The Sermonator: Re-thinking how we communicate in the 21st century

I sat recently in a chapel service and consciously made the decision to become an observer of human behavior as time ticked by in the 40 minute inspirational devotion being shared that morning.  10 minutes in, students were giving it there best to stay with the speaker; as an aside, my leg began to bounce (a sure sign of disconnecting mentally from my environment).  15 minutes in, students began looking at the floor.  20 minutes in, the first smart phone came out.  25 minutes in, texting began.  Inspired by glowing screens, another smart phone opened in the row behind me.  Were these kids tweeting smart and profound statements being communicated from the front?  Alas, I don’t think this was the case.  30 minutes in, the first i-pad made it’s appearance.  I couldn’t quite see what this student was doing but I’m pretty sure it had nothing to do with the present monologue.  35 minutes in, the glazed look and pools of drool began to form at the corners of everyone’s mouth.  The speaker had officially out-communicated the room full of listeners; we were flat-lined as an audience.  I’d suggest we were flat-lined as an audience long before this point in the message. And “no” this individual wasn’t a terrible communicator; he actually spoke clearly and with purpose.

A couple of questions here:

1) Why does a message have to be 35-40 minutes long to be considered legitimate?

2) Why don’t we take seriously the fact that the average person’s attention span is somewhere between 12-15 minutes (being generous) when planning our 35-40 minute monologues?

3) Why don’t we take seriously the need to re-think our present communication models in the 21st century?

“Wait, CTT (Can’t Touch This), bro”…  Don’t even suggest messing with the sermon/preaching/teaching; for the sermon dates back to the book of Acts.  After all, how can we communicate the Gospel without it?  This question excuses the fact that we may be no longer communicating effectively with the traditional 40 minute sermon.  Have we ever thought about the fact that the “sermon” in its present form was birthed in an oral culture, a culture in which people were conditioned by their environment to receive information orally and retain significantly more data in their memory than we do today.  They even devised methodology for helping the mind retain information.    Presently, we are two dramatic shifts away from the oral culture.  The world was changed, turned on its head as it were, by the invention of the printing press.  This invention re-oriented the way people received and remembered information.  Far less had to be remembered because it could be written down.  As a result, memory was diminished… some suggest negatively, but I’d suggest neither negatively or positively, it simply became the new way of being human in the western hemisphere.  The oral tradition was trumped by the new writing tradition.  Community in the traditional sense was no longer necessary for passing information from one generation to the next.  All people needed was a book and a light.

Whether we realize it or not, we are experiencing a new shift as humans being.  The digital explosion is re-orienting our way of receiving and processing information.  Again, it is only negative if you are attempting to preserve the post-printing press culture.  The human mind is evolving once again.  We are being re-shaped by our technological media.  How we receive information is being effected?  Digital media is shortening attention spans.  Few writers on the topic would suggest otherwise.  Disintegration, shallowing, and fragmenting are all words being used to describe the mental shift away from a writing based culture.  While these all sound negative, they are accurately descriptive of  the change afoot in the minds of those exposed to the digital revolution.  This shift is unstoppable.  It is imperative that we become aware of how we are changing and re-tool our communication methodology  (maybe even away from our preferred method) to optimize the communication of our message.

The most difficult challenge for any of us is to attempt to gain a view from outside our perspectives.  It’s called the curse of knowledge.  We assume everyone sees and experiences our environment exactly the way we do and why wouldn’t they, right?  But there is no unbiased view of anything because we are blinded and sometime enlightened by our conscious and unconscious perspectives on how we view the world.  I find this true as I struggle to deal with the changing landscape brought on by new technology.  I prefer the written word and the experience of reading.  I prefer following arguments logically and experiencing a thesis develop over a couple of hundred pages.  I shun most popular advances in technology.  I hold out to preserve my own desired way of thinking, but I’m becoming increasingly aware that many do not receive and process information the way I prefer.  The new generation, weened from the breast of mother technology, is a much different mental human being than I am.  They don’t receive information and process information in the same way I do, my generation does, or the generation that has gone before us has.  The data would suggest this is one of the many reasons that the younger generation (18-29 yrs. old) has chosen to leave the traditional church context at a rate of nearly 90% in the Canadian context.  Could it be that it’s not just what we are communicating that is often irrelevant but how we are communicating it?  Is it possible, we are becoming increasingly archaic in the way we are communicating the Gospel in our present culture?  If the medium is the message than does the medium of the 40 minute sermon communicate something irrelevant to those awash in the change brought on by digital technology, especially in a culture that is used to downloading videos around 4 to 6 minutes in length, skimming and reading around 18% of what is actually written on a digital screen, or watching finely tuned talks that communicate profoundly in 12 to 15 minutes?


1) Not only are Ted talks mind blowing, they are mind blowing in 12 to 15 minutes (If you haven’t had a chance to watch one, then do yourself a favor and google “Ted talks”).  What if our teaching at church was formatted in this time frame which happens to correspond to the average attention span?  Would aligning the medium and the message provide a better chance of remembering what was communicated on a Sunday morning?  I’ve always marveled how one can so quickly forget what was spoken with 48 hours of it being spoken.  No where has this been more true than what I’ve observed and experienced in pastoral ministry.  Even in church cultures that elevate and provide quality teaching, the retention of what was taught just after 48 hours is remarkably low, just ask a regular attendee to communicate the key points from Sunday’s message.  Some would object at this point that communicators like Rob Bell can talk for 80 minutes and hold a room captivated for that amount of time.  That is simply citing an exception and saying that’s normative.  The truth is many “professional” communicators of the Gospel message aren’t that interesting and aren’t particularly gifted communicators.  While there will always be Michael Jordan’s in every sport, the truth is that most of us will never make water boy.

2) What I’ve learned from Teds: if it can’t be communicated in 15 minutes, it’s probably not worth communicating.  If you can’t say it in 15 minutes, you probably don’t know your subject well enough.

3) Pastors are the most reluctant and oppositional to having this conversation especially those who like to talk.

4) Congregations are incredible patient with their pastors and deserve medals for enduring years of long winded yet well intentioned monologues.

5) God is capable of salvaging the worst message and communicating via his Spirit into the deepest part of the listener’s heart.  There is a mystery involved as the spoken word becomes God’s words to a receptive soul.  I call this “the redemption of the spoken word.”

6) May it be time for the traditional sermon in its present format to meet someone from the future?


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2 Responses to The Sermonator: Re-thinking how we communicate in the 21st century

  1. Steve says:

    LOVE it. Totally agree.

  2. sheryl says:

    Ian says the 15 min thing all the time :) I concur!

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