Not long ago the neuroscience section of Time Magazine reported that the human attention span had dropped to less than 8 seconds, one full second lower than “the notoriously ill-focused goldfish”.1 No wonder a forty-minute sermon is hard for some people to digest. Evidently digital living makes attention deficit a common cultural symptom. Engaging humans in the still tranquility of a comfortable place may be one of the most challenging dilemmas for preachers in contemporary church life.
Suddenly preachers require preparation beyond exegesis (textual accuracy), theology (spiritual truth), and homeletics (delivery style) when seeking to connect with listeners whose minds are constantly in motion. In pastoral coaching one of the most common dilemmas pastor’s wrestle with these days involves holding the attention of their congregation. How to engage a congregation with Scriptural truth may be the newest discipline for those entrusted with the spiritual leadership of effective preaching and teaching. What in the world must happen if we are to succeed in this?
(1) Understand that preaching is dialogue.
One writer reminded me that all listeners are not preachers but all preachers must be listeners. Knowing our congregation and their life needs is one way to make this important connection. Being aware of human need happens when listening occurs at several levels. One is simply taking the time to hear what others are saying. Another is observation. Our preaching and teaching connects at a deeper level when we are aware of what is happening in the lives of our listeners. Jesus focused his teaching by observing the people around him. The Apostle Paul usually toured the villages and towns where he preached so he could connect truth to their culture. Listening and observing were essential.
(2) Remember the need for prayerful communication.
For thirty-five years I prayed the same prayer every Sunday as I made my way to the pulpit. It was Luke 12:12, “For the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say”. Often I asked the congregation to pray that the soil of their hearts would be receptive to the message of God’s Word (see Luke 8:15). The hope in this prayer interchange was that we would be open to God’s leadership as we sought to overcome the natural tendencies of attention spans.
(3) The Bible must always be central in this dialogue.
In the digital world help and solutions and quick fixes and life remedies are one keystroke away. When people come to church there’s usually a deep need and a desire for truth. God’s Word is always truth. It is always relevant, “is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16, ESV). Preaching that connects is always text driven. Our desire to make the connection must not elevate cultural relevance, humor, illustrations, or personal experience over the Biblical text.
(4) Transparency connects.
By transparency I mean the openness to let our personal humanity seep through our preaching and teaching. Every year I read an article by Dr. Haddon Robinson, the Harold John Ockenga Distinguished Professor of Preaching, senior director of the Doctor of Ministry program, and former interim President at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, titled Preaching with a Limp.2 It is a brilliant and thought provoking confession he wrote during an extremely vulnerable and painful time. He wrote, “On occasion we need to filter our preaching through our experiences, choosing sermon texts that resonate with what we feel, sharing some of the tough lessons we are learning even if we never tell the story behind them.” I am further encouraged and blessed by the transparency so evident in the preaching and writing of the Apostle Paul. His feet of clay were apparent in everything he communicated to the people in his sphere of influence. A disclaimer is that we must prevent the pulpit or lectern from becoming a convenient soapbox or stage for our own emotional crises or struggles. Still, being open and human communicates authenticity when presented with grace and biblical integrity.
(5) Currency is engaging.
OK, I’m not talking about monetary currency here, but rather the state of being current. Let me illustrate.
A pastor asked for my counsel. He was frustrated over connecting with the people in the pew. I asked: (1) What do you read? He said, Only the Bible. I asked: (2) What do you watch on television? He said, shrugging, Andy of Mayberry, Gunsmoke, Bonanza, Wagon Train, things like that. I said: no wonder you’re not connecting. You’re living in the ‘60s and ‘70s. If the fifties or sixties ever come back, you’re ready.
The point is, our preaching and teaching must be seasoned with illustrations, experiences, images, and thoughts that reflect the tenor of the times. The same idea may even apply to our sermons in a broader sense. Surely, God’s Word communicates truth across every imaginable human border. Sermons that are biblically and theologically accurate will preach anywhere, anytime. Sometimes, however, old messages that fit one situation won’t work in the new one. Being fresh, up-to-date, aware of what is happing in the world around us, reflects currency that engages.
Down deep, the lesson about connecting and engaging our congregations, at least for me, is to remember the purpose of preaching and teaching in the first place. If transformation is the goal, then I am tasked with the responsibility of communicating truth effectively. That is to facilitate the connection between the Word of God and the person who receives it. Jesus made that type of communication abundantly clear. The parable of the sower (Luke 8:5-15, ESV) gives great direction in this dynamic interchange. For me, preaching is the strategic sowing of that seed, the Word of God, in the good soil of those who have gathered for the purpose of receiving it. The goal is how Jesus concluded this great teaching—
As for that in the good soil, they are those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patience. (Luke 8:15, ESV)
The seed planted in the good heart produces the fruit. The sower just insures it is strategically sown in the right place. With attention spans being what they are it may at times be like preaching to goldfish. But, then, goldfish don’t have ears, and hearts, and minds that can receive the good seed and bear fruit with it.
1. McSpadden, Kevin, Article, You Now Have a Shorter Attention Span than a Goldfish, http://time.com/3858309/attention-spans-goldfish/
2. Robinson, Haddon. Article, Preaching with a Limp, CTPastors, www.christianitytoday.com/pastors/1994/winter/4|1050.html