Scarce Resources

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.

Follow me on Twitter: @Metzger_Mike

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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.

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5 Comments

  1. As always, Mike – Your (sermons) messages are short and direct – leaving me with wanting more and moved to do research to fill in gaps in my understanding – Thanks for what you do
    Roy Aiken

  2. Thinking through how this comes into play in the college classroom. Right now, the scarce resource I seem primarily to be leveraging is a passing grade.

    What I’m finding is a very low tolerance for any kind of creative tension, and instead a high tendency to quit. It’s as if they don’t expect to be able to seek out answers to anything on their own and are waiting for the “For Dummies” guide. If the teacher doesn’t provide it, they go to Google. Unfortunately, Google doesn’t have the answer to the enduring mystery of life. . . .

    I’m thinking, though, that I should be trying to leverage another ‘scarce resource’ instead, though, because a passing grade certainly hasn’t done it. Thoughts?

    Hmmm. The motivation to study philosophy is probably pretty similar to the motivation for people in the pews on a Sunday. Then again, many of my students find their way into my class not because they wanted to study philosophy, but because they need a ‘liberal arts’ credit, and my class was available and held at a convenient time for them.

  3. I am always intrigued by your grasp of God’s word and teachings. It flows so natural to you and no doubt would be helpful for many of us, me first, to understand to the point of living it.

    I never looked at my belief in Christ dying for my sins to be only the beginning of becoming undeceived. I thought that was the goal.

    As always, I want to learn more and I want to learn it in the way you teach it. I can only imagine how much happier and fulfilling life would be if in fact “Believing in Christ’s death paying for our sins” were only the beginning to a joyful life. So much more to come !??

  4. Timely piece for me as I take a 40+ minute sermon that I gave on 1 Cor 12 and reshape it to 25 minutes…

    What are some ideas for deploying more surprise when preaching on a section that is fairly straight forward didactic?

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