Preach better, not shorter

3 quick thoughts on long sermons.

And he read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday… They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading. 
(Nehemiah 8:3,8)

I wasn’t there to hear the Sydney Anglican Synod debate on short sermons. I think Toby Neal is spot on in his comments. Let me add my 2 cents.

1. Anglicans train to preach shorter. Pentecostals train to preach ‘better’.

When I say ‘better’, I mean of course communication style, not necessarily content. I think Pentecostals put a higher value on this, and consequently they are (often) better communicators.

But if we are serious about doing faithful expositions, effective apologetics, interesting illustrations, and rich, detailed, world-view changing application… it is simply impossible to do all of those things in 20 minutes.

And why would we want to?

We have a big book to preach with lots of content. Our congregations are bombarded with Satan’s messages through the media-saturated culture we live in. Since there is so much to communicate, shouldn’t we be trained in how to communicate more effectively?

I’m not talking about how to pack a sermon with filler and fluff.

I’m talking about good introductions and effective stage presence and ‘salty language’ that makes you want to listen. I’m talking about vocal register and prosody and all the things that make Michelle Obama a captivating speaker.

At Moore College I have been told that it is a ‘good discipline’ to learn how to preach a sermon in 20 minutes. And that might be true. But it puts the emphasis in the wrong place.

The goal is not to be quick. The goal is to hold people’s attention long enough to do all the things a sermon can and should do. We should be taught how to be better communicators, not how to cut back our dry material to a managable dose.

Yes, every person needs to know their own limitations. If you cannot be engaging at least be quick. But how much better to be engaging! That is what Moore College should be teaching us.

To be fair, I actually think Moore College is trying to teach us that. There has been some good stuff, actually. But I would be happy to have more of it, and I’d be happy to hear the phrase ’20 minutes’ a lot less!

2. Our 12 year olds can handle more than 20 minutes!

I don’t get it when I hear that adults can’t handle more than 20 minutes. Because our teenagers regularly handle way more than that.

Last night’s talk to years 7–9 went for 27 minutes. Not 1 person complained. In fact, 12 year olds commented that it was great. They were even able to recall the 3 points. I know this because we gave out chocolate to the people who could repeat them.

Our year 10–12 teenagers regularly hear 30+ minute talks at youth group, and 50 of them come to the Sunday Night service where 45–55 minute sermons are the norm. Let me repeat: 50 teenagers, ranging from 14–18 years old, voluntarily come to hear a 50 minute talk practically every week.

On camps our year 7s sit through 35 minute talks, once even a 50 minute talk. I remember a conversation with the year 7s afterwards. “Was that too long?” I asked. “No, we loved it!”

Now, not all our preachers are encouraged to preach that long. But we put a high value on communicating well, and it pays dividends.

So if teenagers can do it, I’m certain adults can too.

3. I’m not worried if people ‘forget’ 80% of it

Statistics on how much information people can ‘remember’ after a talk never bother me. Not one bit.

There’s 2 sorts of learning. There’s the learning you can repeat back. And then there’s the learning that goes in deep, and you may not even realise has occurred.

My wife and I chat about the sermon on the drive home from church, and we often struggle to ‘remember’ much in detail. But during a conversation later in the week, something from the sermon will bubble to the surface. When making a decision, we will realise that we are using the categories and assumptions from sermons we can’t even remember.

When we hear false teaching, suddenly we realise we know it is wrong and can explain why. We’d forgotten all about that part of the sermon. Well, actually, it turns out we hadn’t forgotten!

It seems more went in than we realise. Actually, we came out of those sermons with a lot of our intuitions re-arranged and assumptions changed. We have accumulated that innate knowledge that you rarely put into words, and yet it is there under the surface for when you need it.

I think most learning is like that.

So I’m never discouraged if someone can’t repeat back every sub-point word-for-word. More goes in than we think. Having said that, it doesn’t hurt to try to make it more memorable.

So… How to really save Eutychus

I haven’t read the book Saving Eutychus. But here’s what I know. Paul desperately wanted to save Eutychus, and he didn’t do it through a 20 minute sermonette.

“Sermonettes produce Christianettes”, as someone once said.

We preach into a very Biblically illiterate culture, breathing in a very distorted world-view. Our people do not need a little pep talk on ‘Jesus loves you so avoid sin x this week.’ We need faithful expositions, effective apologetics, interesting illustrations, and rich, detailed application that transforms world-views.

And to do that, we need to preach better, not shorter.

On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul talked with them, intending to depart on the next day, and he prolonged his speech until midnight. There were many lamps in the upper room where we were gathered. And a young man named Eutychus, sitting at the window, sank into a deep sleep as Paul talked still longer. And being overcome by sleep, he fell down from the third story and was taken up dead. (Acts 20:7–9)

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P.S. Involved in this discussion is service length. As Michael Jensen says, “I think the problem is not simply the length of sermons, it’s the length of services.” You can’t preach for 45 minutes in a 1 hour service. I think the thoughts expressed above apply equally to services as a whole. Generally speaking, our goal shouldn’t be shorter, it should be better. I know Mark Driscoll is hardly in vogue at the moment, but he was on the money when he said something like ‘People would rather you use their time well for two hours than waste it for one.’ When I go to the beach, I make sure I go long enough to make it worth the drive. Once you have gotten the kids in the car, driven 20 minutes to get there and 20 minutes home, you might as well have a decent length church service to make it all worth it.

UPDATE — this article addresses a crucial additional aspect: our hearts as listeners.