The Revival Clock
“Redeeming the time, because the days are evil.”Ephesians 5:16
This is the complaint heard most often by ministers of every denomination concerning their Sunday message. “If you have anything to say about the Lord, make it quick!” They say. The challenge of the 21st century seems to be: keeping the attention of input-saturated brains long enough to make a difference.
Short and Sweet
The Bible is filled with “one-liners:” truths that will transform you life in a single sentence. “God uses an economy of words” Evangelist George Griffis says, referring to the infinite wealth of knowledge contained in just 1500 pages of one book, the Bible.
The Bible is 66 books divided into two parts, the Old Testament of 39 books, and the New Testament, containing 27 books. Each book is divided into chapters, and each chapter is further divided into verses. These verses are truth in its most becoming garb: simplicity. These verses are memorable, easily explainable, and while inseparable from their context, they also stand very well on their own.
With truth so concise, why do ministers preach so long each Sunday?
1 There is a misunderstanding of the role of a preacher from those that hold the title, and those who come to listen. Preaching has to do with application, not explanation. (Nehemiah 8:8) The preacher is not called to tell you what God meant to say, but to point out and apply what God actually says to a present audience.
2 With truth so simple to obtain coupled with its crucial importance, time spent discussing it is necessary to attract the right emphasis. Everything about evangelistic preaching makes sense when you consider the weight of the message. Any parent who has children has tried in the same ways to ‘get the message home’ when warning them of playing in the street. Yelling? Absolutely. Repetition? Always. Fearfulness? Completely warranted. Guilt-tripping? Inestimably better than a child being run over by a car.
3 Simple truth that is presented, applied, and emphasized must be accepted. The end of every sermon is “Lord, what wilt thou have me to DO?” (Acts 9:6) Truth enjoyed but never enjoined helps no one. A sermon ends in an invitation; a chance to respond to the truth received. These three specific angles of preaching are underappreciated, yet they are the very key to revival in your church.
“But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves.” (James 1:22)
A Math Problem
I believe the main objection to revival in a church in America has less to do with hidden sin, confession, repentance, and promise-claiming than it does with a clock: hours, minutes, and seconds.
Any pastor knows the pressures of their Sunday morning congregation: make it quick, make it good. God forbid we should be saying, “Good afternoon” as we leave the sanctuary- we have a busy weekend of relaxing to cram into the last three-fourths of our Sunday! Besides, our modern generation has such a SHORT attention span, you mustn’t ramble on for so long, you’ll LOSE the young people!
Friend, the truth is, your pastor belabors a point in his message because God has impressed him with its life-or-death vitality for you. You may not see it that way, but he does, and that’s EXACTLY why God called him to pastor.
But isn’t there a legitimate concern over ‘shortened attention spans?’ Isn’t the scourge of our day ADD or ADHD? Shouldn’t we fear losing someone over a long sermon or shouldn’t we condense our message to make it acceptable?
What can a person handle? Let’s turn to the television (and its associated screens) for light on what the average time for demanded productions:
- Super bowl commercial: 30 seconds2
- YouTube video: 5 min, 20 sec.2
- Children’s Cartoon: 23 minutes1
- Primetime TV sitcom:43 minutes1
- Feature film: 90 minutes1
- “Blockbuster” release: 120+ minutes1
1Information obtained from personal research. 2Information obtained from internet searches. All times figured without ads or previews.
Though there are many impressions made with minutes-long advertisements, or seconds long commercials, they are not the primary anchor for an audience. As you can see, people ARE willing to pay attention for often hours at a time. These numbers only reflect individual productions, let alone the consumption rate of videos. Screen time is a separate, yet pertinent topic. (Read of two common screen-related temptations in Overcharging and Chambering.)
But what do religious people think about their Sunday worship errrroutine? Lifeway Research released statistics following a poll earlier this year that reached out to pastors and their congregations for opinion on sermon length. Their findings showed that whatever the length of sermon, most people felt it was longer than it needed to be. And if they could change something about their Sunday sermon?
“Churchgoers are twice as likely to say their pastor’s typical sermon is longer than they prefer (27%) than they are to say their pastor’s typical sermon is shorter than they prefer (13%).”
