Our attention spans are too short. We want the shortcut. The 140 character tweet rather than the well-composed essay. The short blog or article rather than the real deal. We read for fewer minutes and what we read is short. And we might be eagerly awaiting our next distraction from our smartphone. We don’t read as much – or like – we used to.
I go through phases when I read “too much” (my wife’s phrase) and others when I don’t read enough (my view).
As a parent and educator, these perceptions are mixed with, filtered through, and influenced by, the “netflix effect” on television viewing patterns. Namely, no commercials, watching several episodes at one sitting, (often) unplugged from an actual television.
The corollary to “people don’t read like they used to” is – arguably – that “they don’t watch tv like they used to” either.As one entirely unscientific finding shows: If you google “binge tv” you’ll get 19,300,000 hits. Comparatively, if you google “binge drinking” you’ll get 5,330,000 hits. Ponder that for a moment. I think we’ll (soon ?) see conditions related to tv addiction. The habit of binge-watching is typically confined to one show. I don’t watch 1 episode of 3 shows in one sitting. I’ll watch 3 episodes of 1 show. I did it just last week. My kids do, too. But, as with any good story, once the hook is in it can be hard to get free.
No more 1-week waiting periods, no more commercials. It’s fantastic. It’s alarming. And there are important lessons here with implications that still must be played out.
We are faced with an interesting dilemma, possibly a threat, and an opportunity.I’ll take a stab at highlighting one implication…
Let’s put together the preceding 3 points:
- people don’t read as much
- when they do it’s for shorter amounts
- people binge-watch tv for longer stretches
When put together the three points are – tantalizingly – create a contradiction while also being mutually reinforcing.
If our attention spans are shorter (and I can be persuaded by this during virtually any meeting I attend on my college campus) and if we read for briefer periods of time, but we’re watching tv for longer stretches, then we are faced with an interesting dilemma, possibly a threat, and an opportunity.
Youth today are – generally – more inclined to appreciate a multi-volume book series or movie series (for example: Harry Potter, LOTR, The Hobbit, any number of super hero franchises). Multiplicity seems to imply success and quality. Admittedly, it has this influence on me. I am less inclined to watch a new show, preferring one that has been proven to last 2, 3 or – when I’m lucky – 7 seasons (what better way to ensure more binging, right?).
This means that your battle, in ministry, is to engage those to whom you minister in a way that competes or contrasts with the distractions that you know might pull them away – either at a gathering or during the week.This means that your battle, in ministry, is to engage those to whom you minister in a way that competes or contrasts with the distractions that you know might pull them away – either at a gathering or during the week. You are competing against a host of potential distractions, some good, some not. They are not going away.
For me, as an example, it means using both the text of the Bible and an app that helps to illustrate it, in an engaging, interactive, and visually appealing way for say … an 8 year old or an 18 year old. Statistically, this likely means that my children will “read” the Bible less than they would have if they “just” had the text, but it also means – I predict – that they will be much more informed with what they are reading and seeing than they would have otherwise, or compared with my childhood reading experience.
I’ll close by admitting a high degree of skepticism on the “we have shorter attention spans” with a suspicion that I’m not sure we’re any worse than those in the 1930s when “T. S. Eliot recognized being “distracted from distraction by distraction” as part of the modernist plight.” I am not convinced that we have shorter attention spans; we have more competition for our attention, and this means we need to rethink, re-examine, and possibly reconfigure how we approach our audiences.
For ministry, this may mean learning a new delivery system on Sundays, reconfiguring how you disseminate information, and reprocessing how to engage students (of all ages) and their parents in every way imaginable.
They read less, but watch more. What does that mean for your community? For your family? For your church?
Dr. Neal earned a BA in Political Science from Texas Tech University. He then pursued theological and ministerial training and is a graduate of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (MDivBL), and the University of Edinburgh, Scotland (MTh; PhD). He is married to Jennifer, and they have four children.
Dr. Neal’s teaching and research focuses on the relationship between biblical interpretation and theology. His Ph.D. research focused on systematic theology, specifically questions raised in contemporary German theology. He is the author of Theology As Hope: On the Ground and the Implications of Jurgen Moltmann’s Doctrine of Hope, and has published a variety of essays, articles, and chapters on theological topics. Dr. Neal has presented papers in several academic venues in England, Scotland, New Zealand, and the United States. Most recently he presented a paper on eschatology at the University of Notre Dame.