Thursday, March 27, 2008

Attention Spans and the Proclamation of the Gospel

Today, in my class on the ministry of teaching, we examined the method of using film clips to illustrate truths. The presenters suggested that our movie theaters are far more packed than our churches. They presented film as a way to illustrate biblical truths in a multi-sensory experience that is more likely to reach today's audience. Unfortunately, I would agree.

The situation got me thinking. Has our culture moved past the point where lecture is a meaningful mode of communication? Can we, as products of the postmodern age, focus our attention on one speaker for more than a few minutes? I am not referring to graduate/seminary students and pastors, here, who are trained to listen for prolonged periods to lectures, but to the average Joe. Are these people, weaned on television and video games, able to concentrate on a sermon for more than a few moments without audiovisual and explosive media props?

The lecture and sermon are in danger for the same reason as the book. Books were a convenient means of retaining the spoken word in a form that was easily accessible and historically reliable. The story does not change in the retelling. Narrative (story telling), which can paint word pictures and create cognitive links to personal experience within the listener or reader, is passed via the spoken or written word. Recently, however, it has begun to be expressed via perfect image in the form of the photograph and the video. These media can record events or, as in the case of movies, express ideas in a way that arrests attention. The campfire stories and amphitheater speeches of generations gone-by are being replaced with Spiderman on the silver screen ("With great strength comes great responsibility").

Is this a bad thing? I would say it depends. Audio-visual communication is a very powerful means of passing information and eliciting emotional response. The snippet of the movie Hotel Rwanda we watched today almost brought tears to my eyes. Used correctly, these media can effectively spread the gospel. The only problems are: 1) they are expensive, and 2) there isn't any profit in it. Hollywood is not exactly busting down the doors of the local church to get material for their next movie, unless it has to do with a predatory preacher. But the use of film and audiovisual aids could be used to at least support a sermon, if not take it over completely.

The next question is, how do we maintain faithfulness to the Scriptures and tailor a message that applies said Scriptures to our congregations' lives? For the short run, we may select film clips or create low budget clips of our own to relate the message we are trying to get across. Eventually, there may be enough interest to make Christian movies that are impactful and not the cheesy shtick we have become used to from networks like TBN (remember the horribly inaccurate and saccharine One Night with the King?).

I do not disagree with the use of film, even in the church setting, as long as Scriptural authenticity, poignancy, truth, and reverence are maintained. We may be a long way off from movies at church, but we can still use these means in Sunday School classes and other teaching platforms. The more we experiment with these media, the better, lest we find ourselves irrelevant in our postmodern world.

Let me reiterate, our goal is not just to be "relevant" (with all the baggage that entails), but to present the gospel to our audience, believer and unbeliever alike. We are not trying to "entertain," but to instruct in a meaningful and comprehensible manner. If you can't get people from the community into the church, and you cannot keep the attention of your congregants, you might as well be preaching to the choir. There are, of course, other problems involved (humanistic mindsets, biblical illiteracy, antipathy toward the gospel and the church, etc.), but how are we to address those issues? The solution does not begin in the pulpit within the steepled building down the street. Church as we know it must be rethought. Its time to start brainstorming, Christians.


Timothy L. Decker said...

Only a few thoughts. Since the Pastor/teacher is to be perfecting the saints not making saints shouldn't he be preaching to the choir?

You said "...Lest we find ourselves irrelevant in our postmodern world." Is it our duty, job, or even purpose to be found relevant to the postmodern world? Perhaps if we strive to be relevant to God, then His prescription will work - "preach the Word...reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction." Perhaps we should stick to the Scriptural method of preaching and trust that God's method will not fail Him.

With that said, I think videos can be good in teaching and maybe even as a sermon illustration. But I try to be the conduit through which the truth is proclaimed. I would shy away from a human contrivance which is not prescribed in Scripture. Why do we need to "improve" on God's method? Is it possible to improve God's method?

Steven Douglas said...


I was hoping you would chime-in on this one. You are a pastor, are you not?

As more-or-less of a Baptist, I would certainly agree with your first statement, we are to build up the body of Christ first. I also believe that is the sole function of the church building. We should not be expecting the world to come willingly into the church on Sunday morning (a la Charles Finney). In an ideal world, they would see us not only relevent, but essential and be packing the church, hungry for the world. But that is not happening.

I tried (and likely failed) to address what I meant by relevance. Relevance to the world is not our primary mission. It is not our "duty." Our duty is to faithfully proclaim the gospel message. Question: how do we best do that? I agree that we must strive to be relevant to God first. We are, however, preaching his word to a world with hard hearts and little interest. Adding a short attention span doesn't help. Might we see video games as an invention of the devil?

2 Tim. 4:2, which you quoted, is a great reference. We have been sent to preach. Did God prescribe exactly what that was to look like? I would gently suggest that you may be placing your ideas upon the text on that one. We are to proclaim the gospel. Again, how do we best do that? We are seeing in our day the tail-end of a traditional teaching method that has been around for thousands of years. But it is not the only method shown in Scripture.

Paul spoke publicly at the aereopagus, he spoke publicly at the Temple, he spoke to crowds, but he also taught people in small house-churches and one-on-one (discipling). These intimate forms of teaching are often far more effective at transferring a message than the public oratory. This is especially true of modern listeners.

A poll was taken in Puritan England, once, which tested the retention of sermons. There were MANY who could remember one of John Owen's two-hour sermons verbatim . . . twenty years later! Another famous poll was conducted about fifteen years ago that concluded that the typical American remembers approximately 10% of what they hear in a speech the next day and within a week that retention has dropped to around 5%. We are constantly bombarded with information and stimuli, and speeches aren't keeping our attention. What do we do?

The (relatively) modern idea of the church as center of the community and source of guidance is a human contrivance, and one that has broken down. It is not God's failure, but our own. Both Jesus and Paul walked . . . a lot. They went to the people who needed the gospel and used different methods (including public oratory - to a people who learned through auditory means, and had better retention). That is a model that we have moved away from. Now, pastors mainly stay in their churches and occasionally send missionaries out either oversees or to button-hole people in their homes. But their has been a shift in our culture. Homes are not open and inviting. The church is no longer the public square. In fact, there are not many public squares outside of the university (and most of them are antipathetic toward the gospel).

I say we should not get away from preaching. I don't even think we should throw out public oratory, but I think our bag of tricks needs some definite adding-to. We should not expect our culture to somehow come to its senses and accept public oratory again. We should not condemn them and say, "you don't know our big words and you don't keep attention on us - sinners!" Rather, we, like Jesus, the seventy disciples, Paul, etc., need to go to them. Even if it is one-on-one. Even if it is occasionally movie day/night at church.

Believe me, as somewhat of a traditionalist myself, I don't like it. But we have little choice in our society.

Anonymous said...

As an aspiring young pastor, I strongly encourage you to read the book "Unchristian" by Kinnaman and Lyons. Kinnaman is with Barna and writes about the dozens (if not hundreds) of surveys Barna has done with both Christians and non-Christians about Christianity and religion. It is a bit data heavy, but it is written in such a way that it is not hard to look beyond the data to the hearts of the respondants.

One of the primary themes that I pulled from the text is that non-Christians are not nearly as concerned about how we preach at them as they are about how we live after the sermon is over.

Steven Douglas said...

Well said.

Steven Douglas said...


I think we agree very much in our thinking on preaching. I just see film as another way to get the same message across. I think that with the proper equipment and training, the pastor can do some pretty incredible things to portray the gospel via the audiovisual media. Again, the Gospel is the goal, and not just entertainment.