Multisensory Preaching and Teaching: 1
Introducing the Controversy by Rick Blackwood

ZA Blog on February 3rd, 2009. Tagged under .

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  Blackwoodr  Rick Blackwood is the pastor of Christ Fellowship Church in Miami Florida, a multicultural congregation that boasts more than 70 nationalities. This week he'll discuss The Power of Multisensory Preaching and Teaching in a 4-part series. — Andrew

A new methodology of preaching delivery is sweeping Christianity in America. It is called multisensory, because it interfaces with multiple senses. Unlike conventional lecture preaching, which stimulates only the sense of hearing, multisensory communication stimulates multiple senses, i.e. the senses of hearing, seeing, touching, and sometimes even smell and taste.

Simply put, the multisensory teacher recognizes the senses as information receptors. In other words, the senses act as antennas, which receive information, and then transmit that information to the brain for processing, learning, and action. With that neurological fact in mind, the multisensory teacher aims his teaching at as many of those receptors as possible; knowing the more senses he stimulates in the teaching, the higher the levels of learning in the audience.

In addition, the multisensory teacher understands that people have learning preferences by which they prefer to learn and by which they learn best. Stated another way: Some people in our congregations prefer to learn by hearing; others need to see the concept in order to learn it; still many learn best by interacting with the teacher. Bible teacher, John MacArthur, reminds us of learning preferences when he writes: "How do you learn best? Preferences vary from person to person."1 MacArthur goes on to show how Jesus matched his teaching style with learning preference of Peter.

If someone would have asked the apostle Peter what learning style he preferred, he might well have said that the up-close, hands-on style was his favorite. That certainly would have fit his character as an action-oriented man of initiative. As his mentor and Lord, Christ knew exactly how best to convey the truth to Peter’s heart and mind. And as the perfect teacher, Jesus wisely involved him directly and indirectly, in His miracles, parables and sermons.2

Multisensory The multisensory communicator is sensitive to individual learning preferences and strategically plans his teaching to connect with all learners in his audience, not just some of them. Recognizing that a congregation will be filled with auditory learners, visual learners, and interactive learners, the multisensory teacher varies his teaching style, and mixes verbal, visual, and interactive elements in his communication.

The identifying characteristic of multisensory preaching is the use of props, object lessons, interactive tools, video clips, drama, art, music, thematic backdrops, food, water, smells, and other creative elements that stimulate sensory perception. A growing number of pastor-teachers are making use of multi-sensory communication to elevate the impact of their teaching, and they are doing so without compromising the integrity of biblical teaching.

In this blog series I will demonstrate that multisensory preaching significantly increases levels of learning in our congregation. Levels of attention, comprehension, and retention increase significantly when an audience is treated with multisensory communication as opposed to mono-sensory communication.

There is, however, a heated debate in evangelical churches about the use of multisensory preaching. One evangelical who has been very outspoken against multisensory communication proposes that multi-sensory teaching leads us in the path of pagans. He contrasts our Judeo-Christian heritage, which he states is "word dependant," with paganism, which he says is "image dependant." He warns that by exalting visual imagery we risk becoming mindless pagans, and that we are open to abuse by those who exploit image, but neglect the Word.3 That is quite an indictment against multi-sensory preaching. John MacArthur writes this about the use of multisensory preaching.

Some will maintain that if biblical principles are presented, the medium doesn’t matter. That is nonsense. If an entertaining medium is the key to winning people, why not go all out? Why not have a real carnival? A tattooed acrobat on a high wire could juggle chain saws and shout Bible verses while a trick dog is balanced on his head. That would draw a crowd. And the content of the message would still be biblical. It’s a bizarre scenario, but one that illustrates the median can cheapen the message.4

This author makes a major leap from multisensory preaching to a "real carnival with a tattooed acrobat on a high wire juggling a chain saw and shouting Bible verses." He recognizes that Jesus taught in a multisensory form, but then condemns modern day pastors for engaging in it.

Sides are taken and theological swords have been drawn. In this brief series I simply want to be biblically sensible. The goal is to answer three questions that have been raised with regard to multisensory preaching.

#1. Does the Bible forbid the use of multi-sensory teaching?

#2. Does multi-sensory teaching "water down" the gospel message?

#3. Is multi-sensory teaching simply entertainment?

The first question has to do with permission. Do we have biblical permission to teach in a multisensory form, or is it prohibited? The second question has to do with purity? Does multisensory preaching compromise the purity of the text? The third question has to do with objectives. Does multisensory preaching seek to amuse the audience? Stay tuned as we plow through these questions.

1. MacArthur, John. 2000. Why government can’t save you: An alternative to political activism (Word Publishing), 69.

2. Ibid. 

3. Hunt, Authur W. 2003. The vanishing word: The veneration of visual imagery in the post-modern world. (Crossway Books), 190

4. MacArthur, John. 1993. Ashamed of the gospel: When the church becomes like the world. (Crossway Books), 69

  • Robert Martin 10 years ago

    I have used multi-sensory preaching in recent months. Not to the extent of including smell and taste, but definitely a lot more on the visual side of things.

