Eight Seconds. That’s less time than it takes Usain Bolt to dash to the finish line and probably less time than it’s taken you to read these words. Eight short seconds, and yet, if recent studies are anything to go by, then your mind may have already drifted to something else. The research, conducted by Microsoft found that the average human attention span has fallen from twelve seconds to that unremarkable low, which means, if you are interested, that we have now fallen below goldfish with their estimated attention span somewhere in the giddy heights of nine seconds.
In a culture of instantaneous satisfaction, we prize that which brings immediate fulfilment; we want shortcuts and the very best shortcut to fulfilment that our society has to offer is entertainment. If we are tired, bored, grieved, offended, stressed or anything in-between we find instant relief by immersing ourselves in the fantasy world of Hollywood, Spotify, Facebook and the iPhone. The question that faces us as evangelicals with our rich theological heritage and emphasis is this: can we really expect theological teaching to compete with the lights and sounds of our twenty first century entertainment obsessed culture? Or to pose the question someone recently asked of me: ‘Is that stuff still relevant today?’
As you look across the Church today you might think the answer is ‘no’. Many churches and Christians seem theologically anaemic, lacking resilience, depth and root. Much preaching is so desperate to be relevant that it has become utterly deficient in terms of theological truth. And yet Scripture holds us to a higher standard: ‘we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it’ (Heb. 2:1). The call is to go beyond superficiality, to be those who are actively paying attention to God’s Word. If there is a temptation to dumb down truth, to avoid doctrinal teaching in order to become relevant, then the warning of Hebrews 2 rings loud in our ears: to neglect the revelation of God in Scripture and the great salvation that is in Christ leads to one outcome: drift and futility. In other words the quest for relevance above all else will lead to a powerless, empty irrelevance.
Living then in a culture in which teaching doctrine is difficult and yet which, paradoxically, needs biblical theology more than ever, how can we do this well? In each of our congregations the answer will be different but here are some general suggestions:
Teach doctrine that is good news
The relevance of the Christian message is not found in its cultural compatibility but in its central figure: the infinite Word who took on finite flesh. It is in this gracious act of incarnation that the biblical message becomes supremely relevant to all of humanity. Hence the urgency in declaring that ‘in these last days [God] has spoken to us by his Son’ (Heb. 1:2). So, whether we are teaching justification, ecclesiology or creation, let the broader narrative be the story of redemption. Thus, every aspect of the revelation of God in Scripture becomes good news in Christ — providence, for example, becomes the good news that God is working all things for good in the lives of his people. The doctrine of the future becomes the good news that Christ will return and present the church to himself in splendour, and so on. It is this focus on the grace of God that will keep us from getting lost in abstract ideas and lead us to the throne of God.
Teach doctrine that changes lives
Sometimes we make a very clear distinction between teaching and preaching. We may think of teaching as something dry, academic and indicative, whereas we think of preaching as being warm, passionate and leading more to the imperative. Maybe there is some truth in those impressions and yet we are left with a false dichotomy, the idea that teaching is opposite to preaching; one is suitable for our entertainment-obsessed, feelings-led culture; the other is not. However, if our doctrinal teaching is always delivered within the narrative of gospel, surely it must always lead to preaching Christ. How can we speak of Christian doctrine without also speaking of the call to believe it and to respond to it?
The superb little book The Good God by Mike Reeves illustrates the point well. A chapter of Trinitarian theology concludes by enthusing: ‘the triune God is a God we can heartily enjoy’ (p.44). In other words, gospel-centred doctrine leads to a call to delight in God; teaching leads to preaching. We must teach with a clear conviction that biblical doctrine changes minds, hearts and lives.
Communicate doctrine well
The call upon those who teach truth is primarily to faithfulness. Paul called Timothy to ‘preach the word’, not to be a creative communicator, a slick presenter or a PowerPoint whizz. Yet sometimes the primacy of that call makes us sloppy communicators and uncreative messengers. We presume that because communication is not crucial it is therefore not important. As teachers, we must strive to ensure that we are engaging, comprehensible and clear and that we are, to use a modern buzzword, lifelong learners in this gift that God has committed to us.
Teach the dissatisfying deceit of entertainment
For many Christians media, technology and entertainment function as idols. An evening of TV and Facebook seems like an easy fix for the stress of life and yet whilst promising joy, rest and escape it under-delivers woefully. We must emphasise that the Christian path to joy is one of counting ‘everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus’ (Phil. 3:8). The joy and preciousness of knowing Christ is immeasurable; the joy of entertainment is passing. When we encourage each other to choose Christ over entertainment we choose the better portion that cannot fail. Reading and learning may seem like a costly option compared to sitting back and watching TV, yet they lead us to a deeper knowledge of Christ which is invaluable.
Teach doctrine that leads to wonder
The Church is not an academic institution. Our calling is not simply to educate the mind. In God the Father, God the Son, Martyn Lloyd-Jones urges us to study the doctrines of the Bible in order that we ‘may draw nearer to God in worship, praise, and adoration, because we have seen…the glory of our wondrous God’. During an age in which goldfish have a longer attention span than people we must teach biblical theology in order to elevate the gaze of God’s people to that which is infinitely more worthy than all the distractions of the goldfish bowl of life. It is the truth of Scripture alone that will lead to a deeper knowledge of God and will fix our gaze upon the God of boundless grace and unparalleled glory.