The most celebrated speech in American history was less than three minutes. Lincoln’s address at Gettysburg was only 269 words, but it captured the history, pain, and aspirations of the nation with soaring eloquence and inspiring imagery.
Many forget that Lincoln’s speech was not the keynote at the ceremony that day. The featured speaker was Edward Everett, a celebrity orator. His address at Gettysburg was 13,607 words, over two hours long–-not unheard of for a gifted speaker in the nineteenth century. After the event Everett wrote to the President saying, “I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”
As a preacher I have to remind myself that brevity can be as effective as it is beautiful. I don’t believe every sermon should be as brief as the Gettysburg Address, but most of mine would benefit from a nip and a tuck. Lincoln’s famous speech makes me wonder if I might accomplish more by speaking less, and whether a great deal of what I cram into a message is more about meeting expectations (mine and the congregation’s) rather than truly benefiting my hearers.
Sometimes I feel stretched by the service order that calls for a 30-minute sermon. What if I only have 12 minutes of meaningful content to share? That’s what the cute illustration about my 6-year-old is for, and if that’s still not enough I can always read a lengthy C.S. Lewis quote or show a clip from the latest Christian-ish movie. The structure of most evangelical worship services can force the pastor to stuff his sermon with indistinguishable bits and pieces simply to fill the space between the enriched bun of sentimental music. Is it nutritional? Hey, McDonalds didn’t reach “billions and billions” by serving health food.
More often we face the inverse problem–we have too much to say and refuse to edit our remarks. In the last year I’ve had to preach sermons on tough topics including the doctrine of the Trinity, the Incarnation, and Genesis 1. One could easily conduct a week-long seminar on each of these and still not cover them sufficiently. For this reason a preacher will take every minutes he is allotted, and very often more, to squeeze in everything he can.
The error pastors make is assuming the Sunday sermon is primarily for teaching content rather than inspiring devotion. Teaching is critical but a large group lecture, as most of us experience on Sunday, is a terrible forum for learning. It’s an ideal setting for preaching, however. Communicating the complexities of trinitarian theology in 15-minutes is impossible, but illuminating a vision of a loving God who invites us to share in the perpetual, eternal relationship that exists between Father, Son, and Spirit–if a preacher can’t accomplish that in 15-minutes he missed his true calling.
The difference between instruction and inspiration is what the crowd experienced in Gettysburg on November 19, 1863. Mr. Everett’s two hour lecture sought to educate the masses about the details of the war. He outlined the sins and conspiracies of the Confederacy and provided arguments for the Union’s tactics. President Lincoln’s far shorter address, on the other hand, didn’t even contain the words “Union,” “Confederate,” or “slavery.” Instead he lifted the sights of the audience to illuminate the ultimate meaning of the war and fill them with the hope that, “This nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.”
Christians must learn the Bible. Jesus commands us to make disciples, teaching them to obey all that he has commanded. It is the assumption that the Sunday sermon is the primary vehicle for this teaching that we need to reexamine. Doing so, however, is not always welcomed by pastors, as I discovered years ago during my ordination process.
“True or False: A biblically faithful sermon can be preached in less than 20 minutes.” This question on my ordination exam caught me off guard. On a test designed to examine my theology was sermon length really important? I quickly marked “True” and moved on.
A few months later I sat for my oral exam before a panel of luminary pastors. “On your written exam,” the first questioner said, “you indicated that a biblically faithful sermon can be preached in less than 20 minutes.”
“Yes, sir,” I responded.
“Young man,” he leaned over the conference table, “our culture is biblically illiterate. Even within the church most people cannot recite the books of the Bible or the Ten Commandments. Our greatest responsibility is to teach them God’s Word. I spend at least 30 hours every week preparing my sermon, and when I enter the pulpit I preach for no less than 45 minutes because our people need to know the Scriptures!…”
I’m giving you just a sample of the pastor’s remarks to me. He delivered them with the same foresight and flair he used in the pulpit–voice inflection, hand gestures, literal Bible pounding. He monologued like a James Bond villain affording me precious time to concoct my response. Finally, after a dozen points and after the pastor felt his passion for the issue had been sufficiently communicated to everyone in attendance, he landed the question.
“So, young man, how on earth can you justify only preaching a 20 minute sermon?”
“Well,” I said, “when I thoughtfully and carefully read the Sermon on the Mount it takes me about 20 minutes.”
He gazed at me across the table. The Grand Inquisitor’s torrent of words had been deflected with the precision of a single sentence. “Good answer,” he said. “Next question.” Yes, brevity can be effective and beautiful.
(In case you’re wondering, this article is 958 words. I’m still learning.)