Small children and students have some things in common, along with some real differences. If you are a parent or a professor, your goal is to help them mature and become all that they were created to be. Maybe as preachers and Christian leaders there are one or two helpful thoughts to be found in this comparison?
Children have vivid imaginations. When you read them a story, they can see it happening. It doesn’t take too many years before they graduate from needing the colour pictures and can see everything you describe. If you tell a scary story, they are gripped with fear. If you describe a person, they can see them. Children don’t process through abstractions particularly well, but they will live in the story you tell them.
Students have somehow learned to store abstractions in their short-term memory, while losing the skill of vivid imagination. When you lay out a lecture before them, assuming there is some sort of motivation to learn the material, they will diligently take notes for later review and they may pass the exam before the details fade from their minds. It all seems very efficient and education is celebrated. However, the values they live by are probably determined more by the stories they watch on the screen and the influence their peers exert than the wisdom nuggets picked up in lectures.
Perhaps it is a simple matter of progression, but we tend to think of listeners in church as being students rather than children. That is, we drift into lecture mode more than gripping story mode when we preach. We assume that if our listeners are taking notes, or at least if they are present and awake, then all is proceeding to plan. The truth is these “students” with their notes are at best storing our points in their short-term memories. They are likely more influenced by the screen and their relationships. The lasting value of outlines inscribed on scraps of paper will be minimal.
Perhaps we would do better to preach as those who offer not just nuggets of wisdom, but most profoundly as those who offer a person. Let’s preach our text in such a way that our listeners dust off their old “imaginers” and start to see the Christ of whom we speak. Let’s preach our text in such a way that our listeners start to experience the emotion of being in the story. Let’s preach so that they are not simply collecting abstractions, but are being marked by the characters they encounter in the passage, supremely by the God revealed there. If we do that, then maybe their motivation for gaining the life wisdom will increase to a level where they care about the points we make.
The mark of success in preaching is not having a lecture hall full of students leaving with your outline on their notes. It is seeing the change in your listener that can only be explained by their encountering Christ and being changed from the inside-out by His Spirit.