a) is that true? b) does that matter?
Two thoughts strike the average preacher, and can irritate us until we work out how they are related.
The first is, no matter how long we preach for, people will always ask us to preach shorter sermons. (if people don’t say this to your face, you can be pretty sure they say it when you’re not there – and if they don’t say it, you can be pretty sure they think it, and if they don’t think it you can be pretty sure you’re not an average preacher).
If I obeyed the feedback from the congregations I’d served in, I think I’d be giving seven-minute sermons by now. And if I find that thought alarming, I should remember that the Puritans would find my twenty five minute slot just about enough time for their opening joke.*
The second thought that strikes us is that in other areas of life, people seem to have quite long attention spans. Around 100 minutes for a movie, longer in many cases. Books, symphonies and gigs, plays – they can go on and on.
What makes preaching so different?
One reason we might give, is that we demand thought. Most of the things I’ve listed count as amusement – that is, a-musement, in the sense of ‘without thought’. So sitting with my family through Captain America 2, time flew by because it’s a well-constructed piece of popcorn.
Preachers, on the other hand, use words like ‘therefore’, and that’s rare today. Our best politicians rarely take the risk of presenting a constructed argument. They aim to create a mood and response. So we are asking people to do something unusual, and demanding.
A second good reason is that we demand change. Preaching confronts sin and worldly habits of thinking in the life of a believer. Eery sermon worth preaching can be boiled down to the same five words: ‘repent and believe the gospel.’ That’s a message of change. And we all prefer our grooves of familiar sin unless we are profoundly shocked out of it.
A third reason is therefore that we are all spiritually resistant. Sin mutters to each of us, ‘You will not die’, and all the other lies of Genesis 3. So we are not addressing a neutral audience, or even a supportive one. A sermon is not a TED talk. The enemy hates what we do, and is preaching a counter sermon in the ear of every person listening.
So that’s three reasons not to worry, right? Not so much.
Because there are some preachers who can speak for much longer without a murmur of complaint from the church. What can we learn from them?
The most compelling preachers know and work with the same issues of attention span as any movie director, and they all solve it in the same ways. One is that they keep hitting the reset button. Sometimes they put in an illustration because they passage is difficult and needs illustrating. Mostly they put in an illustration because they know an idea needs time to breathe, and the listening brain needs to catch up, breathe and process. Or they switch the focus, from information, to story, from ‘look at the text’ to ‘imagine this at work, on and on.
Good communicators keep restarting the attention span. John Stott would put occasional humour into his material so that he could then refocus and press his material home more tightly. As he would say, ‘After the mirthquake…’
By contrast, most of us, I suspect, craft an engaging opening and then assume our work is done.
The good communicators also intentionally work to keep our attention. They plan to be engaging and relevant. If there’s complex material to be presented they aim be engaging as they do it. They reckon they can teach you anything provided they don’t bore you in the process. They almost defy you to fall asleep.
And, above all, it is obvious they have preached it to themselves first, and you can see that they think the biblical passage they are preaching is the most important set of words on the planet. They have stared at the ‘important’ so long that it has become ‘urgent.’
So here’s the challenge. Google ‘attention span’ and choose one at random. Then map out your sermon’s content with that in mind. As an exercise, at the end of each (say) seven minute period, assume you have to get everyone’s attention all over again, and hit the restart button.
Let me know how it goes.
*I know, I know.