Preaching shorter sermons (Do we need to in lockdown online?)

One question that keeps coming up during lockdown is whether we can preach the same length of sermons during lockdown or whether we need to shorten them. At a recent FIEC webinar, research by  educationalists was referenced suggesting that our attention span when viewing online content is about half that of when listening to or participating in “in the flesh” teaching contexts. On that basis we probably should be adjusting how we deliver preaching content.

My gut instinct is that there is likely to be something in that.  I know how I feel when I watch online content. I have also adapted my Sunday preaching and if it is just me speaking, then I am trying to keep within 15-20 minutes (half my normal time).  I think we are well aware of some of the challenges to watching and listening. I think these include

  • The fact that congregations cannot fully see everything about the person they are watching meaning that some of the visual clues are missing
  • Similarly, the speaker is unable to see his audience in the same way. This means it is harder for him to adjust and respond. It may also mean that if I am preaching, as I gaze intently at the little circle at the top of my screen (the camera) that I over-estimate the affectiveness of the visual cues I am sending out.
  • The blue-screen factor is likely to lead to tiredness.
  • It feels like work because many spend their working day looking at monitors.
  • We are trying to watch sermons with other distractions in the house, the normal challenges of day to day life and an eye on the children.
  • We are used to magpie approaches to the internet, surfing around, hopping from video to video and page to page. This is probably affecting our general attention spans.

Much of this is around our psychology and how we are emotionally and intellectually set up to engage.

At the same time, I want to sound a note of caution. Or in fact several notes. Here are some reasons for not jumping on the “shorter sermon” bandwagon.

  • This is part of a wider picture of pressure to shorten and dumb down preaching.  We are constantly told that attention spans are shortening. Indeed, if there is any objectivity to this, then I should not be thinking “Attention has halved, therefore I need to speak for 20 minutes instead of 40.” Rather I should be speaking for 7.5 minutes instead of 15. You then see how problematic it becomes.
  • However, I have had conversations with people who know a bit about brains and nerve systems prior to lockdown who have suggested a bit of scepticism on the idea of fixed attention spans. Rather we are a bit more adaptable and we can retrain our minds to listen longer and think more deeply. Will people be able over time to listen longer and better?
  • Is this factor going to be true for all contexts, particularly if people are specifically opting to join in? Is a church audience the same as an undergraduate lecture audience? Is the content like for like and what are the delivery styles?  In many ways, expository preachers have already been adapting their style for some time already to accommodate the TV and internet generation.
  • Are the issues the same when watching on a TV screen to watching on a phone of laptop screen?

So, I am inclined to say that we should be ready to adapt and this probably includes looking at sermon length. However, we do not need to become slavishly legalistic. As always the given circumstance and the nature of the content will still be important as we prepare to preach. 

I also think we need to consider the following factors. 

  • That many of us are finding that more unchurched people are joining in.
  • That where people do listen to online content such as podcasts that they are often doing so on the go whilst walking, exercising at the gym or doing household chores.
  • That often in a church setting the normal order of service with singing does play a part in helping people to set their emotions and minds for the context of hearing preaching.

With that in mind, here are some suggestions from my perspective and experience so far.

  • As I said, I am offering a shorter Sunday sermon. This is perhaps the starting point for encouraging people to engage further. Indeed, for a long time we have felt that we cannot expect Sundays to carry the full weight of our teaching needs so we have supplemented with different types of online content.
  • We should not try and compress a 40 or even 30 minute sermon down to 15 minutes. So plan a sermon appropriate to the time available. I recommend that you focus in on one specific application and drive it home.
  • Think of other ways to help draw people in. With much of what I do, I want to give the sense of inviting people to join me in my home and have a natural conversation.
  • Interaction is useful and the features like comments and reactions can make this a greater part to church life than we have been used to.
  • We are doing a lot more with 2 people co-hosting. So Sarah and I tend to operate quite a bit like Philip and Holly on morning TV. We co-host and simply have a conversation. This can extend into the teaching time with Sarah interviewing me about the passage.  On that point, if we want to learn how to do things well, we probably need to watch morning TV, chat shows and You-tube videos rather than other churches f we want to get a better feel for the medium.

The other thing we are doing is providing a lot more content throughout the week includinh:

  • Morning and Evening prayer with liturgy and a short un rehearsed meditation on a Psalm
  • A mid-morning “Thought for the Day” slot
  • An afternoon tea discussion on a topical issue
  • Articles on Faithroots
  • YouTube Videos
  • A weekly longer teaching session for about 50 minutes which surprisingly seems to draw and hold a reasonable sized group of listeners.

In summary, do be aware of the impact of the medium and context on concentration. Don’t be legalistic. Do adapt to the context appropriately.

What are yout thoughts and experiences?

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