“And he said to them, ‘Pay attention to what you hear’” – Mark 4:24
In a world of endless distractions, it can seem that attention spans are getting shorter. We see how digital media is designed to cater to short attention spans by feeding people with snack-sized news stories, tweets, and videos, in order to keep their gaze captivated for as long as possible before they get bored and move on.
As preachers, we can see this and begin to feel the pressure to cater our message to shortening attention spans. Some believe shorter sermons are the answer to this problem. Others believe the solution is to “hook” people throughout the sermon with something surprising, emotional, funny, or visual so that listeners don’t start checking their watch. But are these really the solution to the problem?
Could it be that maybe the reason why people lose concentration in the sermon has less to do with their short attention span and more to do with dull preaching?
Keeping Their Attention
But, should we not care that people are engaged in the sermon and not dozing off with their arms folded?
Absolutely we should! Spurgeon said, “Sin cannot be taken out of men while they are fast asleep.” We need people to stay awake and listen because faith comes by hearing (Rom 10:17). We should not ignore wise counsel when a sermon is too long or not engaging enough in delivery. That would be foolish.
Even so, I am wondering if the consideration for short attention spans in the pew could have too much influence on how we preach.
There is an assumption that a 14-year-old will not stay engaged throughout a 35-minute expositional sermon. After all, we think, his teenage attention span is just simply too short. So, in order to help him hang with us, we give him engaging snacks throughout the message to keep him full enough to make it to the end. Yet, it is funny how this same teen is able to sit through all two-and-a-half hours of an Avengers movie without ever checking his phone.
Sadly, too many sermons are filled with mental “snacks” that serve no other purpose other than to keep people from losing focus. We feel pressure from the pew that they want a well-timed funny joke, a visual prop, a picture of my children, a YouTube clip, or an emotional story in order to keep them engaged.
The Main Issue
T. David Gordon said, “People may very well have a reduced attention span, but even so, they have no difficulty giving attention to a discourse they deem important and well organized. Bad preaching is insufferably long, even if the chronological length is brief.”
God created image-bearers with the ability to concentrate. Yet, our finite concentration is limited. There are all kinds of factors that influence how long the listener can concentrate: age, current health situation, broken air conditioning, buzzing iPhones, or moms that have been up all night with a crying baby. People of every age, including our most attentive listeners, will be prone to wander during the sermon.
Therefore, let us not plan out how to cater to certain attention spans, but let us consider appropriate ways we can preach the Word of God faithfully so that Christ may arrest the attention of every sinner in need of the mercies of God.
Four Ways to Preach to Keep Attention
1. Captivate them with the beauty of the gospel. God made us to be captivated by glory. Every attention span will check out when there is nothing glorious in the sermon to captivate their gaze. When we use jokes and props to grab attention more than we depend on the jaw-dropping reality of Christ and him crucified, we have lost sight of the radiance of the gospel which we proclaim. Let us captivate the people’s attention with the unsearchable riches of Christ found in the gospel of grace that can heal them of all their sin and shame (1 Pet. 2:24).
2. Be earnest. John Piper said, “Do not lie about the value about the gospel by the dullness of your demeanor.” If we describe the glories of heaven in the same way we describe how to change a tire, why should we expect to keep their attention? People don’t check out because we preached forty-five minutes instead of twenty-five. They check out because we are saying that the gospel is the power of God for salvation in a way that seems indifferent toward that stunning truth. Let us preach the glories of Christ like we believe them. Implore sinners to be reconciled to God (2 Cor 5:20). Compel them to come to Jesus! Genuine earnestness and affection for the Christ we proclaim shows people that he is worthy of their attention.
3. Be clear. We will surely shorten the attention spans of our hearers if we preach a sermon that is unorganized, ambiguous, and confusing. If people cannot follow along because we have a squishy structure or vague points, you will lose them. God demands that we rightly divide the Word of truth (1 Tim 2:15). Therefore, seek to preach with plain language, have clear divisions, define your terms, and show them your points from the text. By doing so, we may be surprised by how much stronger the attention spans become.
4. Depend on the Holy Spirit. It is easy to depend on jokes, visual aids, and funny stories because we feel this is the only way to keep people to the end. But when we do so, we are believing that these things have more power than the Holy Spirit. Let us not forget how Lydia was saved. “The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul” (Acts 16:14). Please do not hear me say that visual aids and funny stories have no place in the sermon. They can serve to shed light on a particular truth. We must only guard against depending on these things to hold people, rather than depending on the Spirit to open hearts to pay attention. Therefore, labor on your knees in your study for the Holy Spirit to conquer anything that could distract our listeners so that they will be fully attentive to the Word of Christ and respond in faith.
As we seek to be faithful to preach the Word of God, Christ stands by us to strengthen us. Let us go on preaching about our glorious Savior and allow him alone to captivate the attention of those who hear.
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 Charles H. Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students, 127.
 Thomas David Gordon, Why Johnny Can’t Preach (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2009), 30.