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Preaching in an Age of Distraction

May 21, 2014

Preaching in an Age of Distraction

Any worship leader or preacher knows what it’s like to be distracted–either by something internally (himself or herself) or externally (something going on in the room).

“We live in the Age of Distraction,” says J. Ellsworth Kalas, Senior Professor of Homiletics at Asbury Theological Seminary, “and it seems to be accelerating.” Kalas notes that “the altar of the new” (a great turn of phrase) is constantly beckoning, but it is “a poor place to bow.”

Over the course of ten chapters, Kalas seeks to guide the preacher through distractions and distractedness, offering counsel as to how to prepare messages and preach to potentially distracted congregations.

The book started more slowly than I’d have liked. This could, of course, be a function of my own distractedness and lack of patience in reading. But there were more vague assertions than were helpful for building his case from the beginning, a trend which popped up again throughout the book. (E.g., “Sports have probably had a place in human life for as far back as we have any record” (ch. 2), and, “Surveys show that…” (ch. 4), and, “Some brain research indicates that…” (ch. 9), etc.)

Perhaps I was looking for more practical “take-aways.” And Kalas does give these as the book progresses.

However, at about chapter 3 or so, I realized that I was reading some reassuringly wise counsel. I received it as such. Kalas has generations of experience in preaching (and teaching about preaching). This allows him to see our current day in a fuller historical light. Distractions may change from generation to generation (TV vs. iPhone), but distractions themselves are not unique to the second decade of the 21st century. Kalas is worth quoting at some length here:

All of this reminds us that while the times have changed in some details–the sources of the distractions and the means by which those distractions are delivered–the pastor in his or her study has always been susceptible to distraction. Paul must surely have hoped that his guard would stop humming that first-century show tune. Bunyan no doubt had to deal with insects and assorted vermin as he thought his way through Pilgrim’s Progress. And who can guess the physical and emotional intrusions that assailed Dietrich Bonhoeffer day after day in his imprisonment!

There are significant recent changes to congregations, though. In chapter 3, “The Distracted Preacher,” Kalas notes that it “is no longer the world of our great-grandparents, where nearly all the people in the pews had the same occupation–say, dairy farming or working at the local factory–and essentially the same education.” Even if this overgeneralizes a bit, Kalas brings his point into focus by continuing, “Now the preacher looks out on vocations that did not exist a decade ago, let alone a century ago.” They are “more specialized.” Because no preacher can possibly “be a Renaissance person,” we preachers “must be highly discriminating in the knowledge we pursue.”

That itself is not a novel idea, but Kalas gives the preacher needed reminders (that we too often forget) like, “The Internet will take as much of our time as we allow it to have.” And to any preachers who may not think much about a pre-Internet world, Kalas suggests “reading across the centuries,” a practice he himself has obviously employed, as his book passes on some of the wisdom of those he has read.

An underlying theme of the book is that the ones who follow after distractions (whether preacher or congregation, or both) are “expressing the longing of a restless heart.” Kalas writes, “[W]hat gets our attention gets us.” The challenge is that not all distractions are harmful, per se; some stimulate creativity and pull us out of ruts. How to discern the difference? Kalas suggests asking:

Does this [distraction or thought] incline me toward Christ or away from him? If I pursue this thought, what will it do to my mind and spirit?

and:

Will this “distraction” lead to more life or to less?

If there is an antidote (or “counterforce”) to the distractions that lead to less of life, it is “excellence.”  How Kalas teases this out makes the book worth pursuing. Canned illustrations are okay, he suggests, but even better is “the excitement that comes when an idea springs forth after the preacher has wrestled with the Scriptures until a light has come on in the soul.” With the Holy Spirit as guide, director, and inspirer, the pastor also needs to remember that “preaching is a relationship,” so deliberate relationship-building with the congregation necessarily precedes good preaching.

Are you burned out on preaching? Get this book. Kalas doesn’t say he set out to write for burned-out preachers, per se, but I can’t think of anything better for such a preacher to read.

Are you not burned out, but looking to take a step forward in your preparation or delivery? Kalas gives a slew of sage advice and some practical suggestions to pursue excellence.

Are you distracted or unsettled when you go to prepare a sermon? Kalas offers soul care, and in the midst of a distraction-filled life helps the preacher take a look inward, and an awe-filled look outward to God.

Thanks to InterVarsity Press for the review copy, given to me so I could write this review, but with no expectation as to my assessment of the book. Find Preaching in an Age of Distraction here (publisher’s page) or here (Amazon affiliate link).

5 Comments leave one →
  1. May 22, 2014 11:52 am

    Thank you for this book — I want to read it now for some thoughts on how to be less distracted. Another book that I recommend is Sertillanges’ “The Intellectual Life” — written in a pre-internet era, it is full of profound and quotable advice on what it means to be a Christian thinker.

    • May 22, 2014 1:59 pm

      You’re welcome, and thanks for the recommendation! I’m going to check it out.

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