Focussed attention is our greatest resource
Is your church frantic or focussed?
That’s a question worth asking. That line above was dropped by the excellent American Rabbi David Wolpe, in a recent podcast with Jewish atheist, Eric Weinstein.
We live in a world that is the opposite of focussed attention. Our world is frantic distraction. Rushing here and there, constantly pulled by one image or another, a social media dip in here, a consumer purchase online there; the muscles of our attention spans have atrophied to the point that it is painful to do one thing, or even less than one thing – nothing! – for any length of time.
Focussed attention is a lost art. We have entered a brave new world of frantic distraction, and we don’t quite know where that will lead us.
Well we have an idea where it might lead us. We are anxious, hard to please, given to ennui and restless. There is a rootlessness in our culture. Nothing is tried long enough to see if breaking through the boredom and restlessness to the other side might produce something worthwhile.
And if focussed attention is our greatest resource, then frantic distraction must be our greatest weakness. The lack of attention we give to anything, and the harried, harassed manner in which we give it, has enervated us and hollowed us out. Nothing seems permanent.
So let me ask again, is your church frantic or focussed? Has your church fallen into the frantic mode? It’s easy to do. It’s easy to follow the culture into that frantic distraction.
Worse, it’s easy to baptise that frantic distraction with a bunch of activity that looks like ministry, that appears to be a gospel centred zeal. In other words its easy to think that the solution to the restless, lost cultural angst we see around us, is to follow the culture along the path that got it there in the first place.
What would focussed attention look like for a church? Focussed attention as opposed to frantic distraction?
A church given over to focussed attention wouldn’t change up all that much from year to year. No new vision casting. Few – if any – new programs, no push to get everyone to “sign up” to whatever the latest thing to sign up to is.
My gut tells me that people are over all of that. Well over it. My gut tells me our congregations are looking for their leaders to lead them away from frantic distraction. Someone, anyone, to lead them away from frantic distraction. They may not be able to articulate that, but that is what they desire deep down.
And they may not know that we are tasked, among other things, with leading them towards focussed attention, but when they get wind of how different that is to frantic distraction, they’ll know. And they’ll want it.
A church that was all about focussed attention would probably not be buying into a new program, or that new book-that-promises-to-solve-X, or that new vision that is going to replace that old new vision from some years ago.
A church that was all about focussed attention might just say “You know what, in five years time, if we’re repeating the same liturgical patterns, preaching from the Word, still involved with pastoring our same people – maybe with some gospel additions, and seeking opportunities to serve the community around us with the spoken gospel of Jesus and the enacting love of Jesus, that will be a good thing.”
Why will it be a good thing? Because it will wean people off the spiritually enervating churn of our culture of endless choices and limitless possibilities. It will re-humanise us. And the church is, after all, supposed to be a reflection – broken and marred though it be – of what God does when he re-humans us in the likeness of the true human, the Lord Jesus.
Jesus lived the life of focussed attention. The world around him (“Everyone is looking for you Jesus!” says Peter) would drag him into frantic distraction. But, by the power of the Spirit, Jesus knew that his greatest asset was the focussed attention that would take him all the way to the cross in Jerusalem.
I don’t get the impression that people in our churches know how to do focussed attention all that much. I don’t get the impression that their work lives, social lives, social media lives, and family lives are built upon focussed attention. I don’t get the impression they are given much option anywhere in the world. Or at least nothing in the world invites them away from frantic distraction towards focussed attention.
So maybe that’s our job as church leaders. Maybe it’s the role of the church to launder the frantic distraction out of our people, in order to better equip them for life in a frantic and distracted world. In order to help them to be that non-anxious presence at work; that listening neighbour who has time on their hands; that person who they meet who needs help.
I watch my eleven year old son sitting in church next to his eleven year old friends, and I see them that little bit bored. Good. That’s what I want them to be. That little bit bored. Because as they keep doing this; keep hearing the Word, singing the praises, sharing the communion, trying to keep quiet during the prayers, they will grow that little bit less bored.
They will start to focus their attention, as they mature, on what is being said, who is saying it, and towards Whom it is being said. And that will take time. It will take time that frantic distraction will not allow. But focussed attention is our greatest resource, we have to believe it.
It says a lot about church culture that above anything else we fear “white space”, we fear a lack of noise. It says a lot about church culture that everything has to run smoothly to the point that a gap in the service is viewed as hellish. I expect my eleven year old son to be that little bit bored in church.
I worry that too many forty year old Christians are bored. I worry that the reason they are bored is that their leaders merely assume they have the attention span of an eleven year old, and so maintain the problem.
Can we grow our attention spans? Make them into an actual span again? What practices – or lack of practices – can our churches enact, to rebuild focussed attention in order to equip our people to be like Jesus in a frantic and distracted world?