Staying Awake: A Study of Attention Spans in Sermons
By Justin Smith
Justin Smith is Interim Pastor at New Hope Baptist Church in Charlotte, North Carolonia
Undoubtedly, if you have carried on a regular pulpit ministry, you have seen the following scene played out a number of times before your eyes. As you make your way through the second point of your well-prepared sermon, you take a quick glance at those in your audience, only to find that their eyes, and most likely their minds, are no longer tracking with you. One listener appears to be gazing out of the window while another is coloring in the vowels on the front of the bulletin with a pencil from the pew. By the time you reach your third point, you decide to wrap up your message early rather than compete with the labored breathing from the sleeping senior on the back row or the chattering youth in front of him, cutting another lesson short and feeling as though you have failed yourself once again.
If it makes you feel any better, take comfort in knowing that you are not alone! A recent study in the British Educational Research Journal found that only 2% of college students felt that no part of the lectures they listened to were boring. In fact, 30% felt that either most or all of their lectures were boring, leading them to daydream, doodle, color in letters on handouts, pass notes or outright talk to the person next to them, or even working to find a respectable way to leave the lecture. Herein lies the problem for both practitioners and instructors in the art and science of preaching: preaching is, among other things, primarily a lecture event. After all, lecturing has been defined as anytime a teacher is talking and students are listening or, in the case of preaching, whenever a preacher is speaking and congregants are listening. Therefore, if those who seek to preach are to be successful in their craft, it is essential that their lectures serve as instruments to guide their hearers to the truth of God’s Word, not as sedatives guiding their minds to lethargy.
This work, in an effort to help those who endeavor to preach and teach, will examine briefly why listeners are not able to pay attention throughout the course of a lecture by looking at research on cognitive processing and attention spans. Then, a number of suggestions will be given to help speakers keep their listeners engaged throughout their lecture, which will in turn help their listeners to understand the message God has laid before them through the preacher’s work.
No Chunking Time Means No Learning
A look at the way the brain processes information sheds light on the reason why most people are not able to maintain attention throughout the course of a traditional sermon or lecture. Current cognitive research indicates that the way the brain handles and stores information is quite similar to the way computers process information. The process begins as the senses register new data, which is stored in short-term memory. The typical person is only able to hold about seven pieces of information in their short-term memory at a given time, so the brain must carry out a process known as “chunking,” where it organizes information into a mini-network of knowledge. These networks seek to attach to previously existing networks of knowledge, either strengthening or expanding existing knowledge. As illustrated in Figure 1, this process seeks to attach new information to existing knowledge, which allows it to be stored in long-term memory. If one is not able to attach new information to previously existing knowledge, it is essentially thrown away, meaning the new content has not been learned.
Two major implications for the lecturer emerge from the research mentioned above. First, it is critical that all lectures include ways to connect new information to prior knowledge, as this allows the brain to store information naturally. Second, the small capacity of the short-term memory limits the amount of new information that a person can handle in a given period of time. Thus, when a listener receives a long stream of new content without any time to pause and process it, their minds are not able to organize the new information into meaningful networks, resulting in the content being lost. In other words, listeners are not able to learn most of the content given, meaning the speaker has essentially spent forty-five minutes to an hour lecturing on a topic that his audience will not remember.
Figure 1: The Brain’s Chunking Process
Surprising Attention Span Studies
A look at research concerning attention spans shows the other side of the coin in regards to an audience’s ability to pay attention to a sermon or lecture. Citing a number of landmark studies in attention spans, educational researchers Joan Middendorf and Alan Kalish conclude that the attention span of the average adult lies between fifteen and twenty minutes, with a significant drop in attention after twenty minutes. Further, Lisa Burke and Ruth Ray argue that while there is some variance in the degree to which listeners may concentrate due to personality and learning styles, the fifteen to twenty minute range of attention span is consistent, meaning the range is a reliable estimate for all levels of teaching and preaching. As Ed Neal summarizes, “After 15 minutes students begin to tune out and, although some may continue to take notes, they are no longer processing the information they receive.” When combined with the research concerning the brain’s cognitive processes, it becomes apparent that if one seeks to lecture or preach new content for over twenty minutes, he is embarking on a journey where he is leaving his audience behind. Unable to focus for the length of the speech and losing the unprocessed new content given, listeners often walk out of the service bored and distracted, leaving behind the content of the precious Word of God which was preached in their midst minutes earlier.
