“So he [Jesus] got up from the table, took off his robe, wrapped a towel around his waist, and poured water into a basin. Then he began to wash the disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel he had around him.
“When Jesus came to Simon Peter, Peter said to him, ‘Lord, are you going to wash my feet?’
“Jesus replied, ‘You don’t understand now what I am doing, but someday you will’ ” (John 13:4-7).
Peter learned more about servanthood—and Jesus—in that one experience than a lifetime of lectures would’ve taught him.
What you learn through experience seeps all the way down to your bones. It becomes bedrock in your life.
Think about a significant life lesson that’s stuck with you a long time.
Did you learn it through a speech or sermon? Read it in a book? Or was it something that happened to you?
Some educators report that learners retain up to 90 percent more of what they experience than what they’re told. That’s especially true when you have learners talk about what they experienced.
If all that’s true—if the deepest learning happens through experience—then what’s a pastor, Sunday school teacher, or small-group leader to do?
Experiences happen when they happen. A near-miss car accident, the birth of a baby, a proud moment watching your granddaughter take her first steps—it’s hard to schedule that sort of remember-forever experience.
Or is it?
The whale in the sanctuary
This pastor was one of the first people I trained about building experience into lessons. He took it to heart—and straight into his church sanctuary.
When congregants filed in one Sunday morning, they weren’t quite sure where they were.
The stained-glass windows were completely covered with black plastic. Lighting was subdued. And a quick sniff confirmed there was a distinctly fishy smell drifting in from somewhere (a few open cans of tuna and sardines work wonders!).
Sitting in the pews, those churchgoers discovered that, like Jonah, they’d been “swallowed up” by a giant fish—and were sitting in the fish’s tummy!
The pastor’s point that morning was that if we don’t follow God, we end up in a stinky mess.
It’s a sermon nobody forgot.
I know because later the pastor called to report the outcome of his experiment. He was almost vibrating with excitement.
A businessman in his congregation had been there that morning. The man later negotiated a deal for his business and had done a bit too well—the contract he was ready to sign wasn’t fair. It was borderline crooked, in fact.
The pastor told me that the businessman was seated at his desk, contract in front of him, pen in hand.
And that’s when he remembered the pastor’s fishy Sunday sermon.
“He decided to not sign the contract,” the pastor enthused. “He said he knew if he did, he wasn’t following God and would wind up in a stinky mess!”
That’s one of my favorite stories for several reasons.
First, it shows the power of God’s love working in us, shaping our hearts to be more like his. Go, God!
And second, it’s proof positive of the stickiness of experience. There’s just one thing more the pastor could have done to make his message stick even better—and I’ll tell you what that is if you keep reading.
Adding experience to your teaching and preaching
It’s less complicated than you might think.
We take experiences in through our senses, so the more senses you engage, the stickier your teaching and preaching.
Our pastor friend used sight (the darkened sanctuary) and smell (tuna, anyone?) and it was enough to cement his sermon into the hearts and minds of his audience.
Here are some ways you can use any—or all—of the senses to make a lasting impression on people you teach.
Slides, videos, object lessons—they all use sight. But just watching something from a distance isn’t all that impactful. The pastor could have simply shown a slide of a whale as he preached, but it wouldn’t have been sticky.
He immersed his audience in the experience instead, taking it to the next level.
The stickiest, most memorable hearing people do happens in discussion. What might the impact be if, during your next lesson or sermon, you have people turn to one another and talk about what you’ve said?
I’ll tell you: It will be the part of the lesson they remember the longest.
Even slight odors can trigger memories and aid recall. Some studies show that scent triggers more parts of the brain than sight alone.
If you’re teaching about the lilies of the field, pass around a lily. Talking about the sweetness of God’s love? Light a scented candle.
The next time your audience smells a lily or scented candle, they may well recall your lesson!
Lifetree Café leaders discovered how thirsty people are for authentic conversations when we asked them to put a pinch of salt on their tongues. By the time we served glasses of cool, refreshing water, we didn’t have to explain how friendships with Jesus and others meet that need. People could taste it!
Hmmm…how might you use that taste experience when you’re helping your people understand the need for sharing the good news about Jesus with others?
This sense is so powerful for learning!
We often find inexpensive items at the hardware store to put in the hands of learners. Hearing about Jesus’ death on the cross takes on an entirely new meaning when you’re holding a large nail.
And instead of talking about the need to set priorities, have people juggle balls in a group, then talk about everything they need to get done this week.
What could you do with a pebble in the shoes of your audience members, or having them sift sand through their fingers?
And here’s that secret for super-sizing experiential learning…
Talk about what happened.
We call it debriefing—sharing with someone how an experience felt, what connections it prompted, what lessons were learned.
I’m not sure our fishy pastor did that but, if he had, it would have helped even more discoveries take place.
If you want to reach people—to make your lessons never-forget, change-your-life memorable—build in experiences and debriefing.
And open a can of tuna!
Photo by Alla Hetman.