At the start of Coronavirus when we all moved church services online, the majority view was that we needed to preach shorter sermons (in fact our services overall were shorter). I agreed with this approach and followed it. I believe it was the right thing to do. You see, all the evidence seemed to point to shorter attention spans online. How people wanted to engage was different. Not only that, I think the need was different too. We had a lot of people who were in effect dropping in, clicking on links to take a look, dip their toe in and see if we Christians have anything worthwhile to say in the situation. So, we needed to think evangelistically, how could we get and keep their attention.
I also think that the need for believers was different too. I remember Wesley Aiken, my mentor commenting years ago that we very rarely are able to learn new lessons and take in fresh teaching in the middle of a crisis. It’s so important that we store up spiritual food in better days so that it is available to live on during the trial. Many people were looking not so much for new lessons from in depth exposition but to be reminded of things already taught, to be encouraged and know that they were not alone.
So, most of our teaching and preaching online was cut back to about 15 minutes max. However, in recent months, I’ve begun to build up the length of messages again and I suspect I’m not alone in that. Partly, it is that we are also preaching to in person congregations alongside the zoom and Facebook audiences and we want there to be something worthwhile for people to come out to. However there are two further reasons.
The first is that I think we underestimate how adaptable the human brain is. Whilst people may struggle at first to concentrate online, just as they can adapt to listen to longer sermons in the flesh, they can also adapt to online content too.
Secondly, needs changed. You would expect that. For believers, the reserves of good food began to run low, newer people were hungry for more. I began to notice that people were joining in and sticking with our longer, meatier, Faithroots Live sessions. The appetite was increasing. That also reflected that whilst a bit of encouragement and some reminders would see us through a short crisis, people actually needed more if they were going to be equipped for the long term and how to be godly, faithful and witnesses in a post-COVID world.
For those reasons, I’ve found myself preaching longer and deeper in order to do that, to help people prepare for the long term. I believe we have to be able to adapt and respond to the needs in front of us. We shouldn’t just decide to give people what we think they want or what we consider ourselves up to. We should be responding to the need as it changes. For some of us that will mean preaching shorter sermons than we are used to at certain times and for others it will mean going long.