An Answer to the Problem
While the research seems convincing, it presents a significant problem for the pastor and teacher. It seems apparent that people are not able to handle more than fifteen to twenty minutes of lecture at a time, yet a number of conditions require the speaker to use more than twenty minutes for their tasks. For the preacher, social and professional requirements push him to aim for a thirty to forty-five minute sermon. Most have heard the phrase “sermonettes for preacherettes” echoed throughout their time at seminary, while there still remains a number of people in the church who feel as though they “didn’t get their money’s worth” if the sermon is shorter than forty-five minutes. Teachers of preaching have a similar problem, as most classes range from fifty minutes to one and a half hours, with night classes extending the class time to nearly three hours long. How does one balance the relatively short effective learning time with the necessary time frame he must work in?
The answer to the problem is to find ways to break up lectures, forming a number of fifteen to twenty minute segments within the sermon. As Middendorf and Kailsh note, speakers “must do something to control their students’ attention. We recommend changing the activity, building a “change-up” into your class to restart the attention clock.” These breaks in the lecture utilize an approach known as active learning, which has been defined as “anything course-related that all students in a class session are called upon to do other than simply watching, listening, and taking notes.” Research supports that this idea is effective in keeping your listeners concentration level constant throughout your sermon. Burke and Ray’s study of classes utilizing active learning intervention techniques demonstrates that such actions at least maintain a constant level of concentration throughout the lecture, with some techniques even increasing the concentration level of the listeners for the last half of the class. While this may sound intimidating at first, such a practice is commonly carried out by the best speakers and teachers, sometimes without even knowing they are doing it. As Howard Hendricks wrote, “Maximum learning is always the result of maximum involvement;” taking an active learning approach to breaking up lectures allows listeners to stay involved throughout the course of a lecture, maintaining their interest and helping them to retain the message your sermon is bringing them from God’s Word.
Suggestions for Practice
While the need for incorporating active learning into sermons has been established, the question of methodology arises. What follows is a listing of some suggestions for the pastor who wishes to maintain his audience’s attention, but a note concerning the development of activities to break up lectures is in order. Activities should seek to bring variety to lectures and involve listeners. As Roy Zuck notes, Jesus’ style of lecturing was a case study in adding variety, as He regularly combined lecturing with other methods, used a multitude of illustrations, appealed to various aspects of the soul, were directed toward the individual needs of the audience before Him, and moved from the known to the unknown. However, one should not seek variety just for the sake of novelty; as with Christ’s example, all methods and activities should be purposefully chosen to address the needs of the audience before the pastor. The goal is maintain the congregation’s attention, not to become a spectacle or a circus sideshow.
Further, a warning should also be offered before one attempts to bring active learning techniques into a sermon or lecture. You may face resistance as church members realize that sermons are no longer times to think about lunch or the football game after the service. As Richard Felder details in his “Sermon for Grumpy Campers,” “students will not all be thrilled with the added responsibility and some may be overtly hostile to it.” The resistance may be stronger for the preacher from his pulpit for certain activities, as the Sunday morning service has a sanctity that should be maintained for the sake of the church. At the onset, it would be highly recommended that you start slowly and allow your hearers to adjust. Personal experience speaks to the effectiveness of such a tactic, as our weekly prayer meeting now regularly utilize active learning techniques after a number of months of phasing in such activities. The goal is not to force your audience to engage in activities they do not like, but rather, to help your audience understand and retain the information you are sharing with them. Take your time and practice patience when some in your audience protest; your diligence upfront will be rewarded when your congregation bears the fruit of the Scripture being planted, remembered, and applied in their lives.
In moving toward a more engaging, active learning preaching style in sermon development, a few suggestions may help. In your sermon planning, remember that quality always trumps quantity. In light of the research concerning the short-term memory’s ability to process a small amount of new information, it is recommended that the pastor focus his sermon on no more than three well-developed topics rather than expositing every topic of thought in a given passage. Indeed, the well-established development of the Big Idea, as described by Haddon Robinson, is helpful, as the pastor needs to determine what the passage is talking about (the subject) and what the passage is saying about the subject (the complement). The pastor can do his congregation a great favor if he will determine the subject of the passage and focus on three complements. Above all, this will take discipline on the preacher’s part, as he must force himself to draw out the most essential complements for his audience and situation and stick to them. He must not allow himself to wander through all of the possible complements to a given passage; if the need to present them is that strong, the preacher should devote another sermon to their exposition.
Structuring the sermon around no more than three complements affords the preacher the perfect organization to incorporate active learning techniques into his sermon. If a preacher aims for a 40-minute sermon, with around 10 minutes given for an introduction and conclusion, his three points should take around 10 minutes each. Thus, he is given a built-in time to incorporate active learning technique after his first point and after his second point, as displayed in Figure 2.
While this is an ideal set-up, it is recognized that few sermons will be able to maintain the rigid time structure detailed in Figure 2. However, if the general outline is maintained, the preacher will take a major step toward keeping his audience engaged.
