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The Internet, Short Attention Spans, and Preaching

Our attention spans are shrinking.

This is not news, and perhaps I’ve already lost you.

Thoughtful people have said that the impressive array of media and entertainment consumption portals play an important role in the attention spans of individuals, especially children and young adults. For example, Jason Fertig writes,

Many modern media trends have done more harm than good for viewers’ concentration abilities.  Music videos and action movies feature dizzying amounts of rapid cuts and changes in camera angles that only require a few seconds of focus at most before the new image arrives.

This is something Nicholas Carr laments in The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brain: “[W]hat the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation.”

Seth Godlin has observed the same thing. He writes, “We’re creating a culture of clickers, stumblers and jaded spectators who decide in the space of a moment whether to watch and participate (or not).” Here is a marketing guru obviously annoyed at the difficulty of obtaining the sustained audience of consumers. At the same time, he notices the widespread results on a popular level: “My fear is that the endless search for wow further coarsens our culture at the same time it encourages marketers to get ever more shallow.”

Popular media shows the marks of the shortened attention spans in many places. Compare the shots in movies forty years ago to those today. Commercials are much shorter. Notice how short your attention span is when you try to read a sustained argument. Better yet, try to read a book a few inches away from your mouse. I dare you.

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And if you are still reading…

My biggest concern is how this trend will impact the church. It is no secret that many churches have quickly concluded something along the lines of the “Well, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” philosophy of ministry. They gladly perpetuate the banality of sound-bites and shimmering manipulated media glitz in order to keep the Bible relevant to the masses who can’t stand a sustained reasoned argument. But I don’t think this is an option. God still wants to show that he is a powerful God, and he wants to do so through the foolishness of preaching the cross of Christ (see 1 Cor 2:1-5).

Preaching1 is not sexy. It’s not fast; it’s not filled with quick camera shots; it doesn’t have fancy graphics. I think we ought to continue to preach in all its primitive glory, without movie clips, without entertaining skits, without background music, and without “powerpoint.” Preaching ought to continue to be the exposition and application of the Word of God.2 Preachings needs to continue to be sustained proclamation from the text of Scripture, carefully applied.

But to take this view necessarily means that we do more than merely confess its validity. If the churches that continue to emphasize preaching dare perpetuate themselves, they are going to have to do more than bellow “WE BELIEVE IN PREACHING! AMEN?” from the pulpit.

On the contrary, if we are going to perpetuate a culture of preaching, we are going to have learn to wean ourselves off the habits of the short-attention-span culture. This means carefully and wisely tempering our television viewing habits, our video-game playing, our movie-watching, our smart-phone use, and our Internet surfing habits. And, perhaps even more importantly, this means we who are parents and teachers are going to have to work earnestly at helping our children avoid the habits of the short-attention culture. For those of us who are by the grace of God involved in gospel ministry, this means we are going to have to encourage our fellow-pilgrims to be people who have an appetite for preaching and the sometimes long disciplines of ordinary public worship.

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Are you still reading?

I am not a Luddite. And I am not trying to be an alarmist or manipulate my readers with fear. But I do think that future health of our churches will depend upon their commitment to preaching. I think that we would do well to be deliberately working against cultural trends on this point. We should strive to people who can attend to the Word, who can hear sermons (even longer sermons!), who can read the Bible for drawn-out periods of time, and who can pray without their thoughts running hither and yon.3 And, more than cultivating this commitment to thoughtfulness ourselves, we ought to strive to encourage our fellow-saints and our own children to take up this commitment themselves.

Indeed, this is one of the ways we follow the Lord in obeying the words of his Apostle Peter: “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8).

Ryan Martin

About Ryan Martin

Ryan Martin is pastor of the First Baptist Church of Granite Falls, Minnesota. Prior to that, he served as the associate pastor of Bethany Bible Church in Hendersonville, North Carolina. He is on the board of directors of Religious Affections Ministries. Ryan received his undergraduate degree at Northland Baptist Bible College, and has received further training from Central Baptist Theological Seminary of Minneapolis, Minn. (M.Div., 2004; Ph.D., 2013). He was ordained in 2009 at Bible Baptist Church of Elk River, Minn. (now Otsego, Minn.). He has a wife and children too.

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Relevance is irrelevant (Part 4)
Ryan is the associate editor of Hymns to the Living God (Religious Affections Ministries, 2017). He contributed to the Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia (Eerdmans, 2017) and is the author of Understanding Affections in the Theology of Jonathan Edwards: "The High Exercises of Divine Love" (T&T Clark, 2018).



