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How to Prevent Death by Sermon
If you want exciting worship, turn off your "brain secretary" and balance tradition with the unexpected.

In her book Preventing Death by Lecture, motivational speaker Sharon Bowman teaches top executives from corporations such as Exxon, Microsoft and Krispy Kreme Doughnuts to capture employees' attention and prevent their minds from wandering.

In her lectures she introduces them to "the brain secretary," the mysterious mechanism that puts our main brain on autopilot while we are doing something repetitive, something we're used to doing, such as washing dishes or driving a familiar route. This automated response is an enemy of learning.

"The brain secretary is programmed to take care of the routine," she explains. "it says, 'Been there, done that. I've got it covered. Your mind can take a hike.' If a dog darts in front of the car, the brain secretary 'bangs on the door of the thinking brain,' which clicks into gear.

"You have to keep the learners' brains active," she tells her students as she perches a glass atop her head and throws a ball at one of her audience members. "Learning is not a spectator sport. The person doing the most talking is doing the most learning. We remember 20 percent of what we hear, but 90 percent of what we say and do. Research shows that if you leave a group of adults sitting, listening for more than seven minutes, their minds begin to drift. Learning is directly proportional to the amount of fun they're having.

"You need to follow every eight or ten-minute segment of a presentation with at least 60 seconds of something different. All learning is experience. Everything else is just information. If I want them to hear it, I talk. If I want them to learn it, they talk."

What does this have to do with worship? Everything! Worship cannot be a passive experience. We worship by doing. So why is it that our churches are designed to be spectator-oriented, similar to watching a theatre play or listening to a lecture? As a congregation, our worship service "experience" averages just one to two hours weekly. The rest of the time we are bombarded by the values of secular culture. How can we make the most of our worship so as to make a permanent difference in our day-to-day routine?

Worship does not come naturally to us. We must learn it. We must practise it. And what better opportunity do we have than at church? Yet most of the time, church is a passive experience. We mostly listen and watch. Then we go home and forget most of what took place. Don't believe me? Ask yourself this: What were the subjects of the sermons that I've heard in this past month? What songs do I remember singing? What did the band pay? What did the songsters sing? And how much of what happened in the Sunday meeting has directly impacted my daily life since?

Let's turn off our brain secretaries and begin to craft practical worship services that prepare us to engage in spiritual warfare in our day-to-day lives. Here are some ideas:

1. Involve all of the senses.

Usually worship services are mostly about sound (hearing) and sight. If we want to remember what we learned in the next few days and weeks, we must begin to involve other senses in worship—taste, smell and touch.

I read about one creative pastor who was speaking about Christ, our "Bread of Life." As a stroke of genius, he set up bread makers along the walls on each side of the sanctuary. As the service progressed, the congregation could smell the wonderful aroma of bread baking right in the sanctuary. They finished the service by breaking bread and sharing communion together.

Although this congregation had participated in communion many times before, guess which service they never forgot. And what happened the next time they sniffed the aroma of freshly-baked bread? They were instantly taken back to that particular communion service and remembered the lesson that Jesus is our Bread of Life.

2. Rebrand everyday objects.

Most people have heard of the concept of branding in media. Show someone the "golden arches" and they will immediately respond "McDonald's!" The general public, when shown a Red Shield, will automatically recognize The Salvation Army. I am a member of the Salvation Army. That is our brand, our logo. Using a concept called "rebranding," we can repurpose everyday objects to remind us of God, the Gospel and worship.

At the beginning of a worship service last year we were each handed a piece of charcoal. We weren't allowed to put it down but had to keep holding it until we received further instructions. As the service progressed, our hands became black as we awkwardly tried not to touch our clothes or any other object.

Eventually we were led in a devotional on sin and confession that related the contamination of our hands to the contamination of sin in our hearts. We then practised a time of confession by laying our charcoal at the base of a cross and washing our hands in bowls provided for us. Six months later I can still vividly recall that service. Now, every time I see charcoal, I automatically remember the ritual of confession and its significance.

