Deep Preaching in a Distracted Age
Will anything capture people's attention and keep it long enough for God to do his work?
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How do you get a hyper-driven med student to slow down and deeply attend to the patient before her? That question bothered Dr. Irwin Braverman, the director of medical residents at Yale's University School of Medicine. Braverman noticed that his busy, tech-savvy, data-rich students zipped through their patient exams without stopping to observe the main focus of medicine—patients.
In 1998 he teamed with a local art curator and developed a novel mandatory course. First-year med students had to take a field trip to a local art museum where they gazed at various paintings and then described what they saw in great detail. Braverman tells his students, "Approach the work with an open mind, moving past first assumptions. Revisit the subject, again and again." One med student commented that these deep observational skills "made me notice things that my eyes had just not seen."
As a preacher, I ponder a question similar to the one that bothered Dr. Braverman: how do I slow down and deeply attend to the Word of God for my people? How can I—a busy, tech-savvy, data-rich preacher—find time and energy to revisit the text over and over again while noticing and addressing the needs of my people? And how can I help them do the same?
As the poet Denise Levertov once prayed in one of her poems: "I stop to think of you [Lord], and my mind at once like a minnow darts away into the shadows." Sometimes I have the spiritual attention span of a minnow.
The culture we're swimming in doesn't help. Recent articles and books highlight what Microsoft researcher Linda Stone calls our "continuous partial attention." Consider this trio of recent articles from The New York Times—"Addicted to Distraction," "The End of Reflection," and "Don't Distract Me." The stats don't lie about our heightened distractibility. The average attention span has dropped from 12 seconds in 2000 to just 8.25 seconds in 2015. Little wonder, since an American on social media receives 54,000 words and 443 minutes of video every day.
Then add the distraction of what Chicago pastor Aaron Damiani calls the "outrage du jour." Damiani says, "Every month there's a new outrage demanding my attention. One of my biggest distractions is the urge to address every one of them RIGHT NOW." As Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggeman observed, " … we are too numbed, satiated and coopted to do serious imaginative work."
How do we preachers respond? How do we keep our own focus? Can we capture people's attention and keep it long enough for God to do his work?
I believe the only answer is counterintuitive. Go deep.