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From the Dugout to the Pulpit

What preachers can learn from the MLB about adapting to modern audiences.
From the Dugout to the Pulpit
Image: Thomas Barwick / Getty Images

Each summer, I enjoy taking my family to see the San Francisco Giants play as we live relatively close to their ballpark. By the end of the fifth inning, my kids are usually done with their snacks, have walked around the ballpark two times, been to the bathroom three times each, and have danced their hearts out to try to get seen on camera before they threatened to mutiny in order to leave the “long and boring” game. This past season, however, my wife and I were surprised to make it to the eighth inning in one particular game.

What changed? Major League Baseball (MLB) recently implemented a series of rule changes and innovative measures to enhance the game, appeal to wider audiences, and win back the attention spans of its fans—especially the younger generation. If you were to ask a casual baseball fan (a.k.a. my wife) you will routinely hear that “baseball is too slow” or that “the games are too long.” Interestingly enough, preachers also often get a bad rap for preaching too long or being, dare I say … boring.

A parallel has emerged for preachers to examine how MLB’s innovative rule changes could potentially encourage similar creative progressions for the pulpit to effectively reach modern audiences. As Spring Training is in full-swing and the new season prepares to get underway, we will take a look at three strategies that preachers can borrow from the MLB to apply in the pulpit and win back the declining attention of our listeners.

Adapt to Change

Prior to the 2023 MLB season, the length of an average nine-inning major league ballgame had been getting longer and longer. The new rules put in place regarding duration were designed to quicken the pace of play for each game. This included limiting the pitching clock to 15 seconds with the bases empty and 20 seconds with runners on the bases. Pitchers were also limited to the number of times they could attempt to pick-off a runner.

These rules were added in addition to previous changes that limited the amount of mound visits and required each relief pitcher to face a minimum three batters. In 2020, MLB introduced the “ghost runner” rule which allowed teams to place a runner at second base in extra-innings. This was done to keep extra-inning games from getting out of hand and adding literal hours to already long games.

The result from these changes dramatically decreased the duration of a given game. In the 2023 season, the average game duration was two hours and thirty-nine minutes. This was down from the three hours and three minutes average game in the 2022 season. On average, games were a full 24 minutes shorter. This was the first time since the 2015 season that a nine-inning game fell below the three-hour mark. According to MLB’s website, these overall changes correlated to a 9.6% growth in attendance and viewership from the previous season.

If the MLB can shorten the length of the games for the betterment of its fanbase and see a resurgence in viewership, then surely preachers could consider shortening the duration of their sermons to gain similar results.

A 2019 Pew Research study found that sermons preached by evangelical preachers typically have an average duration of 39 minutes. The purpose of this article is not to suggest a perfect sermon length sweet spot, but instead to call for preachers to be attentive to their own average sermon length and how that correlates with the needs of their congregation. Preaching legend, Haddon Robinson once quipped, “Some preachers preach for an hour and it seems like thirty minutes; others preach for thirty minutes and it seems like an hour.” Which preacher are you?

Just as a major leaguer works hard to establish a reputable batting average, we as preachers must put in the hard work to determine the proper durations for our sermons. This mostly relies on church context and could be different based on your own ministry setting or tradition. The key though is to adapt the modern changes of our listeners with intentionality.

When you choose to contain your sermon to a timeframe that matches the needs of your listeners, the construction of your sermons will include intentional content that will keep you on track and prevent extra-inning scenarios. Everything from our introductions, illustrations, points, transitions, and conclusions must be thoroughly examined as the Holy Spirit guides you in your prep time and delivery.

Consider using your own “pitch clock” to time your sermons. Perhaps you could have a clock or countdown timer in your view to help you dedicate set amounts of time to each point in your sermon. I find it helpful to have a large digital clock in my view as I preach on Sundays at my church to keep me on track with my time. The better aware of this you are, the better your accuracy will be and your “batting average” will increase.

