In the last church I served I often preached for 45 minutes. One time when I fell short of that mark a dear brother encouraged me to “give us a little more.” From that point onward, I frequently did.
Now just for the record, I’m not against 45 minute sermons. I’m not against them, any more than I’m against a 60 minute preach; or one that’s done and dusted in 20 flat. Despite what people tell you there isn’t a rule about sermon length.
What needs to be applied is wisdom – something that is always more complicated than law. There are a nexus of considerations (the cultural context, the preacher’s ability, the passage – to name but a few) that may be factors in deciding what duration might be edifying.
But let me come totally clean. Since returning to Glasgow, I’ve reduced my time in the pulpit. I preach for around 30 minutes. OK, sometimes it’s more like 35 (I’m verbose), but I do try to manage it.
Now depending on your perspective, that either sounds painfully long or restrictively short. I can say with some confidence, that there is a desire in our church to hear God’s Word. But I also think we value preachers getting to the point.
Not waffling is seen as a virtue. Tangents are seen as a vice. Overwhelming the listener with verbosity is not the goal of regular preaching.
So how have I (and the church?) benefitted from me preaching shorter sermons?
Less intrusive intros
Back in days gone by, I could have spent 5 to 7 minutes on an intro. These grand sermon entrances took oodles of time to construct. They were the most time consuming part of my sermon prep, yet they arguably added little to my message.
In some cases, they may have even been a distraction. (Do extended intros perhaps subtly give the impression that there is something more interesting to say than what is in the text?). Though I still see the value of introductions, I now follow ‘the one paragraph or two’ rule before getting to the sermon body. Intros should introduce, not intrude upon the message!
Commentating less, summarising more
Some of my past sermons probably sounded like a verbal commentary. Though I’ve never preached ‘verse by verse’, I’ve often been explanation heavy. The background would need to be unpacked. The details would have to be analysed so that we would know as much about the passage as humanly possible.
Of course I still believe that context matters, and I am sold on examining some of the details in the text. But having less time to preach has forced me to prioritise. And I’m learning from experience that not everything needs to be explained. Nor is everything equally important. In fact, the big truths of a passage can sometimes be lost in our comprehensive commentary!
Because of the shortage of time there is little scope for excurses into controversy. Don’t get me wrong: I sometimes take 5 minutes on a difficult matter. If the issue is important enough, I will lay out different interpretive views and then explain my own. But with many bible passages this is just not possible. When recently I preached on Revelation 11 I found that almost every verse was disputed! You can’t in 30 minutes get into the thick of every issue.
The upside, however, is that sermons don’t get stuck in an interpretive quagmire. At the end of the day we are preaching passages, not debating them. If I want to say more about an issue, I may encourage people to ask me questions afterwards. I might recommend a book or maybe write a blog post!
You’d assume that preaching for longer would guarantee more sermon application. But this isn’t always the case. I actually reckon I’m taking more time these days in showing the passages’ significance. Better summary and selectivity leaves more space for the ‘so what’ question.
As I recently listened to some of my favourite bible teachers, I was surprised by how much time they spent applying. Part of the blessing of gifted preachers is that they explain things concisely. They leave enough space to show the relevance of the text. Application, paradoxically, is something that shorter sermons may help us do better.Tweet