How do you preach to an audience whose attention span rivals that of a goldfish—eight seconds? If Microsoft’s own internal studies are to be believed, the average twenty-first-century person possesses an attention span of just 8 seconds, and reads at the level of an eighth grader. The people who sit in our pews are vastly different from the ones who sat there only a generation or two ago. And preachers are feeling it.
We are currently living through what media ecologists call “a Gutenberg moment.” The term refers to a media change with worldwide cultural and sociological ramifications, similar to those resulting from Johan Gutenberg’s fifteenth-century invention of the printing press. These are changes, that, in the words of famed media ecologist Marshall McLuhan—the field’s pioneer and patron saint—change not just the way people dispense or receive information, but also alter their fundamental makeup and identity, “affecting the whole psychic and social complex” of the world.  If McLuhan is right, the question becomes, “How then shall we preach?”
Teachers and professors have for years been telling us that Gutenberg’s innovation changed the world. What they were largely incapable of doing is realizing and articulating precisely how it did so. Prior to the print age, the world existed in what another media ecologist, Walter Ong, has termed “the age of orality”—a world that was far more fluid and unfixed, the world in which Jesus taught and preached. Ong asserts that “writing [itself] restructures consciousness.” Neil Postman explains that print did not merely remain a form of communication; rather, it shaped the world after its image, giving birth to a whole civilization that was typographic in nature and possessed what he called a “Typographic Mind.” It brought about what Myron Gilmore calls “the most radical transformation in the history of Western Civilization . . . its effects felt sooner or later in every department of human activity.”
Print gave birth to what Postman called “the Age of Exposition . . . a method of thought and learning . . . [entailing] a sophisticated ability to think conceptually, deductively, and sequentially, a high valuation of reason and order.” It is a world that emerged in the midst of the Protestant Reformation. The Reformational churches embraced it enthusiastically and with great success—a success that continued well into the Colonial American era, according to church historian James Moorhead, and came to thoroughly characterize and permeate American Christianity. It is the world in which pastors in the Protestant tradition have been, and continue to be, thoroughly schooled, a world that, as Postman puts it, fosters a “content-laden” society, which tends to be “serious and rational, . . . dominated by reason . . . and orderly arrangement.” The result is a whole world controlled by “the rigors of print.” That world, however, is no longer the world we live in.
It’s not that the age of print has been wiped out completely; we live in a world entirely saturated by print media. It’s just that the manner in which the print is consumed, as well as the manner in which it operates, is entirely different. As McLuhan explains, “A new medium is never [merely] an addition to an old one. . . . It [ceaselessly] oppress[es] the older media until it finds new shapes . . . for them.” Postman couches it in environmental terms: “Technological change is neither additive nor subtractive. It is ecological . . . in the sense [that] . . . one significant change generates total change.”
But it’s also more than a cultural phenomenon that we’re dealing with. It’s a biological one as well. Contemporary neuroscience shows that print technology, as well as electronic/digital, fundamentally alters the very structure of the brain itself. Dr. Kenneth Klivingston of the Salk Institute in San Diego, a pioneer in neuroplasticity, asserted back in the 1990s the conclusion that “environments shape brains . . . [in terms of] both their function, as well as structure.” Maryanne Wolf, Professor of Human Development at UCLA and former Director of Reading and Learning Research at Tufts University, elaborates that “reading develops circuits . . . not natural to, or hardwired in . . . the brain, involving input from two hemispheres, four lobes in each hemisphere (frontal, temporal, parietal and occipital), and all five layers of the brain.” She adds, “print-based mediums . . . develop . . . cognitive processes that absorb and acquire new cognitive capacities.”
