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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.

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.

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).

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. 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).

  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. []