Eight-Year-Olds

Michael Metzger

Major League Baseball is speeding up the game to hold fan interest. Speeding up is old news, however. The church is supposed to speed the return of the Lord. But the approach it uses lately seems to yield believers with the attention span of an eight-year-old.

If you’ve watched a baseball game this year, you might have noticed new clocks installed on outfield scoreboards and on facades behind home plate. Inning breaks are being counted down from 2:25 for locally televised games and 2:45 for nationally televised games. Pitchers must throw their last warm-up pitches before 30 seconds remain.

This is all part of an agreement between Major League Baseball and the players’ union to speed up the game. Last year, the average time of nine-inning games was a record 3 hours, 2 minutes, up from 2:33 in 1981. Fans are losing interest. While three hours might be too long for a game, the bigger problem is continuous partial attention.

Linda Stone, a former VP at Microsoft, coined the term continuous partial attention in 1998. It’s operating with split focus—multi-tasking—continuously. The debilitating effect is constant stress and intense mental exhaustion. People with this condition get bored easily. Their remedy is constant churn—texting and emailing and Googling and… They have difficulty sitting still for three-hour baseball games.

Researchers have been studying the “speeding up” phenomenon since the 1980s. Scientist Harold Pashler has shown that “revved up” people, when they do two cognitive tasks at once, see a drop in their cognitive capacity from that of a Harvard MBA to that of an eight-year-old.1 That’s troubling, but especially so when speeding things up unwittingly creeps into many houses of worship.

That’s the conclusion of C. Christopher Smith and John Pattison, authors of Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus. They note how fast-food, consumer-culture values—an obsession with efficiency, calculability, and predictability—yield a “Franchise faith” or “McDonaldization.” The product is Christians who can hardly pay attention. I notice this when I preach. Fidgety Christians fiddle with their iPhones. It’s rude but not as recent a phenomenon as Smith and Pattison think.

It seems that many early nineteenth century American evangelists espoused “speeding things up.” They interpreted Matthew 24:14 (“this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world… and then the end will come”) to mean evangelizing the world hastens the return of the Lord. But Jesus said his return merely follows the worldwide evangelization—it isn’t accelerated by it. Many evangelists misinterpreted this verse, displaying a kind of simplistic thinking that troubled many Christians of that era, including President Andrew Jackson.2

There is a passage that speaks of speeding the return of the Lord—II Peter 3:11-12. Peter frames it as a question—what sort of people should we be in holy conduct and godliness, looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God? For centuries, it was assumed that holiness hastens the return of the Lord. This has roots in a strong Jewish tradition found in Isaiah 60:22 where the coming of the Messiah is held back by the sins of the people (the Septuagint uses the same Greek word “speed”).

This is why the authors of Slow Church are on to something. According to Gallup surveys, about 34 percent of Americans confess to a “new birth” experience. But they aren’t very holy. Dallas Willard noted how this figure is “shocking when thoughtfully compared to statistics on the same group for unethical behavior, crime, mental distress and disorder, family failures, addictions, financial misdealings, and the like.”3 The fast-food approach to faith yields conversions but fall shorts in crafting holy conduct.

Speeding up Major League Baseball might be a good thing but the biblical notion of speeding up is supposed to foster faith communities recognized for holy conduct and eagerness to meet Jesus. This sort of conduct is cultivated slowly, requiring time and diligence. Practicing the disciplines of silence and solitude is a good place to start. Otherwise, we end up with Christians exhibiting the attention span of an eight-year-old.

Follow me on Twitter: @Metzger_Mike

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1 David Rock, Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long (New York: Harper Business, 2009), pp. 35-36.
2 John Meacham, American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House (New York: Random House, 2009).
3 Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1998), p. 38.

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12 thoughts on “Eight-Year-Olds”

  1. Mike, I’d like to offer that those “fidgety Christians fiddling with their IPhones” while you preach might be looking up scripture or taking notes to complement their learning. Additionally, when posed with a distracting thought, a good technique to push it off for later is to make a note of it in order to remain focused on the task at hand. A hand held device can also be handy when a public speaker uses words not understood by the audience as well. No doubt your point about distraction is valid – but I recommend you not assume that the use of a device during a sermon is rude – rather it might often be an enhancement to your purposes.

  2. Well said Mike! And Hank. Theologies these days are freezer frozen. Just take the right message out of the freezer, microwave for 3 minutes on high, and you have yourself a great answer to your complex problem! Yuh right. Now, excuse me while I iron, make sandwiches for later, warm up the car for my commuting wife, and get ready to read a devotional with her while she’s in the car.

  3. Mike Metzger

    You might be right Hank, but try taking that tack when your spouse is trying to have a heart-to-heart with you. Ask her how she feels. Sermons ought to be more heart-to-heart than a time for fact-checking. A conversation afterward can achieve that.

    There is a fair amount of evidence that this sort of multi-tasking “shallows” neural pathways. Over time, this makes it increasingly difficult for listeners to grasp complex notions. Dallas Willard once asked our class to put away our notebooks, reminding us that Jesus never said, “Now write this down so you’ll remember it.” Instead he said the Spirit of God will bring the important stuff to remembrance at a later time. Maybe I’m just old-school.

  4. Mike Metzger

    In a nutshell, I’m not a fan of the Enlightenment. It made the sermon the centerpiece of the service (rather than the sacraments). This turned the service into more a classroom, a sermon more resembling a lecture. If that’s the way the service ought to be, I have less problem with fact-checking. It’s pretty obvious I don’t see it that way.

