J. Ellsworth Kalas, Preaching in an Age of Distraction. InterVarsity Press, 2014. 165 pp., paper. ISBN 978-0-8308-4110-3
The phrase “age of distraction” will resonate with anyone living in the 21st century. Our culture itself seems to have attention-deficit disorder, as it whipsaws from crisis to crisis, trend to trend. Our personal lives seem just as hectic, with technology—once seen as a time-saver—instead pressing us moment to moment to respond to calls, texts, emails and other demands.
In Preaching in an Age of Distraction, longtime Asbury Seminary professor J. Ellsworth Kalas helps us as preachers to step back and better understand our environment, and then offers counsel to help us wisely respond to the distractions of our age.
Kalas begins by recalling the more gentle distractions of an earlier age, and then helps us recognize how the situation has changed. He points out, “We’ve developed a kind of mental and emotional edginess” that is ever-present. Kalas observes:
“We belong to the ‘always-on, always-connected digital world,’ and we find it gratifying to see ourselves that way. Many of the people who come to church on Sunday have just watched a sitcom the night before, with its changing scene every ten or fifteen seconds and its three or four commercials in the space of a minute. Can we expect people who experience life in such fashion all through the week to give undivided attention to a sermon or a prayer when they’re accustomed to living with several clamoring voices surrounding them at all times?”
In addition to the challenge of trying to engage such distracted folks, Kalas notes we also face the challenge of our distracted lives. “We have minds and souls of our own,” he says, “minds that are supposed to be creative and souls that are supposed to be God-centered. As we seek these ends we cope with distractions and intrusions on our study and devotional time that our pulpit ancestors could never have imagined.”
Although distraction is not unique to our age, Kalas argues that it has become uniquely woven into our lives in a way that was not previously true. He asserts, “Its powers have become so sophisticated that much of the time we don’t even realize it is at work in us and on us.” Offering as an example the many and varied ways consumer products are developed, packaged and marketed to attract our attention, he says, “Perhaps we can be forgiven if we envy our spiritual ancestors in Eden. They had to worry about only one tree. For us, Distraction is the name of the forest.”
If that is the environment in which we all live, it creates a particular challenge for those of us who are called to proclaim spiritual truth. Kalas points out:
“Those of us who preach, teach or write are in constant battle on the field of distractions. We are engaged in the struggle for the souls of humankind; we compete daily for their time, their attention, their feelings and eventually their commitment and conduct. For us, distraction is not just a personal problem with which we, like the rest of our race, must contend. It is much more; because of our calling and because of the talents we hope we possess, we must enter the distraction competition…If that be so, we must learn how to be heard and to be heard persuasively.”
Kalas proceeds to analyze the contemporary scene as a bazaar of distractions—consumerism, entertainment, sports and work. Not only do we face the challenge of ministry in this chaos, we also face the danger of being consumed by it ourselves. Like medical professionals serving those with highly contagious diseases, we preachers and teachers can “become psychically, morally and spiritually adrift,” in which case “we present a particular hazard, because we deal daily in issues of the human soul. If our souls are adrift, multiplied other souls are in danger.”
In his chapter “The Distracted Congregation,” Kalas reminds us of a reality that we often forget as pastors. While we spend our days immersed in biblical texts and theological thought, our people live in a different world. He quotes Eugene Peterson, who shares that as a pastor, he was not prepared for “the low level of interest that the men and women in my congregation had in God and the scriptures, prayer and their souls. Not that they didn’t believe and value these things; they just weren’t very interested.”
Facing such challenges, preachers and teachers must learn to deal with distraction in our congregations and in ourselves. Kalas spends the second half of his book offering wise counsel to church leaders in the use of various strategies for connecting with our distracted age. Among the approaches he discusses at length: an emphasis on excellence, a commitment to creativity, a recognition of stylistic issues (what Kalas calls packaging), and faithfulness to biblical content and doctrine.
Kalas reminds us that preaching is a uniquely relational act: “one person talking to another.” For such a relationship to be effective, it is important that the pastor also be a good listener and spend time with people in order to know and hear them. What we learn in such settings, he notes, informs the pulpit on Sunday.
Preaching in an Age of Distraction is solid and helpful counsel from a long-time pastor and who has taught pastors for many years. Wise pastors will take his insights to heart as we face the challenge of preaching in this distracted age.