You can’t find a better preaching model than Jesus. You’ve probably heard that before. It’s tempting to dismiss the statement as just noise.
But it’s true. Take some time to read through the Gospels and look at Jesus, not just as the Son of God and the Savior of the world, but as Jesus, the preacher. People responded to his preaching in a unique and powerful way.
So what did history’s greatest preacher do that made him so good? The answers are many, starting with the fact that he was God in the flesh. He also understood people like few others, knew the Scriptures inside and out, and probably had a great sense of humor.
I think there’s something else that made him a standout as a preacher though—he engaged multiple senses when he taught.
- He regularly used object lessons (like the mustard seed in Matthew 13 and the fig tree in Mark 11).
- He used “touch” to teach Thomas about the reality of the resurrection.
- He served a meal to demonstrate to his followers the meaning of his death.
Jesus was a multisensory preacher long before anyone had used the word. In fact, Jesus simply did what God the Father had been doing for centuries. For example, God sent a flood to teach about judgment and had Hosea marry an adulteress woman to teach about his faithfulness.
“Few teachers relied on the power of multisensory teaching any more than Jesus,” writes Rick Blackwood in his post, Multisensory Preaching and Teaching: Do We Have Permission? “What we are seeing today in terms of multisensory teaching is not so much a revolution as it is a revival. Jesus used vines, branches, coins, water, wheat, wheat fields, children, and all sorts of visual aids to graphically communicate divine truth.”
Why Preach to All Five Senses?
Even putting aside the model of Jesus, multisensory preaching is critical for today’s teachers. Never before in history have the people you’re preaching to been so deluged with sensory information. They’re on their phones an average of five hours each day. They are consuming movies and streaming television shows. In an era where diversity has been climbing rapidly even in the most rural reaches of North America, the average person is being introduced to more different tastes and smells than ever in the history of the world.
Yes, you can still reach people today just limiting yourself to an auditory connection. But there’s no question you’ll reach more by expanding your repertoire a bit.
- Multisensory preaching engages the whole person. We’re all physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual beings. When we only engage our congregations through their hearing, we’re mostly ministering to their mind and their spirit. Preaching to the other senses ensures we reach their emotions and their bodies as well.
- Multisensory preaching reaches people of all different kinds of learning styles. Not everyone learns by listening. Nearly 65 percent of the population are visual learners. Read that again. For nearly two-thirds of your congregation, your best bet is to tie what they’re learning to what they’re seeing. Another 5 percent of the population are what’s called kinesthetic learners, which means they learn by doing. Just 30 percent of the population learns best through hearing. Even people who are auditory learners will get more from your sermons when you engage more than one sense as you preach.
- Multisensory preaching keeps people interested. Much has been made about the disappearing attention span today. Maybe it’s not quite as low as a goldfish, but it’s certainly moving in that direction. When you engage a variety of senses, you get their attention for longer. Your congregation has grown accustomed to communications mediums that engage multiple senses at one time (particularly sight and sound). If you’re not doing that, you’ll lose the people you want to reach.
Developing a Multisensory Hermeneutic
One of the reasons many preachers don’t engage all five senses when preaching is that’s not how they are coming to the text in the first place. The Bible must engage your senses before you engage the senses of others.
As you study your scripture each week, you’re likely accustomed to asking historical, cultural and grammatical questions of the text. Discipline yourself to also ask sensory questions of the text, too.
- What senses are mentioned in the text?
- What are the items in the text that can be seen, smelled, touched, heard, and tasted?
- If you were in the scene of the story in the text, what would you have experienced through your senses?
Ideas for Preaching for All Five Senses
Part of the reason we struggle to preach to all of the senses is because we run out of ideas. You probably have more on your plate each week than simply preparing sermons. Another reason is that we’re in ministry contexts where preaching in styles that engage senses other than listening may be frowned upon. I’ve compiled a short list of crawl, walk, and run ideas for each sense. Maybe they’ll generate even more ideas for you.
- Crawl: Use slides with your sermons so your listeners can more easily follow along.
- Walk: Match pieces of your sermon with photos that illustrate your sermon. (For example, if you’re telling a story about your son’s baseball game, show a picture of him playing baseball.)
- Run: Find a good video that corresponds to your message. Consider finding a clip from a movie or a short self-contained video clip.
- Crawl: Check your sanctuary to make sure no unpleasant smells are interfering with what you’re preaching.
- Walk: Don’t just clear the sanctuary of bad smells. Add in some positive ones as well. Some studies have shown that certain specific smells enhance learning.
- Run: Pull in some smells from the biblical text. If you’re preaching on the tabernacle, include smells of incense.
- Crawl: Make sure everyone in your congregation can hear the entire service as well as possible. That means everything from double-checking your sound system to looking for ways to help the hard of hearing in your church body.
- Walk: Match your worship songs (and the special music if you have it) to your sermon theme.
- Run: Find some sound effects that amplify your message and add them at appropriate times in the sermon. Preaching on David and Goliath? Add a big THUD when the giant falls.
- Crawl: When there’s food mentioned in scripture, go the extra mile to describe the taste to your congregation using food with which they are familiar. Resources like Miriam Vamosh’s Food at the Time of the Bible: From Adam’s Apple to the Last Supper can give you insight on this.
- Walk: Pick a significant food item where the taste is critical to the meaning (like salt in Matthew 5) and give everyone a taste of it during the sermon.
- Run: For those who want to really spice up their preaching times, preach around a specific meal that you set up to illustrate the sermon. This idea works particularly well for sermons on topics like the Passover and the Lord’s Supper, but there are other options as well.
- Crawl: When you’re preaching on topics surrounding care and support, encourage the congregation to hug one another (but be sensitive to those who are wary).
- Walk: When you’re preaching on topics involving rain or water, consider misting your congregation! Make sure you warn people what’s coming. You don’t want to cause a medical emergency in the middle of the service. Maybe even consider splashing a predetermined location in your service and warning the people in that area.
- Run: Build a “touch packet” when you’re preaching on a story with unique items in it. Say you’re preaching on the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Your packet may include items like a stuffed pig and mud. Have several packets of the items rotating through the church.
As preachers of the powerful, priceless message of the gospel, we must commit to doing all we can to communicate in a way that resonates with our audience. Part of that effort is learning to lean on all five senses as we share the good news.