With the sermon organization and structure established, all that remains is a brief discussion of intervention activities. Above all, remember to be creative: these are simply activities to reactivate your audience’s mind. In designing activities, a goal should be to reinforce or further illustrate one of your topics, helping your listeners to attach the new content of your idea to their existing knowledge systems, allowing them to remember your points easier. As Robinson points out, there is a reason advertisers invest millions of dollars to restate their ideas on all forms of media: one can ignore an idea given once, but thoughts and actions are changed by hearing the idea repeatedly. Further, using activities to support or reinforce ideas gives the audience a chance to process the information without adding new content to their plate.
So what activities are helpful to use? As stated above, virtually any activity that calls on listeners to do anything other than watching, listening, and taking notes will help keep your congregation’s attention. These activities should be kept short, lasting no longer than 3 or 4 minutes, as their goal is a brief break and reinforcement. For the more traditional church, stories, illustrations, even jokes may serve as the needed element to enliven lectures; these verbal activities, while still relying on the speaker, may provide the momentary pause in lecturing needed to allow the congregation to process information. Another idea for the traditional service is to incorporate hymns as a change-up activity. Leading your congregation in a verse of a hymn that applies to your topic is particularly powerful, as your congregation is physically involved and the use of hymns may incorporate older members feeling left out by the advance of contemporary music in the church.
Another important tool in incorporating active learning in sermons is the use of visual aids. Taking a simple object into the pulpit as a display item to illustrate a point may help your audience to have a mental image to hang onto in your sermon. Displaying a graphic organizer or chart to illustrate the progression of a story or to show how ideas relate helps your audience to understand the relations between ideas and allow them to engage their minds visually. The use of artwork in the auditorium that displays the central theme of the sermon can help the audience to reflect on the topic in a more creative way. For the more adventurous pastor, the use of a video clip may provide the needed reinforcement for a point; at a more technologically savvy church, members of the church may be employed to create such works, involving them in the very production of the sermon.
Finally, an oft-neglected tool is the use of discussion-based practices in a sermon. This is the most dangerous of the methods suggested, as some church members may have strong objections to this method; however, if the pastor is willing to try this method, huge rewards may be reaped. The pastor may pose a challenging question or problem and ask congregants to discuss the issue with 2 or 3 people around them for one minute. Using a technique called Think-Pair-Share, a preacher may give the congregation a problem to think about individually for a moment, then ask them to share their solutions with a partner and call on pairs to share to the group. Admittedly, these methods are the most likely to be rejected by a church; yet, if implemented well, these could serve as the most valuable tools, as people are allowed to think reflectively concerning the topic of discussion, producing the highest levels of thinking.
While this work has covered a good amount of ground in relation to attention spans and sermons, at the base of the article is the sincere hope that pastors will work to keep their members engaged. In preaching the Scriptures, preachers are literally applying the words of life to a people in desperate need of the power of God. If we truly believe that God’s Word changes lives, it must be our goal to engage those under our authority in His Word, which means that our sermons must not be exercises in futility, but instead, exercises in learning about our great God and His wonderful plan for us. Keep your congregants awake and allow God to work in their lives through your preaching ministry!
 Sandi Mann and Andrew Robinson, “Boredom in the lecture theatre: an investigation into the contributors, moderators and outcomes of boredom amongst university students,” British Educational Research Journal 35.2 (April 2009): pages 243-258, especially pages 249-253.
 Joseph Lowman, Mastering the Techniques of Teaching, San Francisco: Jossey- Bass, 1988: page 96.
Ed Neal, “For Your Consideration: Thoughts on the Lecture Method,” Center for Teaching and Learning (UNC Chapel Hill) 6 (November 1989): http://cfe.unc.edu/pdfs/FYC6.pdf .
C. Yeager, “Linking brain research to best practices,” in Student successes with thinking maps, ed. D. Hyerle, L. Apler, & S. Curtis. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press, 2004: pages 19-28.
 Joan Middendorf and Alan Kalish, “The ‘Change-Up’ in Lectures,” Faculty and TA Development (Ohio State University) (1994): page 2.
 Lisa Burke and Ruth Ray, “Re-Setting the Concentration Levels of Students in Higher Education: An Exploratory Study,” Teaching in Higher Education 13.5 (October 2008): pages 571-573.
Middendorf and Kalish, 2.
Richard Felder and Rebecca Brent, “Active Learning; An Introduction,” ASQ Higher Education Brief 2.4 (August 2009): page 1.
 Burke and Ray, 576-577.
Howard Hendricks, Teaching to Change Lives, Sisters, Oregon: Multnomah, 1987, page 56
Roy Zuck, Teaching As Jesus Taught, Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock, 1995, pages 166-170.
Richard Felder, “Sermons for Grumpy Campers,” Chemical Engineering Education 41.3 (2007): page 181.
 Haddon Robinson, Biblical Preaching, Second Edition, Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001: pages 41-45.