I got into a discussion on facebook about how long a service should be, because they were mentioning how short people’s attention spans are.
I have heard it said multiple times that youth sermons should be shorter. I took a class where they advocated 20 minute sermons when preaching for youth.
Are people’s attention spans really that small? I don’t think so.
Take a look at these statistics:
The highest grossing movie of all time is Avengers: Endgame. That was 3 hours long. In fact many people watched it more than one time in the theaters. So can we say that the average person has a short attention span?
You might say, “My pastor isn’t as entertaining as all the Avengers combined.” I give you that. I understand that you cannot completely compare one person talking on the pulpit to a movie that cost $300 million dollars to make.
But what about a stand-up comedian? A comedy special is at minimum an hour long. That is one guy just talking. Sure, he has worked on his craft and on that particular set for countless hours to provide you a polished monologue. But my point is that it is not impossible for people to sit in a room a listen to someone talking for a long period of time.
I believe there are two factors that affect the attention span in church:
1. Someone’s desire to listen.
2. The preacher’s ability to communicate.
If God has blessed someone with the ability to communicate effectively and the person listening truly desires the word of God then there shouldn’t be a problem with a lengthy sermon.
I remember sitting down years ago trying to figure out the ideal length for a sermon. I came up with a plan to preach a 22 minute sermon modeling the pacing of 22 minute cartoons that I liked (Darkwing Duck, Aladdin Animated Series, and Gargoyles). I studied how long their opening scenes were; how long the slow parts were; how long the action scenes were; and how they organize it. I decided to write my next sermons with that type of pacing and for them to last 22 minutes.
The sermons went well, but someone told me that it was too short. They wanted more. They said it didn’t even feel like 22 minutes. In a way that’s a good thing. Leave people wanting something more. Better people say it is too short than too long.
I also tried structuring sermons based on the pacing of 45 minute drama shows.
I figured if I am preaching to youth I will do 22 minutes. If I am preaching to adults, 45 minutes. I knew people could sit through a 2 hour movie, but I wanted to stick to shorter time lengths.
And you know what? God blessed.
But then I started think about people like Paul from the Bible. Once, he preached all night. Sure one kid died from exhaustion. He fell asleep and fell out the window. Paul simply resurrected him and went right back to preaching as they all ate food. (Acts 20:7-12) No one said that he was preaching too long. The Bible says that they were comforted by his message.
They didn’t have TV back then, but still— pulling an all-nighter to hear someone preach is hard core. Most people couldn’t pull an all-nighter binge-watching Netflix. Paul was more engaging back then, than TV is today. And it wasn’t because Paul was so skilled. It was because he was endowed with the power of the Holy Spirit.
See if a stand-up comedian can hold a crowd for over an hour (which they pay good money for), how much more can a person with the Holy Spirit speak. See, a comedian only has his talents as his arsenal, but a ‘Paul’ has his talents, gifts, and God-given power. See, the Holy Spirit is not just speaking through the preacher, but to each person individually. A stand-up comedian cannot do that.
Then I saw how Paul preached every day in the school of Tyrannus for 2 years. (Acts 19:9-10)
Now, I wasn’t bold enough to do an evangelistic series for that long, but I decided to do one every day for 90 days straight. The program was simply… play a song from my phone and then preach for the rest of the hour. I was preaching longer than my 45 minutes structure. I was not following the pacing that I laid out. I just followed the verses one chapter at a time, one day at a time. People are usually shocked by that. They asked, “Did people actually come?” Yeah. Not everyone came every day, but we had a solid group every day. People were more willing to come to these daily sermons than to regular prayer meeting. I saw the atmosphere of the church change through the course of that series.
However it just doesn’t rely on the preacher. It also depends upon the listener. Jesus said many times "He who has ears to hear, let him hear." (Luke 14:35) Not everybody in the room is there to hear. Some people won’t pay attention. Some people will fall asleep. Some people will have the message go in one ear and out the other. But whoever has ears to hear, let him hear. You are never going to please everybody. So focus on pleasing God.
So how long should a sermon be? How long should a video be?
It depends on the medium you are using, what people are doing on that medium, and what you are trying to accomplish.
Facebook: People are not looking for a video. That is why the view time is not even 30 seconds.
Youtube: People are looking for short videos to entertain.
Podcast: People are looking for something to pass the time as they are driving or doing other activities.
TV: People are looking to relax and watch hours of entertainment.
Netflix: People are either looking to watch an episode during a break or they are looking to binge-watch their favorite show.
Church: Some people are there because they have to (don’t have ears to hear). Others are there because they crave community (group discussions and fellowship lunch). Others are there because they are hungry for the word (sermon).
People's attention spans aren't small. It depends what they are searching for and in the mood for.
What does that mean for church?
Your platform matters. Maybe we need to use each platform and ask ourselves,
‘how can our church fit into that platform's culture?’
‘How can we use that platform's culture to influence someone's life?’
Also, you got to know your audience. Know what they want, but especially know what they need. Sometimes our messages need to be short, sometimes are messages needs to be all night (still want to try that out one day). Sometimes it will be one day (like Philip with the Eunuch). Sometimes it will be every day for years. Every situation is different.
God can bless the
1 sentence facebook post,
1 page Blog post,
6 minute video,
22 minute sermon,
45 minute sermon,
1 hour sermon,
or even the sermon that’s longer than that.
Whatever we do, we have to do it with the Lord so that our message can have an impact.