The evidence mounts. We’re learning why so much preaching and
teaching produces thin results in the lives of the recipients.
It’s not due to the speaker’s lack of charisma, or failure to
prepare, or theological imprecision.
It’s not due to the irrelevance of the message itself. It’s as
relevant as ever.
Rather, it’s due to how our brains are wired. Much of the the
typical 20- to 40-minute lecture-style monologue never makes it to
the brain-or the heart. So, much of the finely prepared and
delivered teaching falls, quite literally, on deaf ears.
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.
The research on teaching videos may also be applicable to live
in-person teaching as well. British researchers recently found that
the average adult attention span has dropped from 12 minutes a
decade ago to just 5 minutes now. That means if a preacher or
teacher speaks for 30 minutes, the audience will tune out 84
percent of the message.
Personal spoiler alert. I find this data backed up-in my own
personal attention span experience. I’m afraid it’s true for me.
After 5 or 6 minutes of a sermon, lecture or speech, my mind
wanders. I’m thinking about other stuff. (The time is not totally
wasted. I often do some of my best thinking while someone talks
into a microphone in the background.)
Everybody knows children have short attention spans. They
telegraph their disconnection with the teacher. They squirm,
rustle, vocalize and act up when their minds wander. Adults
disconnect too. They’re simply better at concealing their
mind-wandering. They may look directly at the speaker, and even
nod, but after a few minutes, their minds have left the
They’re not being impudent or uncaring. They’re simply following
their brains’ limited ability to lock on to a speaker for a length
How can teachers and preachers adapt to this reality of the
short attention span? Researcher Guo said, “The take-home message
for instructors is that, to maximize student engagement, they
should break up their lectures into small, bite-sized pieces.” So,
effective teachers and preachers will set up a thought for a few
minutes, then switch to different points of attention. These may
include another person-a different speaker or an interviewee. Or,
perhaps a video clip, or a simple experience, or a prompted
discussion or conversation. Every few minutes they change the mode,
renew everyone’s attention, return to another short bit of lecture,
and so on.
We see evidence that Jesus understood the limits of the human
brain. Most of his recorded teachings are short, succinct-and
powerful. And he even acknowledged the limited capacity of his
listeners when he said, “I have many more things to say
to you, but they are
too much for you now.” (John 16:12)