When discussing the ever present distractions pastors and teachers must deal with themselves and in their audiences, it could be easy to become discouraged and despondent. But Dr. J. Ellsworth Kalas looks at the issue and is able to glean positives from our living in an “Age of Distraction” and give hope for those seeking to present God’s word to a people struggling to give their undivided attention.
I used Dr. Kalas’ earlier book, Ten Commandments from the Back Side, for sermon preparation and personal study, so I was anxious to read Preaching in an Age of Distraction and hear from the author about what exactly distractions are and how pastors can best deal with them. Yesterday, I reviewed the book, and today, I welcome Dr. Kalas to the blog.
Trevin: You’ve been preaching now for half a century, and you recognize that dealing with distractions is not a new phenomenon. You do, however, say we are living in an “Age of Distraction” and that the distractions seem to be accelerating. How do you define distraction and why should preachers be concerned?
Dr. Kalas: I see distraction as anything that draws my attention away from what is currently on my mind. We think of distraction as the opposite of attraction, which of course it is. Unfortunately, this perception has made us think that distractions are always bad, which isn’t necessarily so. One of the most dramatic distractions in history happened when Saul of Tarsus was on the outskirts of Damascus and he was distracted by a light and a voice. Thank God!
Distractions are a crucial issue to the preacher because they have to do primarily with the mind. (True, distractions also operate through the glands and the eyes, but they go directly from there to the mind.)
The preacher’s business is with the mind; we have to get people’s attention, and hold their attention, if we hope for our message to make a difference. Anything that distracts our listeners or readers from our message can impact our hours of work and prayer.
Trevin: When I started your book, I expected it to be primarily about how to preach to distracted people. But much of the book is about how preachers can keep from being distracted people. “If our souls are adrift, multiplied other souls are in danger.” What are some ways that preachers can model faithfulness in the Age of Distraction?
Dr. Kalas: If we preachers hope to help our distracted hearers, we have to win the battle first on our own ground. I hear sermons that have “distraction” woven all through them; we know it by the way the sermon seems without focus, or wandering around the subject rather than moving arrow-like to its point.
The Internet with its sub-kingdoms of Google, Twitter, etc, can be a good servant for those who will use it as such. But for a vast percentage the Internet is the master, and the owner is a slave. The preacher/pastor needs to deal with this matter with his people.
The best approach is not one of condemnation, but of empathy – from a fellow-struggler. Here is a place where almost every pastor can say with the prophet Ezekiel, “I sat where they sat.” We gain a hearing by confessing that we too have to deal with distraction, and then telling how we have made progress.
The dietician tells us that we are what we eat, and this is obviously true physically. The pastor needs to remember, and to tell the people, a greater fact by far: We are what we think. If the secondary fills our minds, there’s no room left for that which is primary.
Trevin: You devote a chapter to the benefits of distraction, something that may come as a surprise to preachers who suppose all distraction is negative. How can distractions be a stimulant for the pastor and the congregation?
Dr. Kalas: As I waited for a flight connection recently, I watched while a security agent went through the airport with a police dog. The dog sniffed each of our bags, quickly and efficiently, sometimes pausing momentarily but often simply moving along. I said to myself, “I’d like to train my mind like the nostrils of that dog, so I would shut out the cheap and the trivial and would aim my soul toward that which is my goal: to be like my Lord.”
I’m confident that we can train our minds toward Christ. This is what Paul was appealing for in Philippians 4:8. He was advising his people to focus their minds. His text is more appropriate today than ever.
Trevin: You write that excellence is the “counterforce” to distraction. Can you explain what you mean by this, and why it is important for pastors?
Dr. Kalas: I’ve reached an age when it has finally dawned on me that I will never be able to read all the books or visit all of the places or watch all of the activities before I die. This simple conclusion has helped me draw up a list of what is “excellent” – that which I should definitely get, if possible, before our Lord calls me home. We preachers owe it to our people to elevate their taste: above all, their spiritual taste.
Paul was grieved to the max that some of his people were satisfied with baby food when they should be growing up. I wonder what horror he would feel if he heard some sermons that are superficial, pandering to spiritual infancy. Not simple, mind you; a sermon should always be accessible and understandable. I have no sympathy for sermons that try to sound learned. But the sermon should honor the potential of the people, and their capacity before God to grow into the image of Christ.
Trevin: The Age of Distraction doesn’t leave you gloomy and pessimistic with regard to preaching in the next generation. Instead, you point to the sermon’s “insistent power,” and the pastor’s “secret resources.” Why do you believe preaching will endure even through our current setting?
Dr. Kalas: My hope for the sermon lies in its basic subject matter. We preach about life and death and eternity; you can’t get more basic than that.
The Gospel deals with real problems – loneliness, fear, poverty both financial and emotional, sickness and health, love and lust, joy, patience, forgiveness, purpose in living – the list is endless, and so are the riches of the Scripture that should inform our preaching. I think our times are so complicated and so crucial.
A generation ago philosophers and world leaders warned us that with atomic power we humans could now destroy our planet. You and I now live in a more present, more personal danger: The stuff that occupies our minds can destroy our character, our mental and spiritual health, and eventually our souls.
We preachers were never needed more. We aren’t going out of style. We’re only being called to higher ground.