Why you need to understand how your congregation learns
Most church leaders would never presume that every member of the congregation should look the same; individuality is a good thing. However, many leaders seem to expect conformity when it comes to how individuals learn.
Just as each person has a unique clothing style, each also has a unique learning style. The people in your congregation differ in the ways they prefer to learn, and they actually learn differently. Diversity is something to be celebrated. However, while many church leaders readily acknowledge various learning styles among children, most pastors still maintain the traditional “I talk; you listen” approach to sermons. It’s a costly approach.
The goal of any church is to reach the lost with the gospel message. The desire of every pastor is to help the congregation grow in God’s word. The objective is to reach as many people as possible. By adapting your method of delivery to include different approaches, you can more effectively teach a congregation full of people who learn differently.
What are learning styles?
Researchers have defined seven or eight specific learning styles — ways that individuals learn. Learners can be divided into three major categories.
- Visual learners are attracted to the written word and visual images.
- Auditory learners learn best by talking or hearing the message.
- Kinesthetic/tactile learners want to “do.” They learn best by moving or touching or taking part in an activity related to the lesson.
Of course, some people learn best by combining all three elements. So, as the teacher, the more you are able to incorporate all three elements, the more likely you are to reach every “student.”
What can you do?
Traditionally, pastors have been trained in public speaking and to outline and explain scripture. In other words, to stand in front of a congregation and talk. That’s what most pastors do, and that’s great for auditory learners. Those who learn by listening are likely to “get” your message. However, many others may be just going through the motions. They may hear what you are saying, but their understanding is impaired; comprehending what you have to say is much more difficult for them. By intentionally incorporating a variety of elements into your sermon or other presentation, you can help every individual understand, remember and apply your message more often. Consider these ideas.
How to reach auditory learners
- Work with the worship leader to make sure the music complements the theme of the message.
- Many auditory learners learn by speaking as well as listening. Give the congregation an opportunity to talk. Ask them to participate in read-and-response passages, read lectionaries or repeat various points from the message to their neighbors.
- Include mnemonics — devices that aid memorization — to help listeners remember important points. There are a variety of mnemonic aids, such as rhymes or acronyms. Incorporate some in your sermon, and give the congregation a chance to work through them out loud. Online mnemonic generators such as Spacefem can help. When presented in a written format, mnemonics can also help visual learners.
- Ask the congregation to read the scripture out loud with you or to audibly fill in the blank or to ask or answer questions during the service.
- Consider a time of audible corporate prayer.
How to reach visual learners
- Include fill-in-the-blank, note-taking or doodling sheets in the bulletin. Consider hosting a class on notetaking tips and tools, and encourage your congregation to put them into practice during your sermons.
- Present the highlights of your message on a PowerPoint slide while you speak.
- Use free online tools such as draw.io or canva.com to create diagrams and charts that convey related information. Include them in the bulletin or display them on screens during your service.
- Engage the congregation with videos that relate to your sermon.Play a movie clip related to your message or a YouTube video that links current events to your sermon. Consider using video message from a missionary. Use visual illustrations to drive home the message.
- Ask the congregation to read certain scriptures to themselves and then to read them aloud and discuss with one another..
How to reach kinesthetic/tactile learners
- Include movement as you sing during worship. This might be sign language or simple motions.
- Encourage hand-raising, kneeling and other bodily forms of worship.
- Ask for volunteers from the congregation to role-play certain aspects of your message.
- Alternate between asking your congregation to stand and sit throughout your message.
- Ask your congregation to “do” something specific in relation to what you are saying. For example, “How many fish did the little boy give to Jesus? Clap your hands two times! How many loaves of bread did he have? Stomp your feet five times?”
- Provide manipulatives. Are you discussing the Crucifixion? Consider giving everyone a small metal cross or a bookmark with a cross on it. Periodically ask them to look at specific details of the cross during the service.
Some of these ideas may seem awkward to some members of your group; not everyone is going to be comfortable with all of them. Reaching every type of learner is going to take some out-of-the-box thinking. That’s why it’s also important to help your congregation understand how they learn. Consider asking them to take a free online learning quiz or to complete a quiz during worship. You can find several printable versions, such as this one at schoolonwheels or this learning style inventory. Discuss how each person learns differently and ask them to be willing to try different ways of experiencing the message during worship. Encourage people to step out of their comfort zones as a way of ministering to others in the congregation.
It will take effort. Consciously working to reach all the learners in your congregation means intentionally changing the way you approach your worship services. It won’t happen by accident. But it’s worth it. By connecting learning styles with the spiritual growth of your congregation, you can celebrate the diversity of the learners in your care and make sure that more people actually understand the message you are bringing.