Preachers have been thinking about attention spans for decades.
It used to be reckoned that the maximum uninterrupted attention span of most people was about 7 minutes. This has led preachers to think about how they might introduce variety into their sermons to keep the congregation with them. This can be achieved by subtle shifts in pace, mood and content that keep the hearers engaged.
Yet it is not merely a matter of the attention span of our hearers. What about the attention span of the preacher?
One of the complicating factors in the 21st Century is the sheer breadth of data that most people have available to them every day. For busy preachers it is not merely a matter of reading books, but also catching up with emails, texts, social media feeds, podcasts and webinars. One of the knock-on effects of the pandemic is that many conferences have been put online.
One Danish study concluded, “It’s becoming harder and harder to give content our sustained or selective attention. Instead, we’re often relying on our divided attention, trying to focus on several things at once, and often failing to do so.”
It is clear that one of the main dangers of this could be the development of a superficial butterfly mindset that flits from one idea to another.
As a pastor I probably went to two or, at the most, three conferences a year. Now it is possible to attend some kind of conference every week. Is this a good thing? I have enjoyed attending webinars recently on subjects like Augustine’s sermons and letters, climate change, and racism. Three out of four of these were held in the US, so I certainly would not have attended in person.
For me one of the best things about conferences is meeting people face-to-face.
A number of long-term friendships have developed as a result of conversations in the coffee break or late into the night. At one of the recent webinars I attended I direct messaged one of the speakers. This led to a fruitful telephone conversion on climate change, reading one of the author’s books, a blog post and preparing a sermon on Jeremiah chapter 9, entitled ‘Creation, Climate Change, Christ and Me’.
It can be helpful to make something like a webinar, which can be a passive event, into something more interactive or personal.
How about writing a paragraph or two about any online events you attend? Think about things that are new to you. What did you agree with? What are you unsure of? And how can you feed these things into your preaching?
It is also important to remember that it is possible to have too much of a good thing.
It may be helpful to ration all forms of screen time, including webinars.
John Stott used to reckon that he spent one hour of preparation for every minute of a sermon. That is a high benchmark, but it does acknowledge that we need to devote sufficient time to thinking creatively about shaping next Sunday’s sermon.
I hope you have been paying attention!