What is the optimal length of a sermon?

February 3, 2014 — Leave a comment

If the data are to be trusted, I have a longer attention span than most. If the subject is interesting to me and well-presented, I can follow a 30-minute presentation fairly easily. However, I’m not most people. Over at Holy Soup, Thom Schultz shares data that suggest the optimal attention span for an aural presentation is–are you ready?–six minutes.

Educators have been studying this phenomenon for some time now. Some of the latest research comes from the University of Rochester. Research scientist Philip Guo recently studied the efficacy of online education, specifically the use of teaching videos. He found that the average engagement time with any teaching video maxes out at 6 minutes, regardless of the video’s total length. And engagement times actually decrease the longer the video. For example, students typically spend only 3 minutes on videos that are 12 minutes or longer.

A decade ago (2004) the attention span of most adults stood at about 12 minutes and since then has been halved. So, the question comes: what impact should this have on preaching?

preacher-pulpit2

To some, a six minute sermon communicates a lack of value for the Bible. To others, it seems like an appropriate accommodation to the limits of our post-google brain. Pastors and sessions will need to decide precisely what they make of this data, but it seems wrong-headed to me to suggest that all sermons now ought not to exceed six minutes.

There are other options. Perhaps the sermon could be divided into something like four segments (that build on one another) and dispersed throughout the worship service? Perhaps greater use of video could minimize the sensation of talking heads? I’ve noticed that for many pastors, what is called “the sermon” is really a series of shorter messages bookended by a story–each segment lasting no more than six minutes and reset with a story and change of cadence/pause.

What do you think? How do the realities of our digital age require that we alter the recent tradition of sermon delivery?

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