Back in the late 1990s I was press ganged in to writing a tedious essay. The subject was “monologue preaching” and whether like last week’s milk its sell by date had passed. Voices at the time were asserting that post-modern people would no longer suffer the traditional sermon. With more than a smidgen of irony we were told that we needed to change our ways – or else! “Proclamation must be replaced with conversation.” “The research showed” that if churches made this shift, they would be soon be filled to overflowing (around coffee tables, of course!).
While I definitely learned some things from these advocates for change*, their overall emphasis was flawed. They gradually encouraged a church culture that was too uncertain of what it was saying, and which eventually had nothing to say at all. Churches that embraced post-modern doctrine slowly shrunk; while conversely, less adaptable churches either held steady (or even grew) as they preached straightforward sermons.
It was a parable within my lifetime that it isn’t always best to follow the trend. It isn’t always wise to go where the research takes us.
It seems to me that there could be some parallels to the push I’m hearing right now towards much reduced online sermons. Now in most cases, I realise, what is being argued for is a 5 minute trim. That may indeed be sensible in the online context. Yet something hasn’t been sitting right with me in terms of the assumptions driving the discussion. The arguments to foreshorten sermons seem often to overstate their case or miss some critical factors.
Sunday morning context
In all the discussions about attention spans, the Sunday morning context is often strangely omitted. We’re told about attention spans, in general terms, and we hear that since people are at home there are many distractions around them. Therefore, we had better keep our sermons short and snappy.
Now quite aside from the fact that there are distractions even when doing “live” preaching, what seems to be largely missed is the context. The vast majority of our online hearers are Christian believers who are (in their minds) “going to church” on a Sunday morning. These people are used to making time for church on Sunday mornings. From a certain point of view they are highly committed and motivated. Anyone who usually rolls out of bed on a Sunday morning and goes to church is either motivated or coerced! Their busy weekly schedule is normally clear on a Sunday morning. They are happy to give up their time – an hour of it or more – and are expecting to do so.
Another point that is often overlooked is that most of our target audience are highly interested in the subject matter. To compare, as some are doing, the attention spans of church members to the attention spans of University students in online lectures is to compare apples with oranges. The levels of respective interest in the subject matter may be massively different.
Of course in any communication context, if a hearer isnt interested in the subject, even a 5 minute talk will seem boring. On the other hand, many Americans tune in and watch an hour long state of the Union address because the subject matter engages them. Equally many Brits have been glued to 1 hour daily briefings from government ministers and health advisors. These presentations are nothing more than people talking being lecturns, with the odd graph being displayed. The point is that people are interested in the subject!
I think one of the unfortunate things in this whole discussion is the assumption that most preachers in our churches are not very good communicators. I hope that isn’t true. I assume the reason we let them up the front for 30-40 minutes on pre-lockdown Sundays was because they can hold people’s attention. They have a degree of teaching gift.
I would argue that a dull preacher is hard to listen to, even for five minutes, in any format. But I (and many others) have listened to good preachers online for 50 minutes plus and have still been engaged. Can the more rank and file preacher not hold people’s attention online for 25?
The work of the Spirit
One of my observations during this lockdown is that there has been a subtle shift towards the importance of technique in our preaching communication. Much of this is understandable, and doubtless there are things we have needed to learn about speaking into a camera more effectively. But I fear that too many preachers could be tempted to start relying on a fine-tuned technique than on the power of the Word and Spirit.
As John Stott reminds us: the Holy Spirit “is working at both ends” (a comment he makes based on 1 Thessalonians 1:4-5), empowering both the preacher and working in the heart of the hearer. Can’t the Holy Spirit create interest in the heart of those watching, to keep watching, and to be impacted by what they hear?
Not the last word
I’m not trying to take some sort of high ground against those who have decided that they’re going to preach for 15 minutes. This is ultimately a wisdom decision. The online screen aspect probably is a factor, and in different places and churches differing decisions will no doubt be prudent. I also haven’t factored in the question of preaching to non-Christians, many more of whom may be attending our Sunday service online. They might be the best argument for shorter sermons. I would argue, however, that it might be more helpful to consider doing shorter talks (or courses) online specifically for them, rather than shortening all of our sermons for the benefit of 10% of our audience.
* I did learn that all preaching needs to be dialogical to a degree. It was also true by the 90s that evangelism needed to happen in more socially connected, informal ways, where we listened as well as proclaimed the gospel message.Tweet