“You’ve got ten minutes!”: learning how to preach in the church of Apple

On September 12, Apple hosted its latest product launch with the tagline “Gather round”, at which they introduced the new Apple Watch Series 4, and the next generation iPhones.

The 1,000-seat Steve Jobs Theater in the Apple Park campus was packed for the 2-hour event.

But the intriguing thing about Apple Events is that no video or speaker ever takes more than 10 minutes at a time.

At the September 12 event, Apple CEO Tim Cook kicked things off with a five-minute update on sales and products and introduced the subjects of the day: the Apple Watch and new iPhones.

Then Apple COO Jeff Williams came on stage and talked for two minutes about the new Apple Watch and they played a video.

Williams then presented a scripted ten-minute presentation (maybe a little longer because he was regularly interrupted by applause) before introducing the president of the American Heart Association who spoke for two minutes about the new health feature on the Apple Watch.

Back comes Jeff Williams with another four-minute presentation and another video, this one of Apple’s chief designer, Jony Ive speaking for two minutes about the watch.

Tim Cook returned to introduce marketing chief Phil Schiller who took over the iPhone portion of the presentation.

And so it goes.

Ten speakers.  And no one spoke for more than 10 minutes.

 

Why?

Science.

According to University of Washington Medical School molecular biologist John Medina, our brains have a built-in stopwatch that ends at around 10 minutes. And he cites peer-reviewed studies to prove it.

“The brain seems to be making choices according to some stubborn timing pattern, undoubtedly influenced by both culture and gene,” he says. “This fact suggests a teaching and business imperative: find a way to arouse and then hold somebody’s attention for a specific period of time.”

This will be heartbreaking to preachers who are currently preparing their 30-minute sermon for this Sunday.

So should Protestant clergy give up on the sermon and just present short 10-minute homilies? Isn’t that just giving in to culture? Shouldn’t we be “training” our congregations to listen to Bible teaching for longer? Not necessarily. Recognizing your church’s inability to sustain undivided attention for more than ten minutes doesn’t mean ditching the sermon. Instead of asking your congregation to follow your line of argument for 20 to 25 minutes, why not break your sermons into 10-minute sections or “scenes”?

Everyone loves story and we are more than capable of enjoying a novel or a TV series or a movie for more than ten minutes. After all, the Apple Event I referred to earlier lasted for two hours!

 

But stories are structured in scenes. And scenes don’t last for 30 minutes.

If you analyze the Apple Event you’ll see there was 120 minutes of sustained delivery, full of information and attempts at inspiration. The difference was they chopped the material up into scenes, each presented by different speakers or media. They were telling a story and their story had multiple scene changes and voices.

The scene is the basic building block of story construction. And just as long-form narratives are made up of a number of scenes, so can a sermon. When preparing your next sermon think of the following narrative principles for structuring a sermon like a story:

1. A story is composed of a number of scenes, and all the scenes contribute to the story. After preparing a sermon consider where those scene changes occur.

2. Each scene forms a complete unit. It stands by itself. While all the scenes are needed to understand the theme, direction and context of the story, each scene has its own theme that makes sense by itself. This scene theme can be summarised in a sentence. In other words, each scene brings its own reward, not just setting us up for the next scene.

3. Each scene can have a different form, content and context. There is no common structure for scenes. In fact, this diversity can help aid your listeners’ attention.

4. The story develops and progresses both through the scenes and within each scene. While each scene revolves around a theme, scenes are fluid entities that may not end where they begin.

5. The first scene forms the introduction to the story and the final scene forms the conclusion.

6. The scenes are usually joined by invisible, logical developments that make sense to the listener/viewer/reader. Scenes are sometimes introduced with a transition when the development of the story may not be clear to the audience.

7. Any scene may contain the resolution of the story, but often for the sake of maintaining tension it will be one of the final scenes.

8. The story keeps moving on. There is generally no revision of the story or previous scenes. It is presumed that previous scenes have been absorbed and can be built upon.

9. The story is encapsulated in a summary of the themes of the scenes.

Each scene should be able to be summarised by a sentence. This sentence is the theme around which the scene is centered. It is the heart of the scene and helps hold it together. Any information that does not relate to the summarising sentence should be excluded from the scene. Keep it tight. The scene needs to centre on a single, clear idea.

Also, to reiterate what I said earlier, each scene can be shaped differently and contain a variety of content. There is no normal way to shape a scene. A sermon scene could contain exegesis, explanation, illustration, validation, dialogue, commentary, reflection, or any combination of these in any order. While each scene must have a beginning (commencement) and ending (closure) that separate it from the preceding and following scenes, the shape and content of each scene may vary dramatically.

And, most importantly, don’t allow a scene last longer than ten minutes.

We are a storied culture. Stories define who we are. Apple is telling their story and doing it very well. Preachers need to reshape how they present God’s story in a way that contemporary listeners can hear and understand.

 

 

 

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The views expressed are my own and do not necessarily represent the official views of Morling College or its affiliates and partners.

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5 thoughts on ““You’ve got ten minutes!”: learning how to preach in the church of Apple

  1. I think all of what you said and the U of W research is spot on. Yet I’m not moved much by the information as good as it is. We deal with mystery and Unseen Hands — Apple has it’s Lieutenants does not have Unlimited Power. We have the Holy Spirit who By Himself knows how to hold a listeners ear — Apple has Speakers and Headphones. —You get the point. The only thing Pastors and Apple — and the Industry has in common is that they both Entertain us. Fix that in the Preachers, and this comparison is over.

  2. What is the purpose of a 30-minute sermon?
    Whatever it is I would be surprised if a 30-minute sermon is the best way of achieving that purpose…

    Aside: Just curious, were any of the ten “Apple” speakers non-white and non-male?

  3. Love this article. Thank you! Following the example of the pedagogy of Jesus seems to be a sure-fire way to leverage what we know about brain science and learning. In my teaching, I am seeking to use a variety of tools like Strategic Narrative, Field Expert Interview, Directive Teaching, Demonstration, Brainstorming with the audience, Guided Debrief of a text, Design Analysis, Strategy Development, and Scenario to break up the message into short “chunks” in order to maintain interest and attention. I think the best preachers instinctively do this in their messages. Perhaps if we do analyses of great teaching to see what is actually happening, then we can identify some tools that can help good teachers become great. I also agree with a previous comment from James Small that we do have a dynamic in the church that secular folks don’t have – the anointing, unction, and power of the Holy Spirit in and through the preacher. God does, after all, use the “foolishness of preaching” (I Corinthians 1:18-31) to draw souls to Himself. It’s why a preacher must spend time not only in prep to leverage the neuroscience of learning tools, but in prayer to seek God’s power.

  4. Agreed 100%! Let your creative pet pedagogy loose to use multiple delivery mediums.

    It’s not our culture that’s storied, people are storied. It’s our nature in every culture. Run with it!

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