A Case for Shorter Sermons

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.)

photo credit: ucumari via photopin cc




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11 Comments

  • April 30, 2014

    Kelly J Youngblood

    I worked at a college where our chapel services were 20 minutes, total. That meant the homily had to be between 5-8 minutes long. I think in all the time I worked there, I only remember 1-2 people going over the time limit. Looking back at the last homily I did before I moved, my word count for that length was 1500 words.

    I think the reason why many feel they have to be long in order to get in all the teaching is because many adults will not read/study on their own and will not go to a Sunday school class (which are usually about application anyway, not learning about the Bible).

  • May 5, 2014

    Brian Metzger

    Perhaps a little longer prep and study would have led you to discover that the “Sermon on the Mount” isn’t a transcription. You might have even noticed that John seemed convinced that there wasn’t enough writing material in the world to get down everything Jesus said and did. Makes you go, hmmmmm. I agree that editing is vital but a sermon isn’t a speech unless you’re doing it wrong. Brevity can have far more impact than a long winded message. But that truth doesn’t prove there is something wrong with a 40 minute message. How fast can you read Hebrews?

    • July 7, 2014

      blogofmanly

      remind me not to come to your church

      • July 8, 2014

        Darrell

        Wow, that was chippy. One thing often ignored in these discussions comparing speeches to sermons is that hopefully, sermons are prepared and delivered and heard with the help and power of the Holy Spirit. He makes a difference, does he not?

        • July 8, 2014

          blogofmanly

          Let’s play “which is chipper!!!!!”

          Option 1: “Perhaps a little longer prep and study would have led you to discover that the “Sermon on the Mount” isn’t a transcription.”
          Option 2: “remind me not to come to your church”
          I almost never win this game, so my hopes aren’t high.
          Just because God can make a donkey sing doesn’t mean we need to break out the donkeys in Sunday service. If your pastor wants to be a braying, long-winded ass let him. I don’t have time or inclination to listen to a bunch of filler. Most sermons could be completed in 3 – 5 minutes if you extract all the actual meat. So, why the hell do I have to sit still, shut up and listen while some guy bloviates for 10 times longer than he needs to?

          • July 31, 2014

            Darrell

            Good point. You were both being chippy. So was I. Bloviates!

    • August 16, 2014

      Stephen Williams

      although your reply reads a little perhaps arrogant I agree with your content and was myself surprised that Jye used that as an argument for a legitimate point.

  • […] Skye Jethani thinks your pastor’s sermon last Sunday might have run a bit long. […]

  • July 7, 2014

    Doug Johnson

    A Church is like a restaurant: You go to get fed and if the food is good, no one cares about the accommodations or music or servers or how long the meal took. What exactly are we there for?

  • July 7, 2014

    Brett Tipton

    Let’s imagine another scenario. Say your pontificating examiner had quit spending 30 hours a week on sermon preparation and 45 minutes each week lecturing his congregants. Instead, what if he spent that 30 hours and 45 minutes teaching them to study the Bible on their own? If we want to overcome Biblical illiteracy then people must learn to study on their own.

  • August 16, 2014

    Stephen Williams

    Of course in terms of examples from scripture I think its quite funny that a guy falls asleep and falls from a height and becomes the centre of the occasion in one of Pauls sermons in Acts 20:7-12…

    Read and weep….with the recognition of laughter 🙂

    “We met on Sunday to worship and celebrate the Master’s Supper. Paul addressed the congregation. Our plan was to leave first thing in the morning, but Paul talked on, way past midnight. We were meeting in a well-lighted upper room. A young man named Eutychus was sitting in an open window. As Paul went on and on, Eutychus fell sound asleep and toppled out the third-story window. When they picked him up, he was dead.
    10–12 Paul went down, stretched himself on him, and hugged him hard. “No more crying,” he said. “There’s life in him yet.”

    BUT WAIT THERE’S MORE 🙂

    Then Paul got up and served the Master’s Supper…. And went on telling stories of the faith until dawn!…. On that note, they left—Paul going one way, the congregation another, leading the boy off alive, and full of life themselves.” Peterson, E. H. (2005). The Message