If you’re a preacher or communicator, you realize that things have changed.
Yet it can be hard to put your finger on exactly what’s happening.
There will always be a core of people who snap back to church in person. But as almost every church leader has discovered, for most people, returning to a live, in-person service has been far more challenging than anyone expected.
While I outline 7 reasons people still aren’t coming back to church here, a further shift is occurring around communication.
And that’s what’s been so hard to put a finger on.
The two-year break many people took (involuntarily or voluntarily), thanks to COVID, changed how people experience an in-person Sunday morning service.As almost every church leader has discovered, for most people, returning to a live, in-person service has been far more challenging than anyone expected. Click To Tweet
Asynchronous Communication and The Challenge of Preaching in a Digital Age
The tension you’re feeling in getting people to come back to in-person church may have less to do with being a crowded room and far more with the reality that almost everyone has grown used to asynchronous communication.
Asynchronous communication is, simply put, communication that happens (literally) ‘out of sync’ or not in real-time.
Television is a great example. Until the late 20th century, TV was synchronous communication. Everyone watched the same show at the same time. If you missed it, you missed it.
Then VCRs gave way to PVRs and streaming, and over the course of a decade or two, watching TV or movies flipped almost entirely to asynchronous communication.
Side note: Some content creators like Netflix are going back to live premieres in an attempt to attract viewers and create buzz around shows. We’ll see where that goes long term, but most people are used to accessing content on demand whenever they want to.
Add to that the fact that people rarely attend live events other than school plays or the occasional concert, and the vibe of an every-week live service can feel foreign.
Complicating this even a little more is the fact that what used to be rare (a sermon in the pre-digital age) isn’t anymore. Sermons are everywhere and anywhere, and a motivated person can access the top preachers in the world for free.
The sermon is no longer scarce.
So gathering people in a room on a Sunday for an in-person event that they can later access on demand is fraught with challenges that didn’t exist even a decade ago.Gathering people in a room on a Sunday for in-person event that they can later access on demand is fraught with challenges that didn't exist even a decade ago. Click To Tweet
The response by some pastors to stop streaming their services or not offer their messages on-demand is as futile as it is shortsighted. Pulling your services off the internet doesn’t stop people from accessing a million other preachers online.
You can’t put that genie back in the bottle.
So, what do you do?
That leads us to three trends and strategies you might want to embrace to help the in-person preaching experience get better.
1. Move to Shorter Messages
I’ve resisted this trend for a long time. I am naturally a long-form speaker. And I believe something special happens (or at least can happen) when you preach the Word of God.
But there’s no question that people’s attention spans have shrunk.
What’s compounded this is that for months or, in some cases, years, your entire congregation experienced the service digitally only. This means they got used to (honestly) not paying attention in the way you might if you were in person.
Add to that the fact that many people who listen to or watch things at 1.5x speed and are used to clicking off the moment they get bored, so experiencing a message in real-time with no escape (you’re stuck in a seat with people all around you) feels loooonnnngggg.
The solution? Trim your usual message length by at least five minutes. If you were used to going 40 minutes, go 35. 35? Slice it to 30.
The longer your normal message length, the more you should trim. 60-minute sermons would be much better as 45 or 50-minute sermons.
If you’re more of a homily-style preacher, even trimming a 15-minute homily to 12 might have an advantage.
When writing a sermon, shorter is better.
I realize almost every preacher is writhing inside right now saying, “But you don’t understand, people love listening to me. And I need that time to make my point.”
Um, how do I say this? People don’t love listening to you nearly as much as you think.Preachers, people don't love listening to you nearly as much as you think. Click To Tweet
Preachers, what you want is not people looking at the clock wondering how much longer your sermon will go.
What you want is for people to think, “Wait, that’s it? Isn’t there more?” when you finish up your sermon. Preaching shorter will help with that immensely.
I realize preachers will object and think they’re the exception to that rule (I’ve preached for decades. I get it).
