Sunday, June 26, 2011

Sermon Length

There is a great deal going on today about sermon length, and the discussions are going along the same lines as most Lutheran discussions go -- "If you don't agree with me, you're wrong."

Some are throwing out there that there is absolutely no reason for a sermon that goes longer than 10-12 minutes and what goes unsaid -- or worse, IS actually said, is that those who go over are poor preachers or poor pastors....and definitely NOT as good as the short sermon guy.

When reasons are given for why short sermons are best they tend to follow this:

1. People have had their attention spans trained by t.v. They can't really focus on a longer sermon because most shows are 30 minutes.

However, that's still a lot longer than 10-12 minutes. And you can say "but commercial breaks divide it up." But with the advent of DVRs, most people don't change channels or go to the restroom during commercials. They watch the whole thing and fast forward through the commercials. Not only that, the most popular shows are not 1/2 an hour, they are a full hour. People also have no problem watching movies that are longer than that. And really, the GREAT attention span trainer, the classroom, say the college lecture hall, goes 50 minutes.

What I also find ironic in this statement, is the very men who throw this one out frequently would completely BALK at having any other aspect of our superficial culture dictate how their service should be. They wouldn't dumb down the liturgy if people didn't understand it. They would instead say they need to be taught about it or get used to it.

2. There is a need to keep the service short -- to an hour.

I'm sorry, I used to be non-denominational, and while I didn't get a proper law-gospel sermon every week -- sometimes it was a lot of law, sometimes it was a lot of gospel, It wasn't unusual for the service to be over 2 hours long, and the sermon itself to be an hour or more. And we WANTED to hear it, to get all that we could out of it. And lest you say that's because it was "entertainment" theology, many strongly liturgical Orthodox services go two hours as well.

Maybe we need to focus on why people don't want to hear more than ten minutes of the very food of their faith, and help them to grow in this desire to hear God's Word through continued preaching and prayer.

But the reality is the criteria of a 10-12 minute sermon is nowhere in the Bible. In fact, there are plenty of examples of sermons going on for hours and hours. There is nothing in the Early Church tradition that lays this out as an ideal. And while we hear it proclaimed that "faith comes by hearing" there is nowhere that says the Holy Spirit works most efficiently in 10-12 minutes.

God called particular men to care for His flock, just as He called certain men to be prophets and apostles. And in the same way that God worked through these men in ways that were completely unique to their personalities, He still does that with pastors. All pastors should strive to be in the Word and continue to grow in their preaching. But this may not mean shorter. It should always mean staying truer to the text. And to a large extent, they should follow their own inclinations in preaching the text in the manner that allows them to feed their flock in the best way they know how. This may take 10 minutes, this may take 20. It used to not be unheard of for it to take far longer.

Each pastor has charge of his own flock. They know what their flock can handle, and they know what their flock is striving with. For another pastor or layman to judge his worth based on how short his sermon is, or whether he wears a chasuble or not, or a myriad of other things that have NOTHING to do with the proclaiming of the Gospel is shallow, simplistic, sinful, and downright nosy. It certainly is not following the 8th Commandment. It's like looking at your friend's wife's butt and comparing it to yours to be reassured that your wife is better. Your wife is simply better because she is the wife God gave you, and you have no business looking, and no business judging on her worth on the basis of her derriere. Judging a sermon or a preacher or a congregation by the timer is akin to that.

Are you truly caring for your own flock so efficiently that you have all this time to worry about other people's flocks on issues that the Bible and our confessions say nothing about?

There are many good sermons that are 8-10 minutes long. There are more bad ones. There are many excellent sermons that are longer. There are also many horrid ones. But the Holy Spirit promises to work through the preaching of the Word, and He doesn't limit himself to a timer.


Leigh said...

Totally agree with you. I think each pastor needs to decide the appropriate length for his sermon. Now there's something to be said for practicing your crafts--getting up there and rambling from tangent to tangent isn't the best way to communicate on any subject--but I think each preacher needs to simply preach each sermon as God leads him--for as ever long as God leads him.

Untamed Shrew said...

Amen. His word does not return empty. (That's a double entendre. The preached word accomplishes that which God would have it do, and Christ, the Word incarnate, does not return empty when He sets out to find a lost sheep.)

Sarah Beth said...

I think a sermon should be at least 30 minutes, 30 minutes out of an entire week is not too much to ask! If your parishioners can't sit through a sermon more than 10 minutes maybe they should reexamine their motives for going to church.
In my church there is a bulletin insert with fill in the blank sermon notes so we don't miss any of the points our pastor is making, it really helps keep me engaged throughout the entire sermon.

Hannah said...

Sarah, I like that idea! Sermon notes aren't just for pre-confirmands anymore. :)

Gunfighter said...

" If your parishioners can't sit through a sermon more than 10 minutes maybe they should reexamine their motives for going to church."

Well-said. Sometimes 8 minutes is just enough, sometimes 30 minutes isn't enough.

Anonymous said...

"If your parishioners can't sit through a sermon more than 10 minutes maybe they should reexamine their motives for going to church."

It's not really fair to make a blanket statement like that. First of all, a lot of kids are not going to be able to sit still that long. Second, there are other reasons people might struggle. I have ADHD. Does that make me a bad Christian?

I really think that someone who is good at organizing thoughts and delivering a well thought out, non-rambly, non-repetitious sermon can consistently give 10-15 minute sermons. Any longer, and you're either repeating information, or you're trying to cover too much ground in one sermon, at which point you run into the problem of hitting the congregation's saturation point. If you want them to retain as much as possible, keep it simple.

I have enjoyed long sermons before. I remember that. I do not, however, remember them. I do remember a lot more from the short, well organized ones. That's really the key, I think: organization.