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Tuesday, June 17, 2008
Worship and the Crisis of Attention
Courtney E. Martin in an online column for The American Prospect magazine, offers an challenging essay entitled, "A Crisis of Attention and Intention," about the distracted state of college students in today's classrooms. A couple of representative quotes:

Professor Dennis Dalton began his lecture on Mahatma Gandhi's mass civil-disobedience campaign following the Amritsar massacre, focusing on the Indian activists' persistence in staying attuned to their own inner morals despite the crush of British imperialism. The students flipped open their laptops and started clicking away. A few solely took notes, but many flipped back and forth between multiple windows: shopping on Amazon, cruising Facebook, checking out The New York Times Style section, reorganizing their social calendars, e-mailing, playing solitaire, doing homework for other classes, chatting on AIM, and buying tickets on Expedia. Josh kept a list because he was in such disbelief......

Everyone is vying for our precious attention—political candidates, Victoria's Secret, tech manufacturers, restaurant chains, YouTube, cleaning product companies, media outlets, children, The Gap, parents, blogs, friends, JetBlue, even pets. The average adult sees 1,000 advertisements a day. Internet users spend 32.7 hours per week online and about half as much time watching television (16.4 hours). Teens, not surprisingly, are most likely to participate in what tech experts call "concurrent media exposure"—using various media simultaneously. Among this crush, how well are we staying attuned to our own inner morals? How intentional are we about whom we let sap our energy, at what times, and in what ways?

I'm interested in how today's average attention span impacts our worship gatherings.  Worship demands attention of mind and intention of heart.  (i.e.  One thing I ask of the Lord, one thing I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord, and to seek him in his temple.  Psalm 27:4.)  

My concern is the way so many worship services these days seem to accommodate what Martin writes about.  I recently attended a worship gathering where I counted 8 different screens all featuring different potential distractions.  (i.e.  nature scenes, visualizer light shows, l.e.d. displays and so forth).  How can worship cultivate attention when so much worship design seems to create distraction?  I even find myself texting during worship services from time to time. Am I overreacting or am I onto something?  

posted by John David Walt | at 6/17/2008 07:25:00 AM



Blogger JAy. said...


Couldn't agree with you more. While I have never been to such a high-tech production as what you describe (what church needs 8 video screens!), I definitely think that the modern world offers far too many distractions at any given time.

In my chuch's building campaign, I actually thought how nice it would be to electronically insulate the new building to prevent wireless signals from getting in. Just think - no outside electronic distractions! Of course, how many people would therefore refuse to stay in the building for the whole service?

Another good conundrum for the worship leaders and planners - how to, in a modern world, keep peoples' attention without simultaneously distracting them.

God Bles,

9:42 AM EDT  
Blogger chad said...

The use of Technology and Worship...one of my favorite topics.

It seems as though we have beauty and novelty confused. Balthasar wrote alot about the relationship between beauty and God, and beauty is something that has been and should be a quest for all those who seek to create an atmosphere for worship.

What is novelty is the idea of these multiple images bombarding us during worship. If one goes to a RCC or Orthodox church, you may see multiple images-but these images will not be fighting for your attention and usually are depicting the gradual story of scripture. 8 video screens being used simultaneous are part of our cultures fascination with technology and color and flash. I think part of this transition in worship is that people can't seem to calm their senses down enough to handle directing their attention at one thing. Their are multiple reasons why church designers feel the need to have these elements in their worship.

JD, I would say that you aren't overreacting in the least.

11:46 AM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


One difficulty of the quote is the way the author frames who decides that a good class is. Is it the teacher, the student, or Josh, who apparently imposes his own framework for what ‘should’ be happening. Correlating to the church, this makes for an interesting conversation regarding who decides what a worship service should be?

Another difficulty of the quote is that the author does not indicate what occurs in good classes. The internet is just a present day form of note passing or doodling in your notebook. Instead of cutting the wifi the teacher should consider that their style has become ineffective or that the subject matter does not fit the student (who could doodle in molecular biology?).

But like the teacher who measures their success by students’ attention, many churches vying for the attention (attendance) of their audience (congregation) think they needed to (a) add amenities and technology (i.e., give in; build a new building, add art), or (b) cut amenities and technology (i.e., control, remove art).

