The Preacher/Teacher and the Dwindling Attention Span: Three Temptations

A few years back, the London insurance giant, Lloyds TSB, noticed a startling increase in the frequency of household accidents on which insurance claims were being made, particularly kitchen accidents. In 2007, the London firm accounted for about 1 billion US dollars in damage related to one factor. The factor?

Paying attention.

RIP-attention-span – by Eric Kokonas

Based on a subsequent study of 1000 people by sociologist David Moxon, the firm concluded that the average adult attention span had decreased from 12 minutes of one-time steady focus in 1998 to just 5 minutes in 2008. The decrease, of course, won’t surprise any of us living in the internet world, but the level of the decrease was a shocker. Also no surprise is that the study found that the younger you are, the more dramatically your attention span has been impacted. Older folks are still able to hang in there at about the 10 minute mark. The younger generation is much less.

(See the note below about the influence of the increase in the use of digital technology as it relates to the trend in attention spans. Not only are we fighting decreased attention spans, but we are preaching to “the sitcom generation” where problems are solved and everyone is happy in 22 minutes)

This trend presents three specific temptations that a preacher/teacher should avoid.

Temptation #1: Let Me Entertain You

The first temptation is to entertain in the interest of keeping an audience’s attention.

While this website is built in part on helping preachers and teachers be more effective at their crafts – and part of that is building relevance and interest in our messages – preaching and teaching should be, first, the life-altering communication of fundamental truths from God’s Word. The first question in great preaching is:  How can we be obedient media for the Holy Spirit to communicate precisely His message for that moment. Holding the audience’s attention is a concern, but is a distant second or third or fourth along the preaching priorities.

Temptation #2: I'm OK You're OK

The second temptation to soft-peddle sin.

It’s ironic perhaps that “sin sells” on Madison Avenue, but not in our pulpits. The temptation to compromise may make preachers less interested in preaching on important biblical topics because they may not be “positive,”  they are ideas that don’t “sell” from the pulpit, thus the risk of “losing” your audience. (Just look at what’s popular in Christian books or on Christian television, with “popular” being the operative word.)

However, the plain truth is that we don’t find an example of a New Testament preacher who does not address the issue of sin, atonement, redemption, etc. (Matthew 23:33; Acts 7:51; Galatians 1:6-10; Acts 2:38, etc.). Sin may not be cool (unless it’s on HBO), but to ignore it from the pulpit is tantamount to watching a bus speeding toward a pedestrian while you watch,  chomping placidly on your hot dog.

Temptation #3: The Bible as Assistant

The third temptation or compromise preachers face is to stray from the Scriptures in preaching, as if the Bible is an assistant to your preaching and not the source. This temptation arises from the idea that the Bible isn’t enough to hold people’s attention in the culture of the sitcom.

This is often reflected in a preacher throwing out a biblical text at the beginning of a message and then leaving it for good to present a particular topic.

While there is, of course, nothing wrong with a topical message, the preacher and teacher’s primary purpose is to start with a Scriptural base, unpack it, and then make the relevant connection for practical application. While this doesn’t mean that topical sermons can’t be very effective, sometimes, in the interest of a “hot topic,” the temptation is to leave the Bible behind.



Note: “One striking negative effect of digital technology consumption is how it diminishes our capacity for empathy by limiting how much people engage with one another. The addictive qualities associated with digital consumption and cyber usage is gaining prominence as a serious concern. Another negative risk of technology is the effects it has having on our attention span and is a potential source of the increasing ADD and ADHD in our culture.” From: iGeneration: The Social Cognitive Effects of Digital Technology on Teenagers. Eugenia Ives, Dominican University of California.