Dear New Hope,

Techy people on staff tell me that this weekly article is sent to 1816 email addresses but is only opened by around 490 people. From the very start, 77% of recipients tune me out before the first sentence. Furthermore, a good percentage of people who begin this article will not read past the first paragraph. Such is the reality of communication in a digital age. Somewhere between the delivery of a message and its reception, listeners will tune out what is being communicated.

For those who have continued reading, welcome to the 2nd paragraph. You are among New Hope’s best and brightest minds.

It has been widely observed that teenagers are exceptionally poor at communication. They often lack basic skills such as, “shake hands, introduce yourself and look the person in the eye as they talk to you.” (Any teen who can do those 3 skills will get hired and promoted within 6 months.) Our young millennials have grown up in such a fast-paced culture that many bypassed the grade where teachers taught them how to listen. Just ask any mother. Younger people would rather tweet than talk; Instagram than telegram. Even when expressing emotions, teens are more comfortable sharing anger or sadness through text rather than in person.

Americans as a whole are becoming bad listeners. We are really good at talking, critiquing, expressing our outrage on social media, or posting a review on TripAdvisor, but when it comes to listening we have a failing grade. Try this exercise today: as you talk, note how quickly people tune you out. A friend will tune you out before you are done talking. A spouse will tune you out before you finish your thought. A child will tune you out before you tell them to load the dishwasher. An employee will tune you out before you finish a job review. It seems that people cannot stay engaged long in a conversation before their minds wander.

A 2015 study from Microsoft Corp. found that people generally lose concentration after eight seconds. Eight seconds! People no longer read news articles, we just scan headlines. Websites are being redone to reduce wording and accommodate expectations. Tweets are limited to 140 characters for a reason: people quickly lose interest or attention. You have to say things quickly, simply and often with vulgarity in order to make a point. And video clips on Facebook that are popular are often 1-2 minute segments that engage the listener before they tune out.

In the midst of this cultural phenomenon, imagine the challenges of sitting still and listening to a 40-minute monologue on a Sunday morning from a preacher. The sermon is in danger of being archaic, like a phone book or rotary phone. If the Microsoft study is true, an average person will tune out 300 times during a sermon! Even if they are half right, a person will tune out 150 times. “Did I feed the dog? I’m worried about the work meeting this week. I need a new vacuum. I should try out that new restaurant. Why did my spouse blow up at me yesterday? I wonder how I’m going to pay my mortgage this month. I can’t wait for the snow to melt. I should’ve stayed home today. I need to pee. Why is Pastor Craig wearing that color shirt?” After 300 of these mental interruptions, all of a sudden the preacher says your favorite words: “Let’s pray.” Meanwhile, the last 40 minutes have been wasted because you failed to engage the mind and listen.

In a recent article called “No One Listening? Maybe It’s You”, Elizabeth Bernstein gives several skills that we need to develop in order to be more effective talkers. Quoting a communications consultant, the recommendations are:

  • Don’t just launch in. Ask the other person if it’s a good time to chat.
  • Be clear about what you need from your listener.
  • Engage in connected talking. Are you overwhelming or losing the person?
  • Don’t take it personally if the listener can’t talk at the moment.
  • Slow Down. Breath, make eye contact, pay attention to the other person’s responses.
  • Be aware of anxious talking, rambling on about anything that comes to your mind.
  • If you sense they aren’t listening, politely ask if there is a better time to talk.

These are valuable tidbits for all of us, especially those of us who are employed in the art of public speaking. To overcome obstacles to communication, preachers need to engage the listener, be clear about what we want them to do, slow down, and stop rambling about inconsequential stuff. I wonder how I would implement the last point. If people still aren’t listening to the sermon, how would they respond if I politely asked if there was a better time to talk?

But no matter what the preacher does, how can we become more effective listeners on Sunday morning? How do we overcome the tendency to zone out every eight seconds? How do we stay engaged in listening and allowing the Holy Spirit to speak? Here are some basic listening skills to consider:

  • Posture. It’s a big deal. Sit up straight. Lean forward if necessary. Be careful of being too comfortable. One New Hope dad told me that his son falls asleep every Sunday during the sermon. No offense taken. I’ve done it too. When people slouch during a sermon, they are more prone to drift off to sleep and catch up on much needed rest.
  • Seating position. Some seats in the auditorium are more prone to distraction. A simple rule: the further back you sit in a room, the more distractions you will have. Sitting toward the back isn’t bad, but just be aware that doing so creates more obstacles to overcome.
  • Bible open, phone away. Trust me on this. Very few people are capable of using their phones as their Bible without their phone becoming a major distraction. Weather updates, stock prices, football scores, and vacation rentals are all too tempting to check when the mind wanders. One person told me recently that a young adult sat next to them at church and texted during the entire sermon. It is highly doubtful that their heart was impacted by anything in the Scripture that day. The Spirit was willing to work, but even the Spirit could not overcome the obstacles of highly distracted flesh.
  • Preach to yourself. To avoid 300 moments of tuning out requires the utmost attention of the listener. You need to preach to yourself even as the preacher is preaching. You need to exhort yourself: Stay awake. Keep focused. Don’t wander. Remain engaged. Check back in. When the mind wanders, you need to lasso it quickly to bring it back to its rightful place.
  • Prayerful disposition. Do you realize you can pray even while you’re listening? Prayer is a good way to overcome spiritual opposition. We have an enemy of our soul who will use any distraction to keep us from listening. The child being passed from mother to father. The man who walks down the aisle to use the restroom. The hair of the woman in front of you. The smell of the guy behind you. The crinkling of wrappers from opening a cough drop. There is no shortage of things that the enemy will use to block our listening. It takes a prayerful disposition to remain focused.

Scripture says: Be quick to listen. What a great principle to implement in 2019 as we sit beneath the preaching of the word.

You are loved,
Craig Trierweiler