53% of churchgoers report that the average length of the Sunday sermon is less than 40 minutes. Another 14% say it is less than 20 minutes. Lifeway also reports, “Most churchgoers say their sermon length preference falls between 20 and 40 minutes. Around a quarter (27%) say they best like sermons that last 20 minutes to less than 30 minutes. Similar numbers (25%) say their preference is a message that lasts from 30 to less than 40 minutes.” (Read their full report here.)
Keep in mind, that these numbers refer to a once-a-week event. So the total impact on a person’s week long schedule occupies than half a percent of the total time (0.39%). So even if you consider children watching only cartoons and YouTube videos, the volume of media consumed per day absolutely eclipses even the longest Sunday sermon. (2.5 hours per day minimum, 17.5 hours per week according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics)
But this is not a recent problem. A sampling of movies from each decade from the last 80 years shows that our attention spans have always been tuned to the silver screen, and away from the sacred desk.
- Gone With The Wind (1939) 3h 58min
- It’s A Wonderful Life (1946) 2h 10min
- Vertigo (1958) 2h 8min
- The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966) 2h 58min
- The Godfather (1972) 2h 55min
- The Empire Strikes Back (1980) 2h 4min
- The Shawshank Redemption (1994) 2h 22min
- The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001-2003) 2h 58min
- The Dark Knight (2008) 2h 32min
- Avengers: Endgame (2019) 3h 1min
As far back as 1890, the time spent in entertainment measured into the hours. Concerning the reform of the theater, Civil War veteran chaplain T. DeWitt Talmage said, “Now, as I believe that I make suggestion of an institution which wiser men will develop, I want to give some characteristics of this new institution, this Spectacular, if it is to be a grand social and moral success. In the first place, its entertainments must be compressed within an hour and three-quarters. What kills sermons, prayers and lectures and entertainments of all sorts is prolixity. At a reasonable hour every night every curtain of public entertainment ought to drop, every church service ought to cease, the instruments of orchestras ought to be unstrung. What comes more than this comes too late.” T. DeWitt Talmage, The Dramatic Element
Of course, you would agree that an hour and forty-five minutes is too long for a sermon. But the entertainment industry has always led the way with long, drawn-out features that never cease to draw a crowd of Christian people.
Are you beginning to see the issue with ‘revival in America’ yet?
Referring back to the first point we discussed as a reason for preaching at all, it is easy to see the root the problem. It is not the discovery of new facts, “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears.” (2 Timothy 4:3) The Lord foretold that men would be “Ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.” (2 Timothy 3:7) Talk is cheap, and there is more of it today than ever before.
The problem is that no one wants to be told what to do, and even if they agree, they won’t be passionate about it. And even if they are passionate about it, it won’t last long- there’s another video in the playlist. Preaching is about applying, emphasizing, and inviting people to act on simple truths in the word of God.
“Ain’t nobody got time for that!”
The problem for why no revival in America lies not with your Bible, but with your calculator. No matter how intensely you say you believe the Bible, or how uplifted you feel on a Sunday morning, if time devoted to the Lord doesn’t compete with time given to entertainment, then your hope for revival is doomed.
The late Dr. Peter Ruckman preached a sermon August 12, 2007, entitled “Sitting and Watching.” He explained the problem in human nature this way: “Men naturally like to sit and watch, especially suffering, and do nothing about it.” He goes further to say that man eases his guilty conscience by staying detached from what he sees or hears. There are many excuses conjured up, but the problem presented is not one that is limited to the church, it is a cultural juggernaut. Men have been trained, like dogs, to sit, stay, and just watch.
What hope do we have of undoing this destructive tendency? What hope do you have for personal revival? The Bible gives plain instructions: “For there are many unruly and vain talkers and deceivers, specially they of the circumcision: Whose mouths must be stopped, who subvert whole houses, teaching things which they ought not for filthy lucre’s sake.” (Titus 1:10-11) The only way we’ll ever turn the tide, is to take the time back.
Grab your Bible, your notebook, turn off your screens, and head to church!