I was reading through Nehemiah recently, and I was struck by chapter 8. The walls around Jerusalem had been repaired, the returning Exiles were accounted for, and then the people were gathered in front of the Water Gate to listen to basically a sermon. Ezra gets in front of everyone to read and expound upon the Law:
2 So on the first day of the seventh month Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, which was made up of men and women and all who were able to understand. 3 He read it aloud from daybreak till noon as he faced the square before the Water Gate in the presence of the men, women and others who could understand. And all the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law. (NIV, emphasis mine)
I have to admit, when I read this, a funny picture came to my head of a pastor reading and preaching over Leviticus from early Sunday morning to midday and the congregation slowly dying inside. I mean, however you interpret the time which the NIV renders “daybreak to noon,” that is at least several hours. Granted, the Book of Law contained the entirety of the Pentateuch and not just Leviticus, but Ezra also did this everyday for entire week. I guess the most cynical of readers might think that they endured this with joy because they knew there was good food at the festival ;).
At seminary, I was trained to be able to preach a message in 25-30 minutes. One reason they trained us this way was to teach us to be succinct and avoid being those speakers who enjoy their own voice too much, but another reason was very practical: The average attention span these days is about half an hour for a sermon. When you start going over 35 minutes, you begin losing many listeners. Hit 45, and the audience really starts getting antsy. Hit an hour, and most of the audience is zoned out, asleep, or thinking dark thoughts about you unless you’re a gifted and engaging public speaker (such people aren’t nearly as numerous as some pastors think).
Of course, the shortening of our attention span isn’t a new revelation, and with smart phones, internet memes, tweets, Vines, animated gifs, and short Youtube clips, the culture has learned to shift their attention quickly from one thing to the next. Oftentimes, when you ask people to read a 2,000 word article that details an argument, they’ll whine, “tl;dr” (“too long, didn’t read”) and ask for a version that would fit in a tweet, even if that version is grossly oversimplified. Similarly, many Christians do not want to sit through a one hour sermon even if that sermon carefully breaks down a passage for them because they get bored and lose interest. What’s the “too long, didn’t listen” version? Jesus loves me? Sweet. Time for mingling and then lunch. Heck, I’ve seen billboard advertisements for churches that promise only fifteen minute sermons. Now that pastor would be a hero for all of those guys who want to get home, unwind, and get ready to watch some football… which has games that last three to four hours.
In contrast to this, what was the Israelites’ reaction? Great reverence and genuine emotion. They fell on their faces and worshiped God. They mourned and wept, probably because, upon hearing Ezra, they realized how badly Israel failed God’s Law and why the Exile occurred. They also rejoiced, for they were finally home and now able to hear God’s Word. To be fair, as former exiles, this would be an especially significant moment, listening to the Law in Jerusalem for the first time. Still, it says a lot about us modern Christians when we consider it a chore to read, study, and listen to Scripture for anything over half an hour but we’ll gladly devote two or three hours to a movie that may be just a mindless spectacle of special effects. Are plot-hole filled superhero movies really that much more interesting than the Bible?
Keep in mind that I’m not saying that pastors and Bible teachers should push the limits of their allotted time; believe me, I’ve been in sermons/lessons where the speakers don’t know how to shut up and clearly just like talking. Not only does finishing on time show preparation and succinctness, it respects the fact that many people genuinely have stuff to do. Still, it is pretty pathetic that when the pastor goes seven minutes over his normal time, people in the congregation start complaining as if they have something so much better to do than to listen to just a little more preaching. I’ve seen grown men in pews start whining to their wives that the message is too long, shift around like little children, and cross their arms and pout that the service isn’t over. Yep, you a man, bro.
Forty-five minute sermon? Too long. One chapter of the Bible? Too much. One-hour lesson on theology? Too dull. Small group discussion on a passage for an hour? Too drawn out. At least, that’s how many Christians act like. I strongly believe that teachers should try to stay within their given time, but it is pretty sad that we who are supposed to love the Word of God find it intrusive to our personal lives to hear more of the Bible. In other words, I’m pretty sure most Christians do not celebrate short sermons for their acuity and succinctness but rather for the simple fact that they get to leave sooner. It’s an attitude that speaks volumes about what is wrong with not only society but American Christianity.
By the way, for those who complain that many of my articles are too long, rest assured, the word counter on this one says it’s under 1,000 words ;).