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2007-11-20 issue:

Is the sermon dead?

No, but preachers have to be more creative.

by John Longhurst

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I was daydreaming the other Sunday during the sermon and got to thinking about, well, sermons. Specifically, I wondered: In our fast-paced world of Internet, TV, video games, Ipods and a hundred other stimulations and distractions, are sermons the best way to communicate in today’s attention- deficient world? Or is the sermon dead?

There was a time when people were accustomed to listening to a 45-minute sermon. Not anymore. These days, many of us have the attention spans of goldfish—literally. Web researcher Ted Selker of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has found that many browsers spend about nine seconds checking a Web page. If they don’t find what they are looking for by then, they move on. That’s the same attention span as a goldfish.

“If we spend our time flitting from one thing to another on the Web, we can get into a habit of not concentrating,” says Selker. “Our attention span gets affected by the way we do things.”

Pop culture: But it’s not just the Internet that makes us less attentive. Everything today seems to be cut into smaller pieces. As Nancy Miller stated in Wired Magazine: “Music, television, games, movies, fashion: We now devour our pop culture the same way we enjoy candy and chips—in conveniently packaged, bite-size nuggets made to be munched easily with increased frequency and maximum speed. This is snack culture—and boy, is it tasty.”

For most people, she says, “media snacking is a way of life. In the morning, we check news and tap out emails on our laptops. At work, we graze all day on videos and blogs … in between are the morsels that fill those whenever minutes, as your mobile phone carrier calls them: a 30-second game on your Nintendo DS, a 60-second webisode on your cell, a three-minute podcast on your MP3 player.”

Pity the poor preachers, then, standing up in front of congregations on Sunday morning. How can they compete with all that? Should we give them a break and just declare the sermon dead?

The human voice:
“I don’t think so,” says Thomas Long (pictured), professor of preaching at Candler School of Theology in Atlanta. “But I do think that preachers have to work more creatively to get a hearing. There was a time when people were attuned to getting their information from the human voice. Preachers could assume that congregations were at least ready to hear them if they did a good job of preaching. But that’s not true anymore.”

According to Long, “people today get their information more randomly and episodically. There’s no plot line to their world. People’s attention is so fragmented, and so attracted by a burst of energy there, a burst of energy here, that making any sense of the whole is a difficult task.”

Long says preachers today need to recognize this new reality by changing the way they preach.

“It’s not possible today to preach a traditional sermon with a narrative plot that has sequential sections,” he says. “If somebody quits in an early section, the whole thing is lost. My current thinking is that I will no longer start with sentence one and assume a continuity of listening through to the end of the sermon. I think of my sermons in terms of chunks. For each section, I want to be sure to give the congregation the information they need to listen to what I am saying and be able to use it.”

Long isn’t suggesting that preachers deliver sermons in bullet point pieces. “That approach can end up reinforcing the episodic character of life,” he says. “It fails the larger gospel task of giving people a sense that they are part of a larger story.”

For Long, the goal of the sermon is still to remind people that the gospel is a master narrative that helps them understand the narrative of their own lives. “To live as a Christian is to have a story,” he says, adding that preachers need to adapt to the episodic way people get information-without “losing sight of the bigger story of God’s work in the world.”

God’s bigger plan: Dan Epp-Tiessen (pictured) doesn’t think the sermon is dead today, either. “People today are still yearning for a word from God that gives them a sense of where they fit into God’s bigger plan and what God is calling them to do in life,” says Tiessen, who teaches homiletics—the art of preaching—at Canadian Mennonite University (CMU) in Winnipeg.

But, he adds, “sermons today need to be lively, engaging and not drag on” if they are to capture and hold the attention of the congregation. “Preachers need to use language and images that are vivid and lively and that gets people’s minds and imaginations going.”

Epp-Tiessen, who also served as a pastor at First Mennonite Church in Kitchener, Ont., and at Charleswood Mennonite Church in Winnipeg, also suggests that preachers need to provide more background about the text, people and situations in the Bible. “We can assume the congregation is intelligent, but also that they don’t know a lot about the Bible,” he says.

Like Long, Epp-Tiessen also agrees that preachers have to be careful not to follow a sequential narrative line that requires listeners to stay attentive throughout the whole sermon—or risk missing everything. “I think of a sermon as a bus ride,” he says. “The bus has a destination, but people can get off at multiple points to contemplate something the preacher said, then get back on again.”

Both Epp-Tiessen and Long believe the sermon has an important role to play today. “I believe that a carefully thought-through sermon has the potential to move people and help them hear God’s voice,” says Epp-Tiessen. Adds Long: “The community of faith … is sustained by hearing the voice of God speaking to it. A sermon is a word of God for these people on this day. The preacher stands with one foot in the congregation and the other in Scripture and says: ‘This is what I hear God saying to us in this moment.’ ”

John Longhurst is director of communications and marketing at Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg.

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Additional Notes

John Longhurst is director of communications and marketing at Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg.

Thomas Long is the keynote speaker at CMU’s biannual Church in Ministry Seminar, Jan. 14-15, 2008, at the university. The theme of the seminar, which will also feature workshops by Epp-Tiessen and other CMU faculty, is “The Witness of Preaching.” Visit or call 204-487-3300 for more information.