Preaching Where it (Grey) Matters Most: a book review

As I write this review I am knee deep in crafting a sermon for Sunday worship. I have preached enough to see a variety of responses from people to my preaching. Some nod and smile and laugh politely at my jokes. Others appear distracted and disinterested. I’ve seen teary eyes and heard from parishioners about a particular aspect of my message that touched them.  Often my words are met with glassy-eyed stares and I wonder what is firing in their brain.  Everybody who has ever stood in the pulpit has wondered what good, if any, their sermons have done for the congregation.

Rewiring Your Preaching: How the Brain Processes Sermons by Richard H. Cox

In Rewiring Your Preaching: How the Brain Processes Sermons Richard Cox ((M.D., Ph.D. D.Min)  issues a call to purposeful preaching . Cox is an ordained minister (PCUSA) and teaches in the department of psychaitry and behavioral sciences at Duke Medical School. He believes that knowledge of modern  medicine, psychology and neuroscience illumines how the brain makes sense of the sermon (or rejects it) and that this knowledge will help us preachers attend better to our task of proclamation. The Spirit of God is at work enlivening our preaching and speaking to hearts and minds in the congregation; however knowledge of how listeners’ brains process external stimuli can aid us in our sermon writing and presentation.

In fourteen chapters, Cox covers a number of aspects of  preaching and the brain. In the first three chapters he addresses how the brain processes external stimulus, and in particular, preaching. It turns out that while the brain processes sermons like other stimuli, it also sees preaching as unique.  Only in a church is truth proclaimed from a pulpit, and despite scandals of clergy misconduct, people still regard preaching (and the preacher) as an authority in religious matters. Whether or not the preacher’s message ‘connects’ with a hearer depends on how well the brain is prepared to ‘hear.’ All sound is heard and enters the brain, either as new information or confusion to be discarded. The difference is how the brain is prepared to hear the message and add new information to old. Cox calls the process religare– meaning ‘tying back.’  Through repeated listening to sermons and other messages about faith, the human brain is able to tie things together and make new connections.

In chapters 4-7, Cox describes the power of the spoken word to impact the brain. He argues that brain-based-preaching brings healing because it provides the integration, synthesis and hope that the brain longs for.  Furthermore, Cox asserts that preaching allows the brain to rethink and construct new  neurological pathways. Through preaching, people can enter a new way of thinking and this has implications for behavioral change as well.

In chapter 8 Cox describes the way the work of  ‘the pastor’ differs from the work of ‘the preacher.’ Each role that a minister takes (preacher or pastor) occupies it’s own unique sphere and requires particular skills. On the other hand each role reinforces the other (a good pastor enlivens the hearing of their congregation, a successful preacher is able to care well for the flock).

In Chapters 9-14 Cox talks about the nature of healing, the brain and preaching. In chapter 9 he discusses the unique contribution of theology (and the power of sacrament, symbol and liturgy to help people make new connections). In chapter 10 Cox looks at how the brain processes pain and the way preaching can bring hope and peace to the one suffering. Chapters 11-13  discuss the way the brain interacts to bring healing to the soul, the mind and the body.  Cox argues that the spoken word has real power to impact a person’s whole well-being. In the final chapter  Cox discusses how the brain is impacted by social realities and how a word rightly spoken from the pulpit may bring healing to community.

Cox is able to effectively communicate knowledge of the brain in non-technical language. He offers much food for thought. I particularly was struck by his insight that symbol, liturgy and sacrament open up the brain to process and make sense of new stimuli. He also makes an impassioned case for purposeful preaching: preaching should call people (their brains and all) to action.  Cox is able to demonstrate that it is impossible for the brain to process information and not act on it; either by synthesizing or discarding it. Effective preaching should enable congregants grow in understanding, faith and aid in their spiritual transformation.

Cox has many wonderful things to say about what is going on in the brain when we preach. If  his only contribution was to show how fearfully and wonderfully humanity is made and how our brains interact with the spiritual life, it would be enough. Yet all who preach will be encouraged and exhorted by this book. This is not a ‘how to’ book on preaching. But it will get you thinking about your role as preacher and the ways you can preach more effectively. 4 Stars

Thank you to InterVarsity Press for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for this review.

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I am a pastor, husband, father, instigator, pray-er, hoper, writer, trouble-maker, peacemaker, and friend. Who are you?

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