Preaching To Goldfish

You know all those jokes you’ve made your whole life about the attention span of a goldfish? Well you’re not much better, in fact you’re probably worse. Researchers have found that the average attention span of humans has decreased from twelve seconds in the year 2000 (when the mobile phone revolution began) to eight seconds in 2015.

There’s a bird! Where were we now? Oh yes, goldfish.

Goldfish reportedly have an attention span of nine seconds, one second more than humans. This has serious consequences for communication within the church, and also for evangelism.

The study, by technology giant Microsoft, isn’t all bad news. Unlike goldfish we still retain the ability to multi task and the research showed that this has improved. (Read more statistics here.)

Time Warp Communication?

The challenge for the church is that we are still stuck in a communication style that has become anachronistic: passive listening to monologues. Much of our audiences take in information as multi-screeners, using at least two devices at a time and multi-tasking whilst doing so. It’s not uncommon for younger generations to play, communicate (on multiple platforms with multiple people) and study at the same time. These same people walk into a time warp when they enter the door of a church and spend most of the time sitting passively listening to a monologue, often without accompanying visuals.

Brain Training

To keep my brain sharp I’ve bitten the bullet and invested in a monthly subscription to a brain training smart phone app. One of the daily games this now frustrating app gets me to play is one where I have to eliminate unnecessary words from sentences. The purpose is to sharpen up communication, and to ensure that clear messages aren’t drowned in a sea of unnecessary words. This can only be good news for my capacity to communicate clearly to others, especially in evangelism.

Using editorial help in spoken and written communication can help our commuincation cut through in a world where we are surrounded by a sea of visual and aural words and information. Unfortunately a significant percentage of church goers (and pastors) index the length of a sermon with how godly it is. There’s an old maxim that frightened pastors that went “sermonettes produce Christianettes.”

Modern Monologues

There are few examples that you can find outside of the church today where people on mass watch basic monologues. There is one outstanding exception: TED talks. TED talks are streamed more than two million times a day. The success of the formula in part has been attributed to eighteen minutes maximum rule.

TED curator Chris Anderson explains:

[18 minutes] is long enough to be serious and short enough to hold people’s attention. It turns out that this length also works incredibly well online. It’s the length of a coffee break. So, you watch a great talk, and forward the link to two or three people. It can go viral, very easily. The 18-minute length also works much like the way Twitter forces people to be disciplined in what they write. By forcing speakers who are used to going on for 45 minutes to bring it down to 18, you get them to really think about what they want to say. What is the key point they want to communicate? It has a clarifying effect. It brings discipline.

Speakers on stage have a large digital countdown clock in front of them showing them how much time they have left.


On the TED website advice for incoming speakers includes this excerpt from an FAQ:

 I want to speak at TED, but my usual talk runs 50 minutes. Can I get a longer slot?
We strictly enforce the clock for all speakers. TED is the place to condense your ideas into a compelling 18-minute talk that communicates your best ideas. We’ve found that a carefully prepared presentation of this length can have astonishing impact.

Find me a Baptist pastor in this land who speaks for only eighteen minutes a week and you’ve found yourself a one in a million pastor.

Digital Cut Through

E-mail has become a lot more sophisticated than it used to be.The disciplines that are used in contemporary email marketing illustrate the value of concise, well chosen words and phrases in communication.

Companies used to send emails through e-mail clients but now e-mail marketing is done through sophisticated online services that allow you to ensure that your e-mail cuts through the mountain of e-mails that people get daily. ‘Open rates’ and ‘click through’ rates are what drives modern email.

Smart companies no longer just send e-mail out hoping it hits the mark. Test campaigns are sent getting an idea of the open rate and click-through rates. Small but critical adjustments are made and then the e-mail is tested again. Different wording and imagery is used for different segments of the address list according to a range of factors.

