On Attention Spans & Our Affections

I’m very pleased to share a guest entry by my good friend, Steve Mitchell. Once again Steve stirs our minds and hearts, this time by asking how we should adapt to our changing times. Please read and reflect on his thoughtful and important counterpoint to some current strategies.

Rick Warren recently offered a strategy for keeping congregations involved in lengthy sermons, as they display increasingly shorter attention spans. His advice is practical and would probably work in most churches. Therein lies the problem. He writes:

In an upcoming book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, writer Michael Carr suggests the Internet is shrinking our attention spans. It’s not a new argument. And it’s not universally agreed upon either. But even President Obama recently got into the debate saying information can become a distraction because of our fascination with “iPods and iPads and Xboxes and PlayStations.”

But regardless of why, most people would agree that attention spans are shrinking. That means the people you and I preach to each week are less likely to sit and focus as long as congregations could a generation ago. We can complain about it and we can let it frustrate us. But we can’t change it.

Yet, that doesn’t mean we have to preach shorter and shorter sermons. That sounds counterintuitive, right? Shorter attention spans should mean shorter sermons. But for years I’ve been preaching an average of 45 minutes per sermon. I’d preach longer if it wouldn’t cause parking chaos at Saddleback!

That’s why I use what I call sermon features, which are special segments you add into your sermon to capture the attention of your listeners. I’ve found you can hold people’s attention much longer when you interweave a variety of features into your sermon.

I don’t know Rick Warren, but I remember meeting him when Saddleback was about a thousand people meeting weekly in a rented high school gym. My wife and I visited a few times. Rick preached clearly, biblically, and with a very engaging style. I liked him a lot. I still do.

But I think he’s wrong in his post, and I think the solution to the problem he describes cannot be based on a tacit acceptance of the cultural phenomenon he describes—increasingly shorter attention spans. The problem with Rick’s solution is his implicit surrender to his assumption that Christians share a lack of appetite for any preaching of considerable length that is not laced with entertaining features.

Clearly we live in a society dominated by distractions. Depending on whose research you believe, the average American daily views somewhere between 300 and 3000 commercial messages. These are the unwelcome ads we largely ignore. When you add the media-rich messages we welcome to our PDAs, laptops, iPods, iPads, the total is staggering.

We’ve been conditioned to consume huge amounts of disparate content at a blistering pace. Warren’s assertion that we struggle with longer and less entertaining sermons certainly passes the sniff test, but I believe the shorter attention spans he describes are indicative of something much worse than the cultural conditioning of the digital age. They indicate a lack of appetite for God and His Word. In short, we want Him less than other things.

A good friend sums up his theological position by quoting a Hagar cartoon. Sitting in a tavern Hagar pondered a question with his buddy about why he stayed out late each night, drinking. His sidekick answered with another question: “Because you want to?” Hagar sighed, “Yah, that’s why”.

So, we do what we do because we want to. In other words, our affections determine out actions, and any psychological experience we have that we’re making a rational choice is really a decision motivated by what we could call “love.” For example, we may love honor more than life and perform heroically. Or we may love football more than God’s Word and be itching to get back to our big screen when a sermon runs long. We don’t have shorter attention spans, we have more of an appetite for being entertained than we do for a deep and lingering encounter with God in His Word.

The Bible bears witness to this when it speaks of the heart as the wellspring of our lives. Jesus understands this when he says we are to love God with all that we are, so that anything else we might do will issue from that love and be pleasing to Him. Jesus offers support for this in the Sermon on the Mount where He gives us a description of the realized Kingdom. He ups the ante on sin significantly, tethering it to our heart’s affections. For example, if I longingly dwell in my heart on a woman, lusting after her, then I have commit adultery. I haven’t just considered adultery. I’ve actually sinned. Jesus teaches that the motivations of the heart are prior to and more foundational than any behavior.

He also makes it clear that if I do religious things in order to accrue status, then I already have my heart’s desire, my “reward”. But, if I do these things in secret—within the context of intimate communion with my Father solely in order to please Him—then the One who sees in secret will reward me. Giving, praying, or fasting—any and all of these amount to little more then prideful adornments without the right motivation of the heart.

And so I take Jesus to mean, when He speaks of the tares growing up with the wheat, that those who attend church do so for competing motives. The tares care little for God, and the wheat love God. They have an appetite for Him and His Word. The interest, or lack of, in a lengthy sermon points not to a universal cultural drift that impacts God-lovers and God-haters alike, but to differing appetites, or affections, of the heart that separate imposters from true children of God.

Will the cultural accommodation Warren suggests result in congregations less itchy for the door? Will they appear more “engaged”? Absolutely. But are they really drawn to the things of God or simply more entertained? If you have $300 million and the CGI artistry of a James Cameron or a Peter Jackson, you can get people to sit and pay attention for several hours on end, but you won’t change their hearts. Only the Spirit, birthing a living faith in Christ through the preaching of his Word can do that.

So what are we to do? How do we attack the problem Warren accurately describes? Head on. It is not the length of preaching that’s at issue. I believe it is the depth of preaching that is lacking. A friend of mine blogs on this very topic, and his views are well worth considering. In one post he references “thin-blooded” sermons, quoting Michael Quicke. Quicke maintains that one can preach attractive, even exegetically defensible sermons that do little to stimulate the Christian community because they are individualistic and confined to personal spirituality. In short, they fail to challenge those in the pew as a whole.

But what of a grand call to follow Christ by taking up one’s Cross and dying to self, bearing one another’s burdens in love? What about challenging “thick-blooded” sermons that tend to empty pews because they are rich with the offense of the Cross? What of a polarizing call that the church must be the church in the World? If those kinds of sermons were preached regularly—attended by features or not—we may well see a wholesale retreat of tares, but we’ll also enjoy a wonderful harvest of wheat. The fields are white, but sadly the workers are few.

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2 Comments

  1. peter mead

    Great post. The current multi media approach is just a new version of the older approach of using the text to introduce the illustrations . It’s as if the Word isn’t compelling (which it isn’t if the Lord isn’t.) This shouldn’t mean turning the honey of the Word into cough syrup, just because it’s good for us. A genuinely good sermon and preacher will hold attention.

  2. Jon Stephens

    You know? I kind of chuckle as I read this on my smart phone at work (I work the graveyard shift at a papermill as a security guard, so I spend 8-12 hrs a day looking for different ways to distract myself and keep myself awake), I think all of what Mr Mitchell brought up is really quite true, and his call to action probably a valid one especially as it let’s the pastors that may read this gauge for themselves the depth of their sermons. I especially like Mr Mitchell’s stance against indulging the audiences want for technologically engaging sermons, it’s very true that it’s God and not the amount of new “features” that a preacher may use, that changes hearts of the audience in the end.

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