Attention Span – three questions

During lockdown, one of the big questions for pastors and preachers has been about if and how to adapt our preaching. Can we just carry on as normal, preaching to a camera instead of a congregation, or do we need to adapt?

A specific example of this, is sermon length. There is some suggestion that attention spans shorten online. So should we preach shorter sermons. In fact the issue is not unique to the online dilemma  and won’t go away after lockdown because there has been a longer term discussion about attention spans and sermon length.

I am not going to tell you how long you should preach for in this article. I think the answer is that it really depends. I can listen to some preachers for an hour and it feels like five minutes meanwhile I can listen to others for five minutes and it feels like an hour. I won’t ask you to tell me which category I come into!  I suspect it depends on the preacher, audience and circumstances as well as the content matter.

However, I do want to suggest the questions we should be asking.  You see whenever there is a conversation about how long we should preach for, usually there is some reference to “research” though the details of that research both in terms of its methodology as well as its conclusions seem rarely to be at hand.[1] So, a lot of our responses seem to be around how we feel things are going and maybe comments made back to us.

However, those things do not really tell us how we are doing at preaching.  So, I want to suggest three things to consider in order to work out attention span. 

  • How much are people taking in?  You know, some people can appear attentive, eyes wide, smiling, notebooks open, pens busy but if you were to ask them later what the sermon was about they might struggle. Others can appear bored, restless, distracted but have a clear  and detailed memory of what was being said. Remember that we are not just looking for the ability to regurgitate here but also to understand.
  • How long do they retain it? One of the reasons that we use interaction and discussion in our Sunday evening services is that some years back at another church, we found that people seemed more likely to retain what they had heard later into the week and beyond if they were engaged through interaction.
  • How are they getting on with applying it. As preachers, we are not just concerned with conveying information. Our concern is to see people love and respond to God’s word and apply it in their lives. That being the case, it does not matter how long they can listen to a sermon for if it has no or limited affect on what they think, do, say, prioritise.

So far more important than whether people appear to be staying with us for the length of the talk is the question of the affect it is having. Indeed, we may find that in some contexts a longer talk is better at delivering those results.

[1] On a similar note, I was intrigued to read recently that the oft touted fact that you are more likely to reach the family if you reach the father first is based on research specifically focused on the Swiss context 60 years ago.  Does that evidence actually bare the weight of its conclusions?

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