But if I place myself in the position of the texting church attender I admit that the boredom I face in church is not from either of these directions. It is simply because the message as presented is no longer compelling or interesting. Ironically, the anthro-centricity of Sunday morning and its attempts to complement or control, turns out to be quite empty over time (I mean, how many times can we sky dive for Jesus before that becomes passe?).

If the advertisement works we will try the new soda. Yet the advertisement will not be the reason we will continue the product. Indeed, the product will have to ‘work’, it will have to actually taste good (or good enough to sustain the diet benefits).

And hence the problem with the church. We have so covered over the actual product that all people have is the advertisement - why you should drink Coke, not Pepsi / why you should be like Jesus, not those other people. Instead, we simply need to let the soda / Gospel itself do the “selling.”

Perhaps the way forward is by recognizing that we need increase ability to properly and pastorally tell and retell the Scriptural narrative and how that impacts our lives - the “product” - instead of spending so much discerning which tv needs to be next to the espresso machine.


12:44 PM EDT  
Blogger JohnDeere said...

I like this comment drawing contrast to the orthodox church and the plethora of images and icons in these services. you note that this is different from the 8 screens; however, this could pose the same challenge to attention. I guess the issue is what is happening on those screens, images, windows, etc.???

This plays into S3's quandry--- is the media being used to draw our attention to and into the Narrative of Scripture--- or is it a cool light show? I suppose one cultivates attention and the other the kind of attention that is more like distraction.

But s3-- you seem to lead us in a rabidly consumeristic direction with your "does this bore me or not" comment. I do understand your point, but isn't it a bit dangerous to make the experience of the consumer the barometer of "good" worship?

on the front of texting--- i think it could actually be helpful if I am texting you across the congregation to dialogue about the sermon in progress. this could enhance the communal nature of the gathering-- couldn't it? but if I'm texting my foursome about lunch, that's another story. good to see you in print here s3.

1:15 PM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I would press back a little on the framing of consumeristic. “Consumeristic” framing with seminary-folk often connotes something bad, probably because it evokes business and marketing categories. What I am not sure how to avoid is the fact that people have subjective experiences and judgements, what ever you call that.

An hyperbolic example would be if the preacher or song told the worshippers that Jesus did not rise from the dead. Would we allow “consumeristic”-type responses in that example? So my preference is to create and even advocate for zones where expectations could be defined.

First, I think it is fair for them to expect to hear a faithful proclamation of Scripture. By this I am indicating revelation of God in a theo-centric fashion similar to your Story - Trinity - World rubric. I am comfortable with congregations who create this particular expectation of worship, and if they do not find it at their church, and their church has no intention of moving that way, they, like consumers, are free to choose another church.

Second, I think it is fair for worshippers to have reasonable expectations regarding the means of communication. To use the classroom analogy, certain professors I know (at other seminaries) fail to make eye contact, flip through 10 year old overhead slides, and never asks questions. Eventually these professors find their class demand decreasing. Yet some of the most difficult but engaging professors on campus (think Richter) have full wait listings every term. So if I am a worship leader I would try and have the courage to ask the attendees whether they understood the message (within the parameters of point one above), if the tv’s, or songs, or whatever where distracting or enabling.

This may seem consumeristic, but those communions and baptisms I endured growing up would have been much more meaningful had the worship leaders cared that they made sense to me!


9:26 PM EDT  
Blogger chad said...

I have a hard time putting sacraments in the same boat as multi-media, but I understand where you are coming from s3. But properly framing "consumeristic" has negative connotations because it is used in a negative sense.

Robert Webber is alot smarter than me and put it best, "Me-oriented worship is the result of a culturally driven worship...Certainly for a biblical perspective, sin is fundamentally a rebellion against God, a rebellion that places self at the center."

I don't think it is possible to theologically explain some of the "dog and pony show" that goes on in some contemporary churches/services. Done in the proper context, such as many orthodox/catholic traditions, every element that is in view or use in the service has a deep, vibrant theological role in the service, which is the community rehearsing together the story of God.

Just because hip story-telling is getting people in church, and the platform looks like the set from "Dvd on TV" doesn't mean that their is purpose behind our usage of contemporary technology.

10:25 PM EDT  
Blogger JohnDeere said...

i got you s3-- i agree.

10:27 PM EDT  

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