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Six crucial elements of a sticky message: emotion

[This post is part of the series on Preaching for Youth]. If you haven’t read Made to Stick yet, the inspiring book by Chip and Dan Heath about making ideas and messages stick, you really should. We’ve been applying the advice about sticky messages to preaching for youth and have discovered some effective means of making our sermons more memorable. Today we’ll be looking at making your messages emotional.

Making your sermon emotional is not about pushing people’s emotional buttons. That’s actually not that hard and I’ve seen people do it in church services. Images of a suffering Jesus, for instance taken out of the Passion of the Christ, cue some deeply emotional music and you’re all set. But that’s not what this is about (and personally I’m not that wild about playing with people’s emotions that way).

Made to Stick tells us that research shows that feelings inspire people to act, not rational info. Teens may believe smoking is bad for them, but they still smoke. If the goal of our sermons is to see lives impacted and transformed, or in other words to have our audience act on what we share with them, we need to make them care. How do we do that?

There are three ways to make people care about a message:

  • form an association between something they don’t yet care about and something they do care about
  • appeal to their self interest
  • appeal to their identity

Care by association

If you’re preaching to youth, a good place to start is to find something they do care about and somehow connect it to whatever you’re trying to teach them. Let’s see if we can make this a bit more practical. Say the key message of your sermon is that you can unload with God, share your heart’s every emotion because He can take it. The young people in your audience may not care about David’s story or the Psalms you’re teaching from. But they do care about friendship, about the safety of sharing your heart with your best friend. They do care about being loved and accepted, no matter what you do. So there’s your ‘emotional connection’ to make it work.

Appeal to self-interest

No matter how egoistical it is: people care mostly about themselves. They want to know how what you’re saying relates to them, how it’s beneficial to them. That means that the ‘what’s in it for you’ should be an element in every speech. It will have even more effect when you help you audience paint a picture of the benefits for themselves, when you help them imagine their life after they’ve acted out your sermon.

This may sound very un-Biblical to many of us, way too focused on ourselves instead of on God. And it would be if not for the fact that it’s not just money and power or things like that that people consider beneficial for themselves.

Young people nowadays are a very charitative generation, they care about suffering, about hunger, about pain and abuse. They also care about being seen, feeling wanted and affirmed, about finding a goal in life and about belonging and being part of a community. Any of these benefits will speak to them and make them care.

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Appeal to identity

A third aspect of making people care about your message is appealing to their identity. I think this one is kind of tricky when preaching to youth. Too often, I see preachers and teachers appeal to a perceived common identity as Christians (‘as Christians we should love each other’), when it’s not actually there. Young people don’t easily see themselves as Christians, so that’s not an identity you can count on. This postmodern generation doesn’t like labels in general, so it’s a slippery slope appealing to one that will encompass everyone in your audience.

If anything, you’d be better off appealing to the identity of being young, postmodern maybe (without actually mentioning that word), being a teen or a student. That may do the job without actually alienating anyone. On the other hand, it’s so general that it may not be of much use.

An overall fact to keep in mind is that people care about the individual, about the unique, not about the big picture or statistics. Make it personal where ever you can. If you want to talk about the current problem of human trafficking for instance, don’t just dump statistics, but share personal stories of victims. The Heath brother use a wonderful quote from Mother Theresa to stress the importance of making it personal:

“If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.”

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