    First of all, just adding a PowerPoint slide show to my sermons has gotten an amazing response. A lot of people in my congregation have noted that, having those bullet points on the screen behind me help them to follow the message easier.

    Secondly, I’ve used movie clips already which again help to hold attention. Rather than me just explaining things, if I pop up a video clip, that breaks up the monotony as well as gives a more visual impact to the message.

    Finally, I’ve used my music ministry team as “object lessons” for a couple of sermons. That physical observation of cause and effect really had an impact that people took with them.

    Meanwhile, sermons in which it has just been me talking, while they have gotten good responses, there was obviously something with some of the people that was “Well, I kinda understood it, but I’m not sure.” The visual stuff REALLY impacted things.

    On the taste side, we had a kids story that EVERYONE even the grownups remember. The story was talking about the idea of “lavish” and how that comes off as “extravagant”. The story teller made a MONSTROUS ice-cream Sunday to illustrate extravagance. “One scoop is nice… but a whole half gallon is EXTRAVAGANT”. Taste REALLY brought that one home.

    Looking forward to more posts!

  • Rick Blackwood 10 years ago

    Hey Robert
    What a great testimony regarding the impact of multi-sensory communication in your sermons. I love the use of the ice cream. It’s interesting; the tools we use for multi-sensory communication do not have to be complex. Sometimes, the simpler they are the greater the impact. Luke you are right about powerpoint. It can be sleep inducing if overused.
    I am convinced that the use of multi-sensory communication will elevate attention levels, comprehension levels, and retention levels in our congregations. Our goal is to get people to become doers of the Word, but we cannot get people to do what they have not paid attention to. Nor, can we get them to do what they do not comprehend. Finally, we cannot get them to do what they don’t remember.
    The research I conducted conclusively demonstrates that multi-sensory teaching will significantly increase all three leaning domains.

  • Brian 10 years ago

    Don’t listen to the Big Mac (john macarthur) he’s too stuck on his own ideas.

    This will be a very interesting series to read about Rick.

    Can it be done for a short sermon (15-20 min)?

  • Robert Martin 10 years ago

    On the ice cream Sunday: I guess it was both visual AND taste because, once the service was done, everyone was invited to the fellowship hall for some of the “extravagant” ice cream Sunday… While we didn’t “taste” it right there during the service, I swear everyone was drooling as the story-teller dumped about a gallon of ice cream, a full bottle of chocolate syrup, and a pile of other toppings into the largest bowl she could find.

    As for PowerPoint: Yes, it can DEFINITELY be over done. PowerPoint should be in SUPPORT of the message, not in place of it. And making it too busy, too “movie” will detract from the impact.

  • Pat 10 years ago

    As for question #1, I don’t think Scripture speaks directly to the use or non-use of multi-sensory teaching, so I think we have to use our God-given wisdom and discernment as to what is appropriate. Jesus was obviously the master storyteller who used object lessons. If we are to imitate Him, why not do the same (again, using our God-given discernment as to what will teach vs. impress or entertain)? I think if we stay before God with our preaching and teaching, His guidance will help us to answer questions 2 and 3.

  • Matt 10 years ago

    Clever your taking MacArthur to task, making it sound as if because Jesus addressed Peter in a way that connected to his learning style, I should preach multisensory…Well, since your keeping track of “major leaps,” I’d say that’s one.

    James MacDonald spoke to some of this issue in a 2007 conference q&a.

    He said:
    “I hear constantly about preachers who use video clips, preachers who use dramas, little role plays or kinds of things like this to enhance their message…What I would say about this is that it’s a mistake…And I don’t think it’s wrong, I think it’s ineffective. I think it’s a cheap way…It’s like fast food. What’s the preacher’s looking for? He’s looking for the ‘aha’ in the eyes of the people. And when I show a movie, a cartoon clip, something that people have seen, you see it in their eyes. Their like, ‘I saw that too! Isn’t that cool! He showed that! I saw that!’ And they see a connection, and they really want the connection. It’s good that they want that. The problem is that when you start to think about what [you’re connecting them to—’I’m entertained by the same things you are’—It really isn’t what it appears to be. And I think there’s something a lot more substantive than that and that’s at the point of the application of the text. You can meet that person at a different place. Instead of meeting them at the—’I saw the same movie too, yea there was an interesting principle there that has application in the Scripture’—I don’t think that’s nearly as good as the ‘aha’ of ‘Wow! I see my life in the Bible. That is a mirror to me. I can see myself right here in the text, and the pastor understands what my life is like, and God’s Word is answering the question. I didn’t even know how to articulate (the question) but now he’s framing the question…I had been asking that! And there’s the answer right there in God’s Word.’ I think it’s a lot better way—I think it’s a lot of work—I think it’s a way better way to connect with people.”

    I agree.