Three Chicago-area professors are using economics to show why some stories fail to hold listeners’ attention. Great stories leverage “scarce resources.” That’s worth considering, as scripture features the same resources but few sermons do.
In the Journal of Political Economy in February, Jeffrey Ely, Alexander Frankel, and Emir Kamenica reported on what makes for gripping entertainment. Entertain means to hold. If you entertain a thought, you hold it in your mind. Ely, Frankel, and Kamenica offer a unique angle on this topic, using the tools of information economics to measure effective stories. Ely is a professor of economics at Northwestern University. Frankel is an assistant professor of economics and Kamenica a professor of economics, both at the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago.
For instance, they say great stories leverage suspense, then surprise. Suspense must come first in a story and be felt immediately. It is the unsettled sense that something informative is about to happen. Bottom of the ninth, score tied, bases loaded, full count, two men out. Suspense requires uncertainty about the outcome. Surprise, on the other hand, is experienced after the fact and if something unexpected happens.
Two other scarce resources are timing and plot twists. A key aspect of entertainment is the revelation of information over time. Great storytellers spin out a story, but not too fast and not too slow. Furthermore, to maximize suspense, information economics indicates a story should have no more than three major plot twists on average.
This is another instance of science catching up to scripture. The Bible starts with suspense. Read the first two verses of Genesis. Within five seconds, we read that the earth is “formless and void” (2:2), a Hebrew phrase with ominous overtones of God’s judgment.1 Something is not quite right. Suspenseful.
To maximize suspense, readers soon experience a plot twist—a serpent upends the sacred order. It’s the first of three major twists in the “four-chapter” gospel—fall, redemption, and the final restoration. The surprise is that God himself will come in human form to clean up the mess. In between, these “chapters” are unfolded gradually, over time. Theologians describe this as progressive revelation, similar to what Ely, Frankel and Kamenica call “the revelation of information over time.”
I coach a few preachers. I hope they take this research seriously. On average, pastors spend 15 to 20 hours a week preparing a sermon. Yet according to Communications Briefing, listeners forget 40 percent of the message within 20 minutes. They forget 60 percent after a half day. After a week, they lose 90 percent. Pretty poor ROI.
My experience is that few preachers leverage suspense and surprise. They’ve received little training in timing and plot twists. For instance, most preachers open with “Good morning!” or “Today we’re going to look at what the Bible says about marriage” for example. They drain any sense of suspense. I’ve also observed that when preachers do open with a story, they invariably take way too long telling it. Few seem to know much about timing. My suspicion is most preachers feel their sermon must fill thirty minutes so they elongate their material and explain way too much.
Success lies in leveraging scarce resources. For instance, research indicates that the thousands of new cells arising in the adult brain every day require a sense of suspense and cognitive challenge or they die within a few weeks.2 This might explain why so many sermons are so forgettable (and why so few adults learn anything new). To change adult behaviors, new neurons have to stick around. If the sermon lacks suspense and surprise, the new cells die and the sermon along with them. Nothing changes.
The gospel aims to change our behaviors as well as beliefs. Coming to faith is only the beginning of being undeceived. Education, Mark Twain noted, consists mainly in what we have unlearned. Sermons and stories are forms of education where adults ought to be unlearning some things. But that requires leveraging scarce resources.
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1 Allen P. Ross, Creation and Blessing: A Guide to the Study and Exposition of Genesis (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1988), p. 106.
2 Tracey J. Shors, “How to Save New Brain Cells,” Scientific American, May 2009, pp. 47-48.