The way to know whether you’re the exception to that rule is to ask yourself if your church is growing rapidly, has standing room only, and that most people attribute your explosive growth to great preaching. If that’s you, don’t go shorter.
If that’s not you, go shorter.
While some preachers are gifted enough to carry longer messages and others aren’t, underneath that is this reality: five minutes of boring is five minutes too long.
So shorter, even for marathon preachers, is probably welcome relief.
By the way. The same goes for announcements too. Make only one announcement on Sundays—and make the welcome segment two to three minutes tops. I promise you – nobody’s listening beyond that.
If you’re still convinced you have much more to say and that you’re the Joe Rogan (with his 3+ hour podcast episodes) of preaching try this instead.While some preachers are gifted enough to carry longer messages and others aren't, underneath that is this reality: five minutes of boring is five minutes too long. Click To Tweet
2. Preach Less Often: Variety is Better
Another way to take the pressure off yourself and help your church experience consistently strong preaching is to share the spotlight: develop a team approach to preaching.
That can be hiring another communicator, or it could be inviting lay people to preach, or it could mean using video from other preachers from time to time.
Quantity and quality ultimately compete.In preaching, quantity and quality ultimately compete. Click To Tweet
My friend Jeff Henderson has some challenging but convicting advice on how often a preacher should preach.
To determine how many times you should preach in a year, ask yourself (and perhaps others) this question:
To determine how many times you should preach in a year, ask yourself (and perhaps others) this question: How many great sermons can you preach in one calendar year? @JeffHenderson Click To Tweet
How many great sermons can you preach in one calendar year? Is it 10? Is it 25? Is it 35? And the reality is it’s probably less than we think, and it’s probably less than we’re currently doing.Jeff Henderson
So why don’t more preachers cut back on their preaching?
Because we’re all human, for many preachers, getting up to preach every Sunday is a battle between insecurity and ego.
You feel insecure because you’re worried you’re not up to the task or will be good enough.
But that insecurity is the very thing that can cause you to hog the spotlight because you want people to follow you. And even deeper than that, you can end up not wanting to have anyone ‘better than you’ preach because it might make you look bad.
I only know those tensions because I’ve experienced them all myself.
The best way to break the chains of insecurity is to share the spotlight with someone more gifted than you.
So share the spotlight. It will do you and your church more good than you realize.The best way to break the chains of insecurity is to share the spotlight with someone more gifted than you. Click To Tweet
3. Be You: Authenticity Will Win
The good news in all of this is that the best way to preach is to be authentically you.
I was discussing this recently with a preacher who was wondering what style or approach to preaching to embrace.
I answered him with a simple question: Who are you?
For example, I’ve realized I’m more of a teacher than a preacher. I drift toward the head, not the heart. I’m more information, not inspiration.
Part of that feels inherently disappointing. It would be awesome to be funnier, more heartfelt, more engaging, more whatever. Most of us wish we were someone we’re not.
But I realize that’s how God wired me, and to embrace that style is a good thing.
Preaching in your natural communication style means being yourself every week. It breaks down any divide between who you are on stage and off-stage. It has deep integrity.
That doesn’t mean you can’t learn from others, hone your skillset or improve. It just means that if you’re you, there will be much less cognitive dissonance than if you’re trying to be someone else.
Learn from others, but be yourself.
Nothing resonates quite as deeply as authenticity. And nothing is quite as easy to repeat week after week.Preachers, learn from others, but be yourself. Nothing resonates quite as deeply as authenticity. And nothing is quite as easy to repeat week after week. Click To Tweet
The Result? Better Preaching In a Changing World
Think about the pressure you’ll take off yourself by trimming your message (that will leave more content for future weeks), sharing the spotlight (that will provide much-appreciate relief for everyone and a sustainable pace), and being yourself (after you get over the disappointment, it’s so refreshing).
With all that in mind, the future of live in-person services should be brighter.
Make some other strategic shifts along with better preaching, and the in-person service has a long, vibrant future.