The Challenge of Preaching in an Infodistracted WorldBy Marty Duren
September 3, 2020
Note: This article addresses communication philosophy applied to sermon delivery, not the ultimate source of a preacher’s spiritual power, the Word and the Spirit.
There is no doubt that we live in a distracted age. Professor Alan Noble suggests distraction is the inevitable result of technological advances in the Information Age. In Disruptive Witness, he writes:
The rise of secularism has inspired a view of technology and fullness rooted thoroughly in this life and established and chosen inwardly, which I believe has helped to justify the creation of technologies that are not directed toward human flourishing but instead help us project our identity and remain distracted. (emphasis added)
Members and guests alike enter our services, say a few hellos (or none), then sit down to resume the same web surfing they were doing at home and at every red-light on the way to the worship gathering. Our near addictive smartphone dependency and obsessive news consumption does not turn off like a water spigot when we sit down to listen to a sermon. This is a weekly challenge, often unrealized.
Infodistraction is the result of our drowning in an ocean of facts, fiction, factoids, and foolishness. A recent study out of Western Sydney University found,
that high-levels of Internet use could indeed impact on many functions of the brain. For example, the limitless stream of prompts and notifications from the Internet encourages us towards constantly holding a divided attention – which then in turn may decrease our capacity for maintaining concentration on a single task.
Whether you are in post-pandemic gathering phase, solely online, or some hybrid, the preacher’s goal is to communicate a well-studied, prayed-over sermon to people who are listening. But what happens when those people can’t hear it because they opened their Bible app and wound up on Twitter or when you began point #2 they notice a text message from mom on their phone’s home screen?
Infodistracted people are the ones coming to hear you preach on Sundays or joining your livestream. What shall the preacher do when the congregation doesn’t pay attention because they have lost the ability to do so?
Preaching to Communicate
Preaching is not merely proclaiming or saying biblically oriented things, no matter the broadcast volume. It is the communication of meaning; the goal is for listeners to hear and understand what the speaker intends. Communication theorists teach three components in the first part of the communication process. There are 1) the sender, who encodes the message, 2) the medium (written, oral, nonverbal) that carries the message, 3) the receiver, who decodes the message.
The preacher encodes the message by choosing the words and phrases that will—he hopes—most closely convey the meaning he intends. The medium for most sermons is oral and nonverbal (body language). The receiver decodes the message based on his or her own understanding/interpretation of the message and the medium. Successful communication takes place when the listener understands what the preacher intends to convey.
So, what to do?
Choose your words well.
If you see a contest that advertises, “Free Bass Giveaway,” are you registering for a fish or a type of guitar? Words can be confusing or ambiguous, so preaching requires clarity. Using theological terms is needed for theological teaching, but if your listeners do not understand “soteriological implications” (or worse, assign it a wrong meaning), miscommunication has taken place.
Choosing words well is especially important since words can change in meaning or fall out of use over time. That’s why kids sometimes look at us funny when we mention something from childhood. What is a Walkman? What is “dialing a phone”? What is “tuning in” to a program? Communications professional William H. Bonner writes, “When the sender’s thinking is fuzzy, the words selected by the sender may not describe the thought precisely” (Communicating in Business).
Recognize and work to overcome distractions.
Recognizing people are distracted is important, but it helps when your people recognize it, too. Perhaps it is time we encourage people not to use their Bible app during the service, not to take notes on a tablet, or engage with any other tool that can easily distract. Printed Bibles and paper notepads are disconnected from the infodistraction that is the Internet and can help people focus more directly on what is being communicated by the preacher. Opening one’s physical Bible to Galatians is less likely to send them to Facebook.
A recent article published by the Oracle software company reminds us, “So much demands our attention that we can only focus on each new ‘trend’ for a short time.” Microsoft studies found the attention span of the average American dropped from twelve seconds in 2000 to only eight seconds in 2015.
Not eight hours or eight minutes, but eight seconds. That means in a single 30-minute sermon a person’s attention could be redirected as many as 225 times. While preaching, be proactive about keeping people’s attention. Your physical movement on the stage (nonverbal communication) can help people to keep their attention on your spoken words. Graphics can also help. For example, in addition to mentioning the Beirut explosion, you could have an on-screen image of the damage so they can visualize what you are explaining.
Pay attention to nonverbal feedback.
Every pastor gets feedback via email, personal dialogue, social media, or being snubbed in the lobby. For sure, we all can become better communicators if we take even negative feedback to heart. It helps, however, to know whether infodistraction is at work while you are preaching, and there is a way: the nonverbal feedback of your listeners.
The second half of communication theory includes feedback, that is what the sender (preacher) receives back from the receiver (listener). Feedback should tell the preacher whether the message is being understood. That’s the value of questions asked and affirmation given in emails and conversations.
But, in the moment, if the listeners’ gazes are drifting, if they’ve picked up their phones, if their body language screams “I’M DISTRACTED,” do something to regain their attention. Maybe you walk right to the front of the speaking area while still preaching until everyone is focusing on the front of the room. Maybe you mention someone in the congregation by name. Maybe you ask a question that elicits a response: “How many of you have ever…?” You might not recognize you have lost your listeners if you are not paying attention to their nonverbal communication. Like the heavens and the firmament testify without language, so distraction speaks without words.
A preacher need not be a specialist in communication theory to communicate well, but different times require different strategies including overcoming infodistraction. For the sake of the Gospel we must.