brain works. I have to believe preachers would have to do the same.

Note to IVP: this book is very poorly formatted for Kindle. It needs a lot of work.
Profile Image for David Carlson.
140 reviews2 followers
July 20, 2018
I'm halfway through and am not getting the point. I feel like I'm awash in verbiage. maybe it is me.
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