Endnotes:

  1. Again, I am not talking here about modern variations of preaching engineered to pacify the contemporary short-lived palate. []
  2. A reading and exposition of the Word of God is what preaching was even for the earliest Christians. For examples, see 2 Clement; Justin Martyr, 1 Apology 67; Tertullian, Apology 39; Clement of Alexandria, “Who is the Rich Man that Shall Be Saved?“; Melito of Sardis, On the Passion, and perhaps even the book of Hebrews (with a few caveats). Origen, Augustine, and John Chrysostom have all left us examples of early Christian sermons as well. []
  3. John Calvin and the Puritans used to call distracted thoughts during prayer irreverence. []

12 Responses to The Internet, Short Attention Spans, and Preaching

  1. Hi Ryan,

    I have to agree with you, especially about the length of sermons. I was reminded of another recent post that suggested we preach too long. Not sure what to make of that sentiment. I don't think I repeat myself in sermons and always have more to say than time. However…

    It reminded me of a Gospel concert in my evangelical church growing up. The guy said, "If you think our music is loud, we can turn it up!" For preaching, we could paraphrase, "If you think my sermon is long, I can go longer!"

    Maranatha!

    Don Johnson

    Jer 33.3

  2. Interesting theme for me, today, to consider. I note your article this morning, Ryan. And then I read tonight the opening introduction to the book, Read the Bible For Life (2011) by George H. Guthrie. He warms us up to the fact that technology may be hurting our ability to read, quoting Nicholas Carr. But he assures us too, "I am no iPhone-smashing Luddite, who thinks all technology should be sworn off by the faithful." :)

    So his thesis is simply the act of reading Scriptures. And I will try to show enough concentration to get through the rest of his book.

    Yes, I would think that the personal grace discipline in reading Scripture is a key foundation for fostering expository listeners in the pew on Sunday.

  3. Todd, I appreciate your comment and the connection between this post and the book by Guthrie (which I have not read).

    Really, the theme of this post not only affects preaching, but prayer (!), scripture reading (as you point out), and a whole host of other disciplines of the Christian faith.

    I think you have a good positive response to the problem. I think cultivating the life of prayer is also important.

    Thanks for the interaction.

    Don, thank you as well for taking the time to interact.

  4. If I know that my brother in the pew is edified more by a 30 minute sermon, and that my 1 hour sermons are a distraction to the Gospel, do I put my desires first or my brother first? In other words, should I target my preaching at the believer who has a MDiv, has been a Christian for 40 years, and teaches in the adult Sunday School program, or should I target my preaching to the brother of "low estate"?

    I know that I'm painting with a broad brush here, but much of Fundamentalist preaching does a great job at educating, but not a good job at exhorting and evangelizing. The Evangelicals are often on the other end of this spectrum. The Bible portrays a fine balance here. Its not about making sermons longer because my brother has a hard time paying attention to them (as one comment suggested), but its all about feeding him meat in a manner in which he will eat it (even if it ends up being 15, 20, or 30 minutes at a time).

    IMHO, the paradigm above may be great for one church, but it is not great for all churches. The pastor must remain sensitive to the needs of his congregation and tailor his methods appropriately (Romans 12:16).

  5. Philip,

    I don't know if you're responding to my article or not, but, if you were, you may have missed my point, which was really not about long sermons, but about the importance of having a Christian culture of attention.

    Thanks for checking in.

  6. Ryan,

    Sorry about the lack of clarity there. My first two paragraphs are more directed at the comment by Don, above (viz., that if someone objects to long preaching, you should just preach longer). My last paragraph is my reflection on your article above. I think that you raise some good points, but my point is that eventually some church has to minister to those who have grown up in the media age. If its not you or me (because we find powerpoint to detract from the Gospel), then who will it be? My opinion is not so much "if you can't beat them, then join them" as it is "if you can't join them, thank God for them"! The churches with the "shimmering manipulated media glitz" do have a ministry and I have seen many profit from it. Is it the be all and end all? No. Is it always done with the right motives? No. Is the Gospel sometimes preached in contention? Yes. Should we be thankful for them nonetheless? Most certainly.

  7. Ryan, thanks for the good post that points out a serious issue for preachers and churches to address. I think that if we're going to engage in deeper reasoning, prayer and study we need to walk with people in that direction. We shouldn't just admit defeat, as you pointed out, but neither should raise the bar too high too fast for our churches. Especially for non-Christians coming into church for the first time, we need to provide some transition from the media-blitz culture to a more measured pace of thought and reasoning.

    One thought is that we could structure our services to lead people toward a place of contemplation. The problem I've seen is that we either start with a lot of energy and expect that to move through the entire service and sermon or we start with slow, contemplative songs and move into a thoughtful sermon. Neither approach will work. In my opinion we need to let people adjust to a different mindset so we should give them time at the beginning of the service to be fidgety and energetic with upbeat songs etc. Then move gradually toward a contemplative sermon.