    As Haddon Robinson put it, a sermon flows through the preacher’s experience (or she or he ought not be preaching) and is pressed against the hearer’s experience. The chief gain is an improved frame, not a more splendid array of certifiable facts. Not against facts. I’m for reframing what’s supposed to be going on in during the service as well as the sermon.

  5. Those are some powerful thoughts, Metz.

    A lesson I’ve never forgotten from one of my first classes at Trinity College – with an elderly professor at Trinity College (whose name I have unfortunately forgotten). He was speaking about the ancient Celtic background of nonliteracy.

    “And if you call them illiterate,” he said, “I will kick you! They weren’t illiterate; they were nonliterate; they chose not to write, but to preserve an oral tradition.”

    That tradition requires time and relationship to operate. I can’t hand you a copy of an article. I must speak to you and tell you the ideas. I can’t give you a copy of a recorded song or poem. I must sing it to you. To this day, you will hear the phrase “Do ye have the song, “The Parting Glass?”, by which is meant not “do you have a copy of it”, but “can/will you sing it?”

    We deceive ourselves when we think we know what we merely have, somewhere, written down. It reminds me of the parable of the “talents”, and the final verdict in Matthew 25:29 that whoever “has” will be given more, and those who have not, even what they have will be taken from them.

    When that lesson finally hit me, I threw out the stacks and stacks of notes and conference materials I’d accumulated over the years, trusting that I “had” what was important already, and that more would be added as and when needed.

    So that’s great. I have that lesson – for myself. How is it given to others? As a teacher, I find many of my students expect handouts, charts, bullet point outlines. . . . It is hard work, to make students do the work necessary to think and to learn. (Just like it’s hard work to be “present” with children, instead of putting on a DVD. . . .)

    Thoughts?

  6. Mike, I wonder if the evangelical concern for getting the world “evangelized” isn’t one of the reason that today’s Church has neglected its primary task – making disciples.

  7. Mike, I wonder if the concern for “speed” in today’s evangelical Church has led to an unbiblical emphasis on evangelism rather than what I see as its primary task – discipleship. Evangelism produces babies that need to be raised to maturity. Babies don’t change much – even their own diapers.

  8. Mike, I admire your Haddon R. related notions for a sermon – would that preachers preach like Haddon I could see your point. But most don’t. And it’s a lot to ask for a preacher to be as good as Haddon. I constrain myself to sifting thru my bible as much as possible and not my phone when I’m listening – but that’s just because I’m really not listening – I’m looking for a sermon from Jesus or Paul that interests me more. You might say I’m voting with where I place my attention. Given the points you were making in your piece, I’m glad that you told us Slow Church authors found a problem – but you didn’t tell us their solution to the problem. How about this: do we ever really read a sermon from Jesus longer than a few minutes at best? No? Then let’s quit sermonizing and asking people to do what Jesus never asked them to do and stick to small group Bible study. It may not be a perfect model, but it’s way more interesting than non-Haddon-ized sermons. We can’t say the Bible’s not funny when the only record of a long sermon by Paul ends in death from snoozing.

  9. Mike Metzger

    Dave

    That’s funny! I agree. A good friend of mine recently returned from his annual snow bird trek to Florida. He told me of participating in Mass every day and how he began to find the five-minute homily both more powerful and memorable than the standard half-hour lecture–er, sermon.

  10. I generally agree with the critique of our attention stressed culture and the fast food approach to church. Two points in the discussion (not necessarily in Mike’s article) that I’d like to comment on:

    1. McDonalds style ministry and “conversions”

    While I would also like to lighten the judgment of these ministries by crediting them with success in conversions, I just don’t think reality proves that true. Churches or ministries that report conversions from rapid evangelization techniques have a very hard time producing evidence that what they count as conversions are legitimate. But where churches that may use a franchise structure are actually successful in evangelism, they are also relatively successful in discipleship. And when you look more closely at these examples, their success was built over time and usually with the help of long established institutions.

    2. Emphasizing evangelism over discipleship

    I think the Bible shows there is little dichotomy between evangelism and discipleship. The kinds of practices and beliefs that help believers mature are also a compelling offer to our neighbors who are not yet Christian and vice versa. American Individualism begs for an ideal church or a balanced believer. I think churches and ministries need to patiently focus on their particular opportunities and gifts. If you live in a place where most of your neighbors are not yet Christians, then I think faithfulness to God will look like you are emphasizing evangelism over discipleship. On the other hand, if you are a Christian parent of a large family in a largely Christian community, your faithfulness is going to look more like an emphasis on discipleship.

    I think the deeper and more pervasive problems in American Christianity lie another issue Mike raised, faulty eschatology. Or to put it another way, we lack God’s aspirations, vision, and desires. (4th chapter in Gospel story)

  11. Funny, I didn’t mention fact checking – I referenced how devices can help enhance learning.

    Not sure how conversations with our wives got into this either – sure it should be a matter of the heart but comparing one speaking to many is not the same as one on one.

    I would have loved having a teacher who said “don’t take any notes” but never have. If a preacher says “open your Bible” is it against the rules for me to pull it up on my phone?

    Salmon swim hard against the current then they die.

  12. Unforced rhythms of grace. Don’t lose the person and relationship in the process. Meet people where they are not where you expect them to be.Bede’s world had its own intensity.

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