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From Sermons to Sound Bites
How shifting demographics and fundamental changes in our attention spans are requiring pastors to find new ways to engage the congregation in their sermons.

I was daydreaming the other Sunday during the sermon, and got to thinking about, well, sermons.  Specifically, I wondered:  Are sermons the best way to communicate in today’s attention-deficient world?

I’m not sure.  After all, there aren’t very many other times when people are required to sit still and quiet and listen to someone speak for 20 to 30 minutes.  Church is pretty much the only place – even in a classroom people are welcome to interrupt and ask a question, seek clarification or challenge an assumption.

But not at church.

There are some amazingly gifted pastors who can pull it off.  They’re smart, funny and well-spoken.  Either that, or they are like a pastor-friend of mine who possesses a mellifluous Irish accent.  He could read the phone book and hold a congregation in thrall.

Unfortunately, most preachers aren’t that gifted when it comes to public speaking, or they had the bad luck not to be born in Ireland.  But we, as listeners, don’t make their task any easier.  A lot of us have the attention spans of gnats.  Or maybe it’s goldfish.  That’s what Ted Selker of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found out.  He studies how people browse the web. According to Selker, some people spend about nine seconds checking a web page before they move on.  If we don’t find what we are looking for by then, we move on.

That’s the same attention span as a goldfish.

“If we spend our time flitting from one thing to another on the web we can get into a habit of not concentrating,” said Selker.  “Our attention span gets affected by the way we do things.”

But it’s not just the Internet that makes us less attentive.  Everything today seems to be cut into smaller pieces.  As Nancy Miller stated in Wired magazine:  “Music, television, games, movies, fashion:  We now devour our pop culture the same way we enjoy candy and chips – in conveniently packaged bite-size nuggets made to be munched easily with increased frequency and maximum speed.  This is snack culture – and boy, is it tasty.”

For most of us, she adds, “media snacking is a way of life.  In the morning, we check news and tap out e-mails on our laptops.  At work, we graze all day on videos and blogs…in between are the morsels that fill those whenever minutes, as your mobile phone carrier calls them:  a 30-second game on your Nintendo DS, a 60-second webisode on your cell, a three-minute podcast on your MP3 player.”

After all that snacking, it’s pretty hard to sit quietly and listen to a sermon.

That’s certainly how Rev. Chad Moir sees it.  Moir, an Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada pastor, is starting a new church among 20 to 34-year-olds in Saskatoon.  He says that sermons are an “outmoded form of communication” for this generation.

“They’re saying, ‘engage me, don’t just tell me what to think or do,’” he says.  “They genuinely like Jesus, and they want to know more, but not in the way we have traditionally shared the Gospel message.”

Moir’s approach is to run services more like a university class.  He introduces a topic and “gets the ball rolling,” but then lets a discussion format take over.

“I feel I need to move from a ‘conversion’ model – me telling people what to think – to a ‘conversation’ model,” he says.  “People in this age group are interested in spiritual things, but they want more dialogue and conversation.”

Rev. Sid Haugen, pastor of Our Saviour and Central Lutheran churches, Regina, knows that people today aren’t as used to getting information orally as they used to be.  While he isn’t ready to give up on sermons – not yet, he does acknowledge that it’s tough to catch and keep people’s attention today, what with all the competition from things like movies and other media.

“When people come to church, they might expect all the bells and whistles they find in a movie,” he says.  “It’s a real challenge.”

But, he notes, “no matter how technologically marvellous a movie is, there’s still a lot of hunger for human contact.  As a preacher, I can speak into their situation because I know them.”

Along with getting and keeping attention, there’s also a lack of biblical literacy today.  Haugen remembers the time he told a simple Bible story for the children during a service.  “After church, some people said the children’s story was the best part,” he says.  It made him realize that many people “don’t know the stories of the Bible.”  Now he incorporates more Bible stories into his sermons.

He also looks for ways to update the stories and make them more relevant, like the time he told the Palm Sunday story in the rural church he was pastoring.  In this telling, Jesus rode into town on the hood of an old farm grain truck.

“It was a way of demonstrating Jesus’ humble entrance,” he says, adding that his challenge is finding ways to make the Bible relevant “in 21 century Saskatchewan.”

“A 45-minute sermon is out of the question…unless you can walk on water.”

But even though he still believes there’s a role for sermons, he also believes that smart pastors keep them short.  “A 45-minute sermon is out of the question now,” he says, “unless you can walk on water.”  He tries to keep his to 15 minutes – 20 minutes max.

Thomas Long, professor of preaching at Candler School of Theology, Atlanta, Georgia, is one of North America’s most pre-eminent preachers and a teacher of preaching.  He, too, acknowledges that sermons have to be different today,

“There was a time when people were more attuned to getting information from speeches,” he says.  “But not anymore.”

Like Haugen, he thinks that sermons can still play a role if preachers understand their audience and the way people get information today.

“Congregations don’t have a working theological or biblical literacy today,” he says, adding that preachers cannot assume people understand things like sin or grace.  They may not even be able to tell “Jeremiah from a geranium,” he says.

Long’s approach is to preface Scripture so people can know what’s happening in the story.  “We need to tell people not just who Amos was, but why they should care,” he says.

Pastors also need to understand that people listen and watch “episodically and randomly” today, as opposed to narratively – following a story from beginning to end.

“I no longer start a sermon with a sentence and assume the congregation will follow me to the end,” he states.  Instead, his sermons are a “series of chunks” of information, bound together by good transitions.  That way, if a listener gets lost or distracted and misses a section they haven’t missed the whole point of the sermon – they can still take away something meaningful.

To Long, the sermon is “like and appetite for a more sustained educational experience…it provides a first taste for something more, something people would like to know more about.”

The best response a preacher can get to a sermon, he says, is “I would like to know more about what you said – where can I find it?”

Thomas Long is the keynote speaker at the January 14-15, 2008 Church in Ministry Seminars at Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg. Theme: The Witness of Preaching. Go to http://www.cmu.ca/church-community/cims08.html for more information or to register.

John Longhurst is a faith-page columnist for the Winnipeg Free Press and directs communications for Canadian Mennonite University (CMU), Winnipeg, Manitoba.

Originally published in the Canadian Lutheran, September 2007.

 

 
 
 
 

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