Friday, September 23, 2011

Made to Stick and Biblical Theology

Recently, I have been reading Chip and Dan Heath's riveting and intriguing work, Made to Stick, which has begun to cause me to reexamine and rethink how I teach and prepare messages and sermons. As with many books, I am still only halfway through whereas I could have already been finished by now if I read at a brisker pace. I have hampered my own progress by spending too much of my spare time (which honestly, may not be that much to some people) on old NES games and such. Nevertheless, the book has captured my attention with numerous "aha" moments and several lightbulbs going off in my head, corresponding to the ideas that are "sticking" to my mind.

The main goal of the authors was to discover why some ideas, advertisements, TV shows, commercials, websites, and other forms of information last and are easily remembered whereas others simply die. In doing so, they sought to differentiate between truly "sticky" concepts and those which form the "great trash heap" of those which are discarded almost as soon as they are heard. The brothers came to this journey from different backgrounds. Heading up his own non-profit educational organization, Dan was interested in finding ways to more effectively teach academic subjects so as to make it easier for students to retain and recall the information they hear in the classroom. Chip, a professor at Stanford, wanted to study why certain concepts thrived in the social and intellectual marketplace whereas others flickered out. What they found was that they were both after similar principles. What they would discover in their quest has the potential to make communication and influence much more effective for those who deftly and carefully apply their principles, for it extends to all aspects and arenas of life.

So what is it that makes pieces and avenues of information "sticky?" The authors discovered six core principles that can be abbreviated into the acronym, SUCCESs (the last "s" is intentionally uncapitalized as it is only there to make it a complete spelling):

Simple (focus on the core, indispensable part of the idea or concept)
Unexpected (in that it violates and disturbs peoples assumptions)
Concrete (in that it is not abstract and is in terms that you can easily see, touch, and taste)
Credible (in that it is believable or supported by a believable source)
Emotional (in that it appeals to people feelings)
Story (in that it is told entirely in story form or that it utilizes stories for support)
Old Facebook Logo
The assertions made by the book apply at all levels of influence–from websites used by millions of people to one-on-one conversations. For instance, one specific question that this knowledge applies to is "why did Facebook, despite starting after MySpace which had many more users, overtake and completely obliterate it in the race to become the most-used online social network?"

Another one, which has yet to be answered is "who will win the brewing battle between Facebook and Google+?" But not only do the principles of stickiness apply at this large, macro level. They have applicability for the normal, day-to-day, common and mundane. Even in my humble and rural locale of Springhill, LA and the surrounding communities, teachers surely want to know ways that they could make the information they teach five days a week stay in the minds of their students.

Yet the most profound and meaningful though which has yet entered my brain through reading the book is this: Jesus was a master at all of these principles. While there are at least some occasions we know of where He walked through the Old Testament verse by verse with his disciples (see Luke 24:27), most of the time He taught people in parables. Just think about it. Even if you are not familiar with the actual content of the New Testament, you have probably at least heard of some of the more familiar parables, such as "the Good Samaritan" or "the Prodigal Son." The titles are themselves an example of these principles at work, since Jesus Himself never used the titles. They arose as a result of familiarity with the stories. These two parables, out of the many that Jesus told, especially reveal how masterfully He utilized these principles. Let's focus on the Good Samaritan, which is in Luke 10:29-37. First, going in reverse order, it was a story. Secondly, it would have struck the emotions of any sensing human being as he or she could identify with the pain of the man being robbed and beaten. Thirdly, it would have been credible in its day, since robberies were fairly common on dessert roads. Fourth, it was concrete. By simply hearing the story, one can visualize the man being assaulted by the robbers as he is walking down the road, along with the Samaritan later treating the same man's wounds. Fifth, details of the story were certainly unexpected in that day and time as it would have been virtually inconceivable to most Jewish men that a Samaritan would help a Jew when a priest and Levite had already left him for dead. Finally, the simple, core idea emerges when Jesus asks the one who questioned Him, "which of these men was the neighbor to the man who fell among robbers," leaving him with no option but to realize that to be a neighbor was to be like the Samaritan.
Now, one may complain and say (probably rightly) that Jesus wasn't actually using these principles, since He didn't set out with such a controlling methodology. Notwithstanding, since they meet the criteria given, it is thus appropriate to speak of Jesus using these principles. It is astonishing to me, and at the same time not surprising, how beautifully Jesus put on a clinic of how these principles can work.

Yet there is a not so subtle bit of irony here when one also takes into account Jesus' words in Mark 4:11-12, where He said, "To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables, so that
"they may indeed see but not perceive,
and may indeed hear but not understand,
lest they should turn and be forgiven."

What was going on here? Was Jesus intentionally being deceitful? Why then, did He teach in such a way as to make His ideas memorable? In part, we have to remember that it was not yet time, at the time Jesus actually told the parables, for all the details of the Gospel to be made clear. Jesus first needed to die on the Cross and be raised from the dead prior to all the facts of the Gospel being made obvious. In the end, what I think Jesus did was tell His parables in such a way that the stories themselves would stick with their hearers, and then their meaning would become clear in light of Jesus' work on the Cross and His resurrection and ascension, when the apostles would later preach to these very same people who had heard the parables from Christ.


As of Wednesday, October 6, 2011, I've finally finished the book. I can say after reading it in its entirety that I heartily recommend it to anyone willing to give it a shot. A lifetime of mastering these many principles lays before me, and it is a challenge I am excited about taking on.


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