I have spoken over 11,000 times in a span of 55-years in classes, sermons, lectures, radio, TV, banquets, debates, etc. In my early years of preaching meetings, it wasn’t unusual for dozens of attendees to respond for prayer, rededication, and baptism. It wasn’t unusual to have overt responses during Sunday morning and Sunday evening services as well as on Wednesday evenings.
One brother recently tagged those past days as “The golden age when hearts weren’t encumbered with 101 attractions which prevented the word of God from ‘pricking people in their hearts and souls.’” Sadly some preachers can’t quickly recall when they last had a response to their preaching; especially for baptism. I visited a congregation that was using the baptistery as a storage place; assuring me they could have it ready in a couple of hours if they needed to baptize someone.
What has created these phenomena in congregations of the Lord’s people? The Gospel hasn’t lost its power to convert (Romans 1:14-16). Preaching is still authorized by God’s word (Matthew 28:18-20). One answer lies in the sowing of the seed. In the simple but dynamic Parable of the Sower (Luke 8:11-15) Jesus spelled out clearly that the battle was occurring in the hearts of the hearers of the word. Even a casual reading of the text reveals that one out of four hearts will receive, keep, obey, and practice the word (Cf 8:15).
Somewhere in our history congregations have created two distinct forms of communicating Scripture. First, is the pulpit where the preacher does all the talking thus creating a monologue? Second, the classrooms where questions and answers occur on a limited basis. Some attendees don’t bring their Bibles to either opportunity.
The operative question is, why is this occurring in many congregations today? Coupled with the why is the question, what are the dynamics involved in producing this auditing effect at this time among the Lord’s people? In my opinion, there are several answers to these questions.
From watching, listening, and reading sermons and lessons, past and present, presented in congregations across the nation there is evidence that both forms of communications, preaching and teaching, have fallen on tough times. There seems to be evidence that some of the issues relate to trying to match the entertainment activities of Hollywood, televangelists, and comedians. What is being passed of biblical messages in the pulpit and classroom is more like an attempt to entertain than “prick listener in their hearts” (Acts 2:37). A few Scriptures are tacked on with an overdose of human wisdom, pop-psychology, and feel-good emphasis. It’s the telling of “my story” more than the telling of HIS story. The response most frequently heard is, I enjoyed your sermon/lesson”, not “what must I do?”
There are endless materials, products, and media gadgets to help us in our quest for spiritual growth. One media program which can be download on your phone or viewed on a computer makes it possible for you to listen to the Bible with background music so you can fall asleep. Have we become like the people in Isaiah’s day? “Who say to the seers, ‘Do not see,’ and to the prophets, ‘Do not prophesy to us right things; speak to us smooth things” (Isaiah 30:10).
I believe the answer lies with both participants in the teaching and preaching event. The preacher/teacher and the hearers both have attitudes, disciplines, and responsibilities for creating the success of the event. No, this is not a blame game exercise but a reality check relative to making the learning event more dynamic.
First, we must realize that our attention span is one of the major factors involved in communicating a message. There is shocking research that reveals that the average media attention span of Americans has now reached eight seconds, which is the challenge media marketers are facing today. When a person goes to a website he will spend a maximum of 11 seconds if it doesn’t grab him. A headline that doesn’t grab and a lengthy text that takes more than 8 to 10 seconds to read is a sure way to lead the inquirer to the exit. We are being programmed every waken second of the day by media involvement. Our cell phone brings a text or voice mail. Our Apple phone vibrates. Must check emails, Facebook, We watch ninety-five percent of video messages and only ten percent of reading texts. Media addiction is on the rise in our nations including the church. It’s becoming more difficult to “Be still and know that I am the Lord.”
Second, we must realize the role the preacher and his sermon play in communicating to a congregation of people who are faced with the attention challenge. Years ago there was a book written for preacher entitled “30 Minute to Raise the Dead.” The emphasis was on a 30-minutes sermon. Today, the title might be “15-20 Minutes to Raise the Dead.” Yes, we can say if the brethren loved Jesus they would pay attention, learn, and practice what was being preached. I doubt that observation.
In his book Empty Pulpit, published back in 1967, Clyde Reid wrote: “How do we explain the empty pulpit in our time? I am not here speaking of the empty pulpit of the many churches which cannot find ministers. I speak here of the deeper and more puzzling dilemma that even when a minister occupies the pulpit is often strangely empty—barren, sterile—to the man who sits in the pew. The pulpit today is empty in the sense that there is often no message heard, no results seen, and not power felt” (p.9, Harper & Row, Publishers, N.Y.)
As noted the attention span of listeners plays a big part in the breakdown in communicating pulpit messages. However, the failure of the preacher to hone and adjust his preaching methodology plays a major role in communicating God’s word. Some preachers have gone to an overkill use of power points; some have sidetracked from “His story” to my personal story. Some have set the time target to meet the content of their sermons rather than the attention span of hearers. Few preachers practice their sermons before springing them on the hearers.
In delivery, some preachers don’t have a clear introduction, which is usually too long. There isn’t a clear transitional promise sentence, and the points aren’t clear, or too many. Then there are the preachers who are committed to their favorite subjects which mean variety and larger coverage of Bible subjects are neglected. The conclusions are not “the end” but the addition of additional “shorter” messages. And there is the rare preacher who dares to critique his sermon a few days after he has delivered it.
The preacher who pleases God is under the command given by Paul to Timothy: “Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching” (2 Timothy 4:2). Those who hear are under the commands given by Jesus: “Take heed HOW you hear” (Luke 8:18)…and “take heed WHAT you hear” (Mark 4:24).
The preaching event is a partnership created by the preacher and those who hear. When both sides are prepared for the 20 to 30-minute event real communication will occur. Both participants need to come together and study ways and means to make the event a more meaningful “meeting of minds” in the word of God. This will contribute to change!