3. Balance tradition with unexpected.

We must find ways to force our brains out of autopilot. If the order of service, the way we sing our songs and the leadership voices we hear never change from week to week, our brain goes into "secretary mode." We can't help it! To keep a congregation focused and alert, we must throw them curveballs from time to time. Here's how:

4. Rethink the use of space.

Take some of the "entertainment" off the platform and into the congregation. What if the band or songsters one Sunday perform their selection in the sanctuary aisles? I guarantee you the congregation will pay close attention, and remember what they heard long after the service is finished. What if Scripture is presented by several congregational members who stand right where they are, alternating lines randomly? I'm sure no congregational member will be snoozing after that.

5. Vary the texture of voices and instruments.

What if a vocal soloist begins a service by suddenly singing out the first verse to All Creatures of Our God and King, with no accompaniment or introduction? I guarantee the congregation will quieten down and pay attention. Help a congregation focus on the lyrics of an old hymn by singing it in a new way. For example, begin with the chorus of How Great Thou Art—allowing the congregation to enjoy the sound of their own voice worshipping by singing a cappella—then transition into the third verse instead of the first. Use a guitar to softly accompany a hymn instead of the expected band arrangement. Ask the songsters to sing one of the verses in four-part harmony. Introduce a new chorus by having it sung as a solo, with the congregation joining in the second time.

6. Creatively combine words and melodies.

Try singing Be Thou MyVision with the chorus "Christ is all, my all in all." Use the chorus "On Christ, the solid rock, I stand" with the contemporary hymn In Christ Alone. Pair new tunes with old hymns, such as The Rose with What a Friend We Have in Jesus and John Denver's Annie's Song with He Giveth More Grace. Add a new twist by singing fast songs slowly, such as I've Found a Friend in Jesus, and introducing new choruses in combination with familiar songs. Chris Tomlin's TheWonderful Cross and AmazingGrace (My Chains Are Gone) are great examples.

7. Add visual surprises in unexpected places.

While the congregation is singing, have a choreographed mime group, flag wavers, sign language experts or timbrelists suddenly join in part-way through. Don't announce a drama sketch in advance—have it happen suddenly from an unexpected entrance.

8. Encourage the congregation to interact.

Go beyond just standing or clapping. Allow them a moment to share with their neighbour something that has happened to them in relation to the sermon theme, or let them answer a question posed by the pastor. I still remember the Sunday that Colonel Glen Shepherd, chief secretary, allowed a question-and-answer period during his sermon. That bit of interaction is permanently etched in my memory.

Another time, our corps officer handed out plastic balls to every member of the congregation. After his sermon on "community," we were given fine-point markers and told to get other people to sign our ball, while sharing with them what their friendship has meant to us personally. I still have that ball, and every time I pick it up and see the signatures of my friends, I remember to pray for them.

9. Use media to its full advantage.

When Major Floyd Tidd, corps ministries secretary, showed the opening scene of the film Saving Private Ryan at a Remembrance Day service, accompanied by the beautiful song Bring Him Home from Les Miserables, I felt a wave of emotion that still resonates with me. One Good Friday service, after we sang In the Cross, with its third verse—"Bring its scenes before me"—a scene of Christ's crucifixion from the movie Jesus was shown silently on screen while a flute player quietly played the hymn in the background. It was a powerful setup for the Easter devotional that followed.

10. Form a worship committee.

In many churches, key members meet regularly to brainstorm creative ways to engage their congregation in worship. When the bandmaster, songster leader, contemporary worship leader, youth leader, corps officer, sound and media personnel, and other creative members of the congregation get together, it is a means of co-ordinating a fluid, thematic service. Involving a variety of people in worship planning and leadership also discourages passivity and impacts the congregation in memorable ways. As worshippers become more engaged, the lessons they experience in the morning service will spill over into their daily routine and help them see that all of life is worship.

For further worship ideas, the bimonthly E-Worship newsletter can be downloaded at

Kim Garreffa is the contemporary music consultant with Corps Ministries, at the Salvation Army's Territorial Headquarters.

Originally published in Salvationist, March 2007.




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