A new Internet Monk series examining the basics of good preaching by listening to common criticisms.
I’ve been preaching for…well…longer than a lot of you have been on earth. Thirty-four years ago next month I preached my first sermon, and I’ve been at it ever since. I currently preach sixteen times a month, and I love it. I figured out a long time ago that preaching was probably the one thing I do competently enough that God keeps me around.
I also listen to a lot of preaching. Part of that is a consequence of my vocation as chaplain at a Christian school with daily chapel and lots of visiting groups. Some of it is simply my own interest in preaching. I listen to everyone from Osteen to Piper to Keller to Driscoll regularly. I try to pay attention to good communicators in the pulpit from various traditions.
I have favorites. Paul Simpson Duke. Ravi Zacharias. Tim Keller. John Sartelle. Barbara Brown Taylor. Will Willimon. Not all my favorites do things the way I do them, and I am not an imitator of preachers. My influences are sometimes conscious in my preparation, and other times I am simply inspired by their devotion to the calling.
In this series of posts I will be examining the sermon as it is currently done in evangelicalism. My method will be a bit backwards. I am going to examine the most frequent criticisms of sermons- something I hear all the time from my peers and student listeners- and see if there is truth in the criticisms.
I will call this series “What’s Wrong With The Sermon?” I invite, as always, your feedback.
1. The sermon was too long.
Well…you have to admit that you haven’t heard someone say the sermon was too short lately
I discovered a long time ago that my audience at the OBI chapel is well aware of the tendency of preachers to go on and on and on. I appreciate the fact that, in 14+ years of preaching at our school, I have, with their help, honed my sermons down from the 40+ minutes that comes naturally to me to 20-25 minutes. I think it has made me a much better preacher.
But what about the criticism itself? How long should a sermon be?
Like most things related to preaching, scripture really doesn’t help us much. Paul preached at least one person to death, and it is hard to imagine that, if the Sermon on the Mount really was a sermon, Jesus could have done it in less than an hour. Other Biblical sermons seem very short. “Yet forty days, and Ninevah shall be destroyed.” Or “Today, this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
Studies in communication remind us that the average person has an attention span well less than 20 minutes. My audience of students probably has half that, and considering a bunch of them have an ADD/ADHD diagnosis, I feel the pressure to say something before the ten minute bell. Plus, I’m the last thing before lunch. Sort of like giving a presentation to the bull just before the gate opens.
My Reformed friends tend to believe that the Puritans had the right idea, with sermons in the 1-2 hour range proving one has taken the inerrant Word of God seriously. Spurgeon’s sermons, unedited, are usually in the range of an hour. John Macarthur seems to handle his messages in just under an hour, and Mark Dever is the same.
Reformed preachers tend to be exegetical in the pulpit, with much attention paid to every word, phrase and grammatical turn. The Reformers are cited as the Fathers of this sort of preaching, and those who stand in their shadow are adamant that if you can’t tough it out for an hour, you may not really believe in the truthfulness and centrality of the Word.
Preachers who are more involved with the “spiritual birth” of the sermon in the pulpit than in the study, such as Baptist revivalists or Pentecostals, usually preach for 45 minutes to an hour plus. This is pragmatic, however, as it may take a while for the Spirit to really get moving. Invitationalists of every sort need a generous amount of time to persuade listeners to make some kind of public response. Questioning the length of these sermons is tantamount to saying God doesn’t know what he is doing.
Mainline Protestants vary more widely in the length of sermons. The more a church gives serious attention to liturgy and the Eucharist, the less time will typically be given to the sermon. There is clearly a sacramental aspect to the sermon in evangelicalism, and that sacramental sense is larger and more diffused in the “higher” forms of liturgy.
There is little exegesis in the pulpit of most mainline preachers, though many of these preachers are expert students of the Word. The emphasis is more on the practical application of the text, and generally much less is attempted in the way of building systematic theology from the text. The applications may sometimes, as a result, seem unhinged from the context and unnaturally “hinged” to the bumper of the latest political or social cause.
So one might find an evangelical Methodist preacher in a rural area preaching for 40 minutes, while a high church Methodist in an urban area would preach for 20. Lectionary preachers tend to be shorter, and expository, “series” preachers tend to be longer.
Does education affect sermon length? I am tempted to say that the uneducated mountain preachers around me preach very long sermons, but many educated preachers do as well. I would say that education has the potential to make a preacher more aware of what good communication should be, while a lack of education may leave a preacher with the unquestioned assumptions of his own context and tradition.