The key goal is for people to not only open your e-mail and read it, but to ‘click-through’ the ‘call to action’ buttons and to do whatever it is you want them to: register, purchase, subscribe, etc. E-mail marketers harness the power of concise and strategic communication.

Communication Metrics

Smart communicators are responding to the declining attentions span of people by measuring engagement and comprehension of the communication and making necessary adjustments.

Facebook allows ‘Page’ users to monitor the ‘virality’ of posts through detailed metrics. There is an art to posting content on Facebook that people interact with. It requires thought and curation of language. The root meaning of the word ‘curate’ (to pull together, sift through, and select for presentation) is from the Medieval Latin word for ‘care’. Communication without care is scatter gun communication.

I don’t see much curation happening in the church. We have become lazy about our communication and we don’t measure the retention or engagement of our audiences.

Come To The Talk Show

We hide behind two key factors: firstly our ‘audience’ will be back again next week so the urgency of connecting is not what it should be. Perhaps we don’t measure the effectiveness of our communication because we don’t want to know the answer?

Secondly many Christian leaders hide behind the ‘anointed’ excuse: “I speak for a long time because I am under inspiration”. This discounts that inspiration can occur through preparation and also that there is a direct connection between inspiration and lengthiness.

Would I be too unkind by suggesting that rather than ‘inspiration’ at times it can be a matter of indulgence, a failure to prepare and curate content effectively, and also in some cases bordering on narcissistic? I sometimes wonder if churches would be more honest renaming their Sunday service “Come hear the pastor speak”.

Breaking It Down

So in summary what does the changing mapping of the human mind mean for how we communicate in church and how we articulate the Gospel?

Here’s some suggestions:


Peter Drucker, management expert said that: “If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.” American Statistician W. Edwards Deming is credited with saying: “In God we trust, all others must bring data.”

Unless you measure how you communicate in all its forms you are not in position to know if you are communicating effectively. Digital communication is easy to monitor through back end metrics but inter-personal communication still requires good old-fashioned conversations with people about how much they understand about what you are communicating.

A challenge for pastors: list the last five sermons you have preached, including how long you spoke for. Find someone who has been present and ask him or her to recount what you said. Now find someone who has been present at your church service that is not a Christian. Ask them what they have understood from the messages that they have heard, or the literature they have read. If you have an evangelistic event or interaction follow up with some questions about what people have understood.


I dare you to install a countdown clock on your church stage that is prominent enough for the speaker to see, or use one of the digital screens used for singers. You don’t have to be a slave to the clock, but you don’t have to be a slave to laziness either. Length does not necessarily equal inspiration. It can mean a whole lot of other things as well.

When given an opportunity to explain the Gospel, don’t make the listener regret asking you a question. Make them feel safe to ask another, and then another.


Ask someone with the gift of proof reading to go through your sermon and be brutal. Ask them to slash and burn and ask you hard questions. Every church is bound to have a few of these people around and they love using their unique gifts. The goal is to prevent your key message drowning in a sea of words. People clearly recall concise, effective communication. Use this discipline in all your communication, either spoken or written.

The same applies to evangelism. We are asking people to take a lot of new information on board that has significant ramifications for their life. In our enthusiasm we can easily overwhelm people.


The Apostle Paul adapted. He became “all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some”. The key principle is a transferable one: a passionate determination to reach as many people as possible with the Gospel within specific contexts.

This inevitably involves communication. Communicating to our changing world means working within the context of how people listen and learn in their specific context. We’ve trained missionaries to do this for generations. Sticking to an anachronistic template for communication either for sermons or for evangelism won’t cut the mustard anymore. We have to put a lot of work into our communication to ensure that the message connects and is understood.

The irony of effective communication is that entities that represent little of eternal significance (consumer products) often agonise more and spend infinitely more in effective communication than those of us who have been entrusted with the Gospel.

Learning how to communicate more effectively to our key constituency in a changing world is an essential skill set for churches keen on being mission driven.


Stan Fetting, Crossover Operations Manager, March 2016