Utilize Technology

MLB has also been leveraging technology to enhance the game for fans. Much investment has been made into MLB’s At-Bat and MLB.tv apps over the past several years to allow fans to have access to real-time statistics, instant replays, and other interactive content during games—all at their fingertips.

This evolution in fan engagement has been coupled with positive results. Sixty-three percent of MLB’s Facebook followers are under the age of 35 and a recent Simmons survey has found that the MLB has more fans in the 12-17 age group than any of the other U.S. major pro sport leagues.

Preachers can likewise utilize technology to reach a wider and younger audiences. For starters, churches should be engaged with virtual attendees through livestreaming their services and make sermons readily available online. If the COVID-19 pandemic taught us anything, it is that preachers and church leaders should consider where their audience is and bring the gospel to them.

The shifting culture from the pandemic has made the mass exodus from in-person worship to congregants attending worship services virtually more of a frequent reality. While online worship is not the ultimate goal of the church, it serves as a tool to reach a wider audience and disciple them so that they can be led to see the value of in-person gatherings in the future.

Preachers could also consider incorporating interactive technologies into their sermons such as live polls or hosting a post-sermon podcast during the week to delve deeper into the sermon or answer questions that listeners could submit via social media. The key here is to leverage the technology at our disposal to create participatory interactions with our audiences.

Additionally, preachers might consider employing virtual reality (VR) in the near future. With Apple recently releasing their Vision Pro headset and other tech giants such as Google and Meta already having some stake in the VR realm, we could possibly see churches utilize these burgeoning technologies to reach audiences in new ways. The possibilities are endless in bringing sermons to the world of communication technologies.

Create Memorable Experiences

Some of my greatest and most cherished memories involve enjoying a Texas Rangers ballgame with my father in my home state. We jumped and screamed with the other 40,000+ fans at the game where recently voted 2024 Hall of Fame Inductee, Adrián Beltré knocked in his 3,000th hit. We were present to witness our Rangers clinch the American League Pennant in 2011 and I had my father on speaker phone as our eyes were glued to our TVs to witness the final out of last year’s World Series where our beloved team won it all.

There’s just something special about enjoying a ballgame and creating memorable experiences. Memories are best cherished when they involve shared experiences. Sermons can be shared experiences that can create impactful memories for listeners through dynamic presentations and community engagement.

Just as the MLB has focused on creating these types of experiences for their fans through events and promotions, preachers too can do the same with sermons. This involves adding creativity and variety to our sermons to bring these experiences to fruition. Preachers can use narrative sermons, visual props for illustrations, and even include interactive elements into sermons that allow the listeners to be more than just spectators.

Four years ago, I wore a crown to the pulpit and took up the persona of King Solomon for a sermon from Ecclesiastes. I still have congregants recall that sermon and they can even recite its big idea. The occasional narrative sermon can connect the ancient stories of the Bible to relatable applications for our modern listeners. The Bible is full of imagery and creative storytelling. We should use that to our advantage as we develop the sermon to be experienced by our listeners.

A great question to ask yourself as you write the content for your sermon is: What will be remembered from this? Put yourself in the shoes of your audience as you prepare the experience for them. Pray that the Lord will reveal fresh ideas for your sermons. The prayer time in your sermon prep each week is your bullpen session. Hone your skill, develop it, and preach the gospel.

Concluding Thoughts

America’s favorite pastime was quickly running out of time to engage modern audiences and MLB took initiative to make strategic moves to counter this. Just as a pitcher must strategically adjust to the changes of the game, preachers too must hone their craft where engaging attention span-challenged audiences is the ultimate homerun. Through adapting to change, utilizing technology and creating memorable experiences, preachers can take these strategic principles to the pulpit to better engage modern audiences with the good news of the gospel for the growth of God’s Kingdom.

Bearett Wolverton is the lead pastor of Grace Covenant Church in South San Francisco, CA.

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