Local churches are dealing with a generation driven to distraction at a whole new level. Smartphones are an omnipresent source of distraction, and they can prevent people from wholeheartedly engaging in weekly corporate worship. Texts and email alerts pull them out of the moment, and if they get bored there’s always an alternative activity close at hand. 

Sometimes worshipers use their phones during the sermon: I’ve seen people giggle or grow downcast at something on their phone while their pastor was preaching weighty matters from God’s Word. 

Five Major Challenges

To explore the engagement of adult Christians during Sunday sermons, I interviewed 14 members of a local congregation, all in their late teens to early 30s. From my interviews and recent physiological/neurological studies, I discern five main challenges smartphones pose to hearing sermons.

1. Addictive Technology

Recent research reveals that smartphone use releases dopamine, which causes intense pleasure. National companies and app developers keep improving their products to stimulate reward centers in the human brain, so users find it harder to stop using the apps. Almost all of the younger respondents said they keep using their phones during Sunday morning preaching; they do this partially because the technology is designed to be addictive. 

2. Short Attention Span

Recent studies also show that unchecked usage of digital devices may cause an anxious urge to multitask. A majority of interviewees said they feel distracted even when they put their phones away. The presence of the actual phone isn’t the only problem; it’s also the lifestyle of distraction it leaves in its wake. 

A majority of interviewees said they feel distracted even when they’ve put their phones away. Hearers are addicted to being distracted.

3. Learning Disability

The destructive affects of addictive experiences can be permanent, especially to children and adolescents. By constantly entertaining, digital devices may be creating a generation of bored thrill-seekers who are at risk for developing learning disabilities.

4. Social Skill Decline

Another recent study shows that children who use digital devices have decreased abilities to understand the emotive cues of others. When human interaction is constantly replaced by digital devices, social skills and empathy decline. This decline can affect a person’s ability to relate to the preacher. 

5. Depression

Yet another study reveals that habitual social media users can develop symptoms of depression, so much so that pediatricians have coined the term “Facebook depression.”  

Four Ways to Help

So how can we help our congregations overcome this widespread stumbling block?

1. Meaningful Relationships

Offline human interactions can heal the wounds of smartphone addicts, experts contend. A majority of respondents said they could listen to preaching better when they interacted in person with people from church, including the pastor. Pastors, greet your people in person.

Preachers should know what’s going on in people’s lives, one respondent said. Adult learners listen better when they think they were heard by their instructor. Spend time with your congregants; talk to them about mundane things in life. 

2. Meaningful Worship

It’s easier to pay attention to a thoughtful, passionate service. Church leadership should craft the liturgy to cultivate the joy of Christ. Respondents said their preacher’s genuine passion motivates them to listen. Preach with passion for Christ, which comes from constant intimacy with him.

3. Meaningful Discipleship

Pastors need to set a good example with smartphone use. Put away digital devices to maximize conversation, prayer, and reading. Get away with families or friends and spend time without technology. If you’re a parent, limit the use of digital devices.

Teaching congregants how to engage the sermon can also help. Those who took a discipleship course with their pastor said they know what he’s trying to accomplish from the pulpit. Moreover, those who took the course said they’re not tempted to use their phones during the sermon. Keep making disciples by teaching them how to listen to a sermon or by having sermon discussions in small groups.

4. Meaningful Preaching

Addiction to distraction is a heart matter. Preachers can’t save their hearers; only the gospel can.

Bryan Chapell has observed, “Good preaching in one sense involves getting out of the way so the Word can do its work.” Similarly, James Montgomery Boice once said, “When a preacher preaches, Christ himself speaks.” Christ is king over the flood of distractions. He transforms hearers through the means of preaching. So preach Christ from every passage of the Bible.

Wanted: Hearers of the Word

Preachers need good listeners as much as churches need good preachers. Those who succumb to distraction in the pew should keep in mind that their distraction is contagious—none is immune to it, including the preacher. The preacher sees and feels everything. He might not be able to focus and worship if he’s facing persistent external distractions. On the other hand, preachers should listen to hearers and relate to them. Faithful hearing matters (Rom. 10:17).

Unfortunately, the general cultural assumption seems to be that preachers are expected to preach good sermons, while congregants bear no responsibility to listen. There are few books published on sermon listening, but countless books on preaching well. Yet the Bible emphasizes hearing and points hearers to the Savior who makes all things new, including our ears. In the midst of praying for ears to hear, the church must equip hearers, especially in an age of distraction.


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