What the media theorists and neuroscientists are telling us is everywhere on display and nowhere as prominent as in the hand-held, all-in-one devices we call cellphones (or “mobiles,” for those on the other side of the pond). Anecdotes abound here, but we’ve all observed how glued to our devices we all are, how common it has become to see folks gathered round tables at dinner with faces glued to devices—sometimes, even, as I’ve observed, preferring to communicate with each other via their devices rather than converse the old-fashioned way. Indeed, we are a fundamentally altered people! To borrow from McLuhan’s aphorism, we’ve “shaped tools that have in turn shaped us.” And in case you thought it was “just the kids”—nope. Studies have shown that nearly all generations have adapted, and almost equally so, to digital technologies. So it’s not just the hormonal teenager surfing Google during your sermon; it’s grandma too!
The old world, “the world of the printed word, with its . . . emphasis on logic, . . . sequence, history, . . . exposition, objectivity,” is gone. In its place is a new world, a digitized one, which “emphasi[zes] imagery, simultaneity, immediate gratification, and quick emotional response.” Postman, sounding every bit the Luddite, says the result is a people “who can’t learn to read or won’t, . . . who cannot organize their thought into logical structure, . . . and cannot attend to lecture or oral explanations for more than a few minutes at a time!”
If Postman is right, or even close to right—and I’m convinced he is, though in some particular ways, which we can nuance a bit below—the logical question that proceeds from this then is, “How then shall we preach?” As pastors trained in the expositional tradition, schooled in the typographic world, equipped with thoroughgoing typographic minds, how do we preach in an entirely new cultural ecology? Is it fair to say, in the famous words of astronaut John Swiggert, “Houston, we have a problem”? I believe it is.
Let me suggest a few things to begin, and then in a subsequent article we’ll cover a few more. And let me preface these by saying that the news is not entirely bad. Though reading levels are down, the average person actually spends moretime reading than only a decade or two ago (That time is not necessarily spending reading books, but people are reading—heavy volumes, in fact, of text per day on their electronic devices, especially the handheld kind). And with that increased consumption of content (even if it is not terribly complex content) the brain is being trained to process information at increasingly rapid rates. Studies also show that, at least in some cases, rapid information processing leads to an increased ability to perform complex decision making. In short, the average person in the pew is impatient, easily distracted, but ready for information, and prepared to process it quickly. Oh, and I might add, being immersed in an entertainment culture, people expect to be both intrigued and to enjoy whatever it is you’ve brought them there for. Lament it all you like, but this is your audience, for good or ill.
This, then, being the case, a few broad suggestions to begin with about how to re-approach preaching:
1. Be Captivating — Not to be confused necessarily with entertaining, but the fact is, there is much to learn from entertainment. Think of entertainment as “the ability to hold and captivate the attentions of an audience.” One of those I interviewed in my dissertation research commented that he’s “become a student of stand-up comedy. Stand-up comics are the preachers of the secular world,” he said. “Notice how they hook an audience and then preach.” I’ve since begun to pay said attention, and I believe he’s right. Preachers should become students not only of stand-up comics, but also of any and all who speak as a vocation.
One of the things Marshall McLuhan celebrated about the digital culture was that he felt that technology had sped up so quickly that it had in effect “lapped itself”; it was as if we were going back in time, in a sense, to conditions that mirrored the oral/aural age, where information was coming too rapidly to be fixed in print, forcing us again to take in more with the ear than the eye. With the explosion of podcasts and audio forums on just about every platform imaginable, people are listening to more than at any time in history. It would serve preachers well to listen to those to whom people most frequently listen, and study what it is that is captivating about them. For the sad fact is that we live in an age where we are all too readily conditioned to change the channel, or, if unable to physically change it, to tune out. Don’t let that happen to you.
And please don’t complain that “no one’s interested in the Bible anymore.” The Bible is abjectly fascinating, especially for anyone who is a good student of the word and research. If mined properly, the Scriptures have more than enough material to supply Netflix and Amazon Prime with content for years to come. In short, if your people find the Bible boring, it’s because you’re boring!
2. Be Succinct — Information comes quickly in this age, which means people are conditioned to absorb it just as quickly. And just because you’re succinct doesn’t mean you’re unable to go deep. Depth and succinctness are not necessarily at philosophical odds.
