The weekly sermon is as much a part of the traditional worship service as the bulletin and singing the doxology at the conclusion. But wait, we don't sing the doxology at the conclusion of the service, and more and more churches are moving away from a printed bulletin in favor of a digital version.
So much in our church services has changed over the last 40 years, but one thing is still the same: the sermon. Sure, it's been modified over the years. It may be shorter, or longer, depending on your church, and it may focus more on answers to a nifty "how to" question with four or six memorable responses, again, depending on your church. But essentially, it's still the same.
At the same time, the process of learning has changed dramatically over the last 40 years, and continues to change at a rapid pace.
At a recent symposium of which I was a part, hosted by the Iowa Distance Learning Association, one of the presenters made the point that teaching and learning in colleges and universities is falling behind in their methodology compared to K–12 schools. Students entering college in 2016 are native learners in the land of 21st Century Learning, while many colleges and universities still employ "old school" methods of teaching. Primarily, the lecture accompanied by the ever-present PowerPoint deck, which usually has a blue background with a lot of white text. A lot. In old school teaching, the instructor is the one working, and the students are sitting and watching. In 21st Century learning, the students are the ones working and the teacher is there to guide their learning and discovery.
Churches would be wise to follow some of the changes happening within K–12 schools and higher education, and at least become familiar with the trends. Students today have a shrinking attention span. In their K–12 classrooms, they are likely to be engaged in project-based learning that forces the students to become active in the learning process, rather than passively sitting while a teacher lectures. Lectures, on the other hand, are often pre-recorded and delivered to students via a podcast or screencast that gives them the information they need to work on their projects, in collaboration with their teacher and other students when they are in class.
This is very different from a church service. Think about who is active in a church service, and who is sitting and observing? If you are 30 years and older, this is a common experience; if you are 29 years or younger, it is more likely a foreign way of learning.
The problem is apparent when you look around a congregation during a sermon. How many folks do you see who are engaged with their phone or tablet? Does this mean they are not engaged in the sermon? Not necessarily; we've become very skilled at multitasking when it comes to listening. Most folks today have their phone out when they watch television or even when they engage in conversation. Get a room of young people together in a social environment, and watch how many are playing a game on their phone or browsing Facebook while fully engaged in conversation and watching television, all at the same time. Many of us only carry our phone or tablet to church with us, instead of a physical Bible. I get that. The Bible apps available today are excellent. Yet, we would be lying if we didn't admit that at least the temptation to glance at Facebook or email during church is always there. Just when you get to an important point in the sermon, a little notification goes off telling you someone just tagged you in a Facebook post with a headline, "YOU WON'T BELIEVE THIS!!!!!!!!!"
Is the sermon dead?
But, it is perhaps a harbinger of necessary change. Pastors and teachers within the church need to be aware that they are speaking to an increasingly distracted congregation with a decreasing attention span. One thing our teaching team does at First Family Church is carefully craft a Take Home Truth for every sermon. This simple sentence captures the key learning objective of the sermon and serves as the single point of application we want folks to take home. We work hard to make it simple and easy-to-remember. When it is all boiled down, we hope it is the Take Home Truth that sticks.
Staying Engaged During the Sermon
Here are some tips to help you stay engaged during longer periods of time and improve your overall learning retention:
- Carry a Bible. If you impulsively wander from what you should be doing (reading the Bible, listening, or engaged in discussion) to things like Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, leave your device in your pocket or your purse and carry a Bible. (NOTE: a book is a device with paper pages and words printed by ink.)
- Use paper and pen. Research is showing there is a stronger cognitive connection when you use paper and pen rather than a digital device. You are engaging different areas of your brain and the simply physical representation of words on paper creates a stronger mental link that simple pixels on glass.
- Take notes. One of the simplest and easiest ways to stay engaged and improve retention is to take notes. Lots of them. It forces you to become an active listener and to create summary nuggets of information as you listen, process, then write a note. Moreover, your notes will become valuable over time as you gather more in-depth notes on the Bible.