    I do have to take up in defense of PowerPoint which is often the whipping boy in these discussions (and often rightfully so). I've seen PowerPoint abused frequently and used either, as you said, to add glitz and glamor to the sermon in the hopes that it will keep people's attention, or as a replacement for handouts chock full of bullet points and Scripture references. Somewhere in the middle is a place where PowerPoint can aid and amplify a well thought-out and reasoned sermon without distracting from it or encouraging short attention spans.

    Cognitive research shows that the spoken word alone gets about 10% recall from the audience. When a supporting visual is added to the words the recall jumps to 65%. Images give our brains a framework to use as we process through the information we're hearing. That's one of the reasons behind stained glass windows in ancient churches. By using carefully selected images that support the message of the sermon without distracting from it, PowerPoint can help people to focus better and process more information.

    Thanks again for your thoughtful, well written post.

  8. James,

    Thank you for your kind interaction. I am going to give you some of the reasons I highly discourage the use of PowerPoint with sermons below. While I am trying to argue my point, please do not take it wrongly. My opposition can be resolute, even while hoping for reasoned discourse.

    While I am not entirely opposed to PowerPoint or the software that varies on that theme, I do not think your half-way house proposal is prudent. Moreover, I have several reasons I think that PowerPoint during a sermon is unwise (all of which could be developed further):

    (1) Because churches need to be otherworldly, not a mere subtle variant (or even worse, the same with "Jesus" added in) to the morass of popular culture and media;

    (2) Because we need the grace of God to fix our minds to spiritual things, not gimmicks (which I believe powerpoint often is used as (see here: http://religiousaffections.org/articles/articles-

    (3) Because PowerPoint often stultifies the moral imagination of an individual, in its use of graphics, fonts, backgrounds, and other media (indeed, even if stained glass images are helpful, there are significant differences between stained glass and PPT);

    (4) Because pastors end up spending an inordinate amount of time on their powerpoint, rather than on prayer and meditation;

    (5) Because of the argument of the writings of Neil Postman (and others);

    (6) Because the best orators do not use PowerPoint, and Christian preachers ought to aspire to proclaim the gospel in the best way they can;

    (7) Because we ought to give our attention to preaching better rather than adding crutches to our preaching;

    (8) Because Christian worship needs to be able to continue and thrive if the power ever goes out (I am not kidding with this); and

    (9) Because big screens look terrible in sanctuaries aesthetically.

    I'm going to stop there. I'd love to develop each one further, but am pressed for time this afternoon. If you would like to interact on these, please feel free.

    RJM

  9. Ryan I have to say that I agree with most of your objections to PowerPoint. They are valid and need to be addressed. Of course I would say the same for anything that we bring into the church to "help" share the good news.

    Regarding gimmicks and cultural distinctiveness: If we're adding PowerPoint, musical styles, video clips, preaching styles or anything else as a gimmick or to align with culture, then we're missing the point of what God is trying to do. However I think God has given us the freedom in Christ to use means and methods for his glory. For example, Jesus used common stories and visual examples (e.g. fig trees, children, fish, coins, etc.) to share his message.

    Regarding imagination: I tend to gravitate toward images that develop a cognitive gap for the hearers. So when preaching on the fruit of the Spirit I had an image of a bunch of grapes on the screen. Though I never said it, the point got across to people (I asked later) that the fruit (singular) is expressed in many ways similar to a bunch of grapes. PowerPoint and spur the imagination when used well.

    Regarding PowerPoint use in speaking: I would agree that preachers shouldn't spend too much time on PowerPoint. The bulk of preaching preparation time should be spent in study and prayer because the message is too important to rest on technical details. This also applies to the ability to preach when the power goes out. If the sermon isn't complete without PowerPoint then adding images won't help anything. PowerPoint isn't a magical elixir that can fix bad preaching, poor preparation or poor public speaking. All of those things need to come first and always take priority.

    However, judicious and skillful use of PowerPoint can amplify the good that is already there. Educators agree that people have different learning styles, some are auditory, some visual and others kinesthetic (active). By adding the visual channel to sermons and encouraging note taking we address all three learning styles and maximize the impact of our sermons.

    So you get the idea, I tend to use between three and five images per sermon (one slide for each main point) and I won't use images if I can't find one to fit what I'm saying. I use little or no text in my PowerPoint slides to keep the focus on the words I'm saying and what the Bible says.

    Regarding ugly screens: Yup, they're pretty ugly. I can't argue much there!

    Thanks for the invitation to converse about these things. I sense some iron sharpening iron here.

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