The fact is (and there is no turning back the technological clock, nor the psyche it conditions) peoples’ attention spans are shorter (on average 8-second increments, if Microsoft’s study is accurate), and the preacher must both compete with and contend for it.
But “succinct” doesn’t necessarily equal “short.” Studies also show that sporting events—especially college and NFL football—are increasing in duration, yet they continue to gain devoted audience shares. People don’t seem to mind three- and four-hour long affairs—here’s the caveat—so long as they’re captivating and there’s a sense of urgency!
3. Be Narrative — The most sure-fire way to be captivating is to be narrative. In an increasingly less formal, didactic, linear culture—i.e., a culture dominated by entertainment forms—far more is caught than taught. Narrative is increasingly serving as a medium, both in classrooms as well as homes, as the delivery mechanism for teaching and learning. Notice that Wikipedia has to solicit donations; Netflix just raises its subscription price.
When one surveys the landscape, one finds that increasingly less time (pardon the paradox) is being devoted to laying out propositions and defending them. To put that another way, less and less deductive reasoning is going on out there in culture, and far more inductive.
Inductive reasoning involves listeners, where deductive tends to generate passivity.
Now, being narrative does not mean (contrary to popular assumption on the part of just about every pastor I’ve met) searching for better illustrations. What it means instead is that pastors must dig deeper into the texts of Scripture to find their homiletical plotlines. Get in touch with the narrative of Scripture, both on the macro and micro levels; bring your people into the story and the drama of THE story, and do it efficiently. Learn how to capture (to borrow from J. K. A. Smith and Charles Taylor) your parishioners’ (and hopefully even future, but currently unbelieving, parishioners’) “social imaginaries”—the set of values, institutions, laws, and symbols common to a particular social group and the corresponding society through which people imagine their social whole.
One way to do that is to structure your sermon more narratively; i.e., let it flow after the fashion of a good story, with appropriate builds and cliff hangers and climaxes. Become a good student of story and master the craft.
In the next installment we’ll look at three more important re-approaches to preaching in the digital age.
Dr. Joshua Schatzle is Pastor of Charlottetown Christian Reformed Church on Prince Edward Island, and a 2019 graduate of Covenant Seminary’s Doctor of Ministry (DMin) program.
 Alyson Gausby, “Attention Spans: Consumer Insights,” Microsoft Canada (Spring 2015): 6, dl.motamem.org/microsoft-attention-spans-research-report.pdf.
 Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media (New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1964), 19.
 Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the World (London & New York: Routledge, 1982), xiv.
 Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (New York: Viking, 1985), 63.
 Myron Gilmore, The World of Humanism, 1453–1517 (New York: Harper, 1952), 186.
 Postman, Amusing Ourselves, 63.
 James H. Moorhead, “The Millennium and the Media,” in Communication and Change in American Religious History, ed. Leonard I. Sweet (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993), 218.
 Postman, Amusing Ourselves, 50-51.
 McLuhan, Understanding Media, 237.
 Postman, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (New York: Knopf, 1992), 18.
 Jane Healy, Endangered Minds: Why Children Don’t Think and What We Can Do about It (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990), 51.
 Maryanne Wolf, Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World (New York: HarperCollins, 2018), 20.
 Wolf, Reader, Come Home, 8.
 Alex Kuskis, “We shape our tools and thereafter they shape us,” McLuhan Galaxy, April 1, 2013, https://mcluhangalaxy.wordpress.com/2013/04/01/we-shape-our-tools-and-thereafter-our-tools-shape-us/
 Deborah Vollmer Dahlke, “No Longer Just for the Young,” World Economic Forum, July 26, 2019, https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2019/07/no-longer-just-for-the-young-70-of-seniors-are-now-online/.
 Postman, Technopoly,16.
 Postman, Technopoly, 17.
 Eugene L. Lowry, The Homiletical Plot: The Sermon as Narrative Art Form, exp. ed. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2001).