Has technology affected the length of sermons? I think so. The powerpoint/dvd using preachers that I am hearing are much more casual and conversational in presentation, and that makes for longer sermons. I contend that these tools have, on the whole, made preaching worse, even if they have made the presentations more “interesting” to audiences shaped by television. Add to this the tendency of contemporary preachers to use rambling personal anecdotes, object lessons and humorous “breaks” to prepare for serious applications, and you have the 45-minute sermon that really doesn’t say a lot once its done.
Obviously, the length of sermons is highly variable. There is no simple answer to the question, “How long should a sermon be?” Still, I do have some convictions.
A. A sermon ought to move rapidly enough that one doesn’t need an hour to get around to saying something worthwhile. Gain a sense of the movement of a sermon in a short period of time. Be able to “feel” it. Become confident that you can “feel” five minutes passing. In the country, we call preachers with no sense of time “dawdlers.” A sermon that goes somewhere at a decent clip is almost always more interesting than a pointless ramble.
B. Exegesis is for the study, not for the pulpit. Do your work before you get there and make the results usable in the most efficient form. Don’t reteach New Testament Intro or Greek just because you are using a verse from First Corinthians. Many sermons exhaust the congregation before the preacher ever gets near the application or message. Start a class if you have the need to say more about background.
C. When time in the study makes a sermon longer, a preacher is still learning. When time in the study begins to make a sermon shorter, the preacher is gaining the skill of communicating. Editing is the mark of maturity. A preacher who knows his own tendencies can restrain them by careful preparation, right down to the length of the sermon.
D. There is a big difference between a well-placed illustration and an open-ended anecdotal story. Of course, some good sermons contain useful personal stories, but I believe a good preacher limits these to instances where the personal story- told in a compact way- is the best illustration. Preaching is not the soap opera of the preacher’s own life. It is the Good News of the Gospel. Excessive amounts of time should not be devoted to “cute” or humorous personal anecdotes, even if people enjoy hearing about the preacher’s personal life. Discipline yourself to talk about Jesus and the Gospel more than anything else.
E. Organizing a sermon tightly will make it more timely and more time conscious. Introduction, three to five major points, conclusion. This is and always will be a good method. At the most, this type of sermon should take 30 minutes. More than that and too much is being done. I have frequently planned one sermon, and turned it into three sermons of 20 minutes each. That’s far more merciful than the original message would have been if delivered. (I once heard a preacher do a sermon on John 9 that would have easily been redone as half a year of preaching.)
F. Twenty minutes is a long time to most people. If it insults our ego that people really don’t want to hear us talk for an hour, we should be more honest. Sometimes we are repeating ourselves, stalling and not getting to the point. No one is rude to tell us to get down to business and not waste their time….or our own, for that matter. We are the heralds of the King!
E. There are issues of ego in many lengthy sermons, but there are also issues of theology. Protestants have typically been critical of the briefer “homilies” in Catholic and mainline churches. But these traditions have worship services that “preach” in many diverse ways that are often not appreciated. Length is length. It isn’t scholarship or proof of intense devotion to inerrancy. And bulletin to many young preachers: your hero may be interesting for an hour- chances are you aren’t. Trim it.
F. Lectionary preachers are very often good models of shorter, better aimed sermons. Listen to some good lectionary preachers and see how they approach a text with the application up front, in mind, and ready for use from almost the beginning of the sermon. Lectionary texts often allow the preacher to be much more economical, and to reach the goal of putting a single scriptural insight into the minds of the hearer. Many evangelical sermons simply try to do to much.
G. Preaching is communication. Length often is an attempt to make up for effectiveness in other areas. The myth is that if I just say enough, I will get through. You don’t preach through walls. People hear, by the Spirit’s work, the walls fall or the listener walks around it. The truth is that if we haven’t said something worthwhile pretty soon, no one cares, and going on and on won’t help that.
Don’t get to the point that Tony Campolo said happened to him in one Black church. He was going on and on, and a large matron of the church stood, waved a handkerchief and began shouting “Help him, Jesus! Help him, Jesus!”
H. Be sure that a sermon isn’t just economical and on-target; be sure it is also relevant. Sermons answering every objection of Arminians are great….for someone…somewhere. The preacher is to serve the Word to the congregation, not force the congregation to swallow the preacher’s version of “the word.”
Bottom line. Say it in 20-25 minutes, and consider using a more pointed, compact and organized approach.