What could change about the message at a church in 50 years? It seems that it’s been the same for the past 2000 years, so it will probably stay the same until Jesus comes back, right? Maybe, but somethings have changed.
Duration of the message has changed. In the Bible, we read about occasions where Jesus spoke for days on end. In Acts 20, we read about a time that the Apostle Paul spoke so long that a guy named Eutychus fell asleep and feel out a window. While some pastors speak for a long, long time, the American attention span is getting shorter and shorter.
Movies tend to be less than two hours. Television shows are usually thirty to sixty minutes. YouTube videos are even shorter. It’s not unusual to watch a series of videos that equal a couple of hours, but I rarely watch anything that lasts all that long online.
I will acknowledge a couple of counterexamples. Some epic movies are getting longer, not shorter. If the subject is anything written my Tolkien and the director is Peter Jackson, it’s probably not going to be a short film. Harry Potter films, which are intended for children, also fall into this camp.
While most podcasts are short-form, a lot of the TWIT shows go over and hour and are sometimes two or more. The host of one of my favorite shows frequently apologizes when his shows go over forty minutes, but I actually prefer it.
I just don’t know if I’m atypical in liking longer shows (and sermons) or not. Maybe the shortened attention span we see isn’t the eventual destination, but a blip on the trend of history. It could be that in fifty years people will prefer presentations that are longer rather than shorter. I would bet that engagement will continue to matter.
I wonder if the Church got lax in considering engagement a strong value because our message is so important. It’s certainly possible that some pastors developed the attitude that the congregation should pay attention because their souls depended on it. In the future, the Church can’t depend on “you should listen to us because you need to.” More and more people won’t understand why they should listen.
This is nothing new. Christianity has always reached out to people who didn’t understand at first why they should listen. Jesus, Himself, didn’t speak to a lot of people who understood who He was. Given the so-called “messianic secret” in which He kept telling people NOT to tell people who He was, I’d guess He didn’t start all His messages, “Hey everyone, Son of God here. Listen to me or the earth will swallow you up, and all your library books will get lost right as you try to return them.” It seems much more likely to me that He was a very engaging speaker. So, messages in the future will likely be shorter than today and more engaging.
I think that the tools available to speakers will only get better and better. Boring messages won’t be banished into the pages of history. People will misuse the tools. Some people will be so good that they’ll show what’s possible.
Imagine this possibility. A speaker walks out to speak. He speaks with passion and his stories are created in real-time by his words. Holograms of any size or shape join him as he speaks, reinforcing each point. If he talks about a wall being built, you see a wall take shape behind him. If he talks about it being demolished, a large wrecking ball appears from the ceiling and smashes it.
His gestures and words create worlds and interact with them to reinforce point after point. Unless specifically designed to do so, nothing stays on a screen. He himself becomes a prop as can change his clothes to reflect what he’s talking about. His hair grows, shortens, or even changes color as necessary.
Lighting isn’t static as many fixtures are today. Even intelligent fixtures seem old fashioned compared to lights that change location, size, shape, softness, and brightness instantaneously.
Imagine having a narrator reading a scary story and you see her lit from underneath in an unnatural way. As day dawns after the nightmare is over, the background changes and you see the most beautiful sunrise you’ve ever seen…until the foreboding clouds of a thunderstorm arrive.
Story and scripture will remain central to the message, but effects and props like the ones I’ve just described will make communication easier. Part of painting a scene will be creating it visually at the same time that words create it in the mind.
As the internet makes more and more information available as if it’s on your own computer, search will be more important and better. Using cues from who you are and what you’re doing, features like Google’s “Did you mean…” search feature will be replaced by the ability to know what you meant. Natural language and keyword data mining will enable people to say what they think they want and they’ll actually get it. This means sermons that used to take days or weeks to write because of intensive research might take much less time.
With advances in research methods, we’ll also see advances in speech recognition. Perhaps typing and writing will be a lost art as dictation replaces them. Perhaps a speaker’s ability to speak will get better not only because of better research tools, but also because drafts won’t be written, they’ll be spoken. Each successive draft could be practiced and revised based on earlier drafts. The completed message will be automatically written on the speaker’s iPad or similar device. The tablet (or similar device) will listen to the speaker and highlight or maybe cut out used material, rearranging the talk based on previous drafts.
Perhaps a speaker will have a collection of all possible media at his disposal. If he thinks he might want a picture of clouds, a clip from the “old fashioned movie The Avengers” (it is fifty years in the future after all), or the complete works of Eminem, he’ll have them all waiting to be called up at any time with a word or a gesture.
The charges of “entertainment” and not being “deep enough” are likely to continue as people refuse to accept the changes that are necessary in this form of communication to really reach people, where they are. As today, most pastors will be aware of these charges, but set out to speak the truth in the way that communicates best to the people they talk to.
I don’t expect that the message will stay a completely passive experience. Today, some congregations are just starting to experiment with having polls and getting the congregation to Tweet and text questions to the pastor. I think this level of engagement will continue to grow. Perhaps a pastor will be able to receive encouragements during his message as well as helpful stories, and suggested Bible verses.
Whether sermons of the future look more like TED talks with a shortened format, a theatrical one-man show with all manner or media, or something else altogether, remains to be seen. I am hopeful that we’ll see more discussion about the Bible, the Gospel, and less use of opaque language that hasn’t been used in any other sphere since 1804. The message that the Church has is so important that we need to do what we can to make sure we remove and don’t add obstacles.