In defense of long(er) sermons
We live in a sound bite culture. Facts and ideas are communicated rapidly and with great brevity, and many lack the patience or self-motivation to put up with long discourses and logical reasoning which requires careful thought and more than a few seconds of time to digest. Due not only to the ubiquitous presence of the television, but nowadays also due to the advent of technologies such as the internet and such things as blogs, text messaging, tweeting, and so forth, attention spans are even shorter, and the ability to maintain interest in a sustained line of reasoning in a public discourse like a sermon is even more challenging. Because of factors like this many homiletics instructors at theological seminaries these days counsel their students to preach shorter sermons with less heavy content and to sprinkle their sermons generously with humorous illustrations and interesting stories to keep their audiences’ attention. Even 20 years ago, when I was a seminarian at an evangelical seminary committed to the full authority of the Bible (including its inerrancy) and thus to expository preaching, the standard wisdom in the institution where I studied (at least in the homiletics department) was that a sermon should be no longer than 20 minutes in length, or else you will lose your audience. In the religious tradition in which I was raised, I recall that the “homily” was usually only about five to seven minutes in length, and it seemed that if it ran a full 10 minutes or more (horrors!) one could sense the squirming in the pews and the impatient glances at the wristwatch. (Of course, given the pathetically moralistic, sentimental, theologically shallow and vacuous drivel that often passed for “preaching” I can understand why congregants did not want to endure more than a few minutes of it.)
While I am not suggesting that we go back to the old Puritan practice of preaching that typically ran over an hour (sometimes two) in length, I want to challenge the assumptions that undergird the defense of short sermons (which I will call “sermonettes”) and to defend the practice of ministers of the Word preaching long(er) sermons. (By “longer” I mean sermons typically 30-40 minutes in length.)
Typical defenses of the short sermon are rooted in pragmatic rather than biblical considerations. For example, the argument goes something like this: “People today just can’t handle long public speeches, and they will tune us out if we go too long; so we’ve got to accomodate them with short, light, inspirational pep talks instead of lengthy sermons heavy on theological or doctrinal content.” But as professing followers of Jesus Christ we should take our direction for church practice and worship from the teachings of Holy Scripture, not from the pragmatics of church marketing. Such defenses of short sermons also typically manifest a man-centered and consumerist view of the preaching event, rather than a biblical, God-centered view. In Scripture the preaching event is not presented as merely a moralistic motivational speech sprinkled with a religious coating. It is not feel-good storytelling designed to entertain the audience or make congregants feel good about themselves (in “I’m OK, you’re OK, the world’s bright and all is well” fashion). Nor, on the opposite extreme, is it meant to be a religious or theological lecture (something that might be more appropriate to the lecture hall of a theological seminary). Rather, in Scripture the preaching event is a Divine confrontation and communication. In faithful preaching God Himself speaks to His people through His ordained servant. In faithful preaching an ordained man of God brings God’s Word of judgment and grace to the people by carefully explaining and applying a text of Scripture to the circumstances of his listeners. Short sermons trivialize the God-centered significance of the preaching event as the Word of God proclaimed and instead tend toward the man-centered notion of the sermon as a merely human discourse.
Short sermons cater to the notion that congregants are there in church simply to “sit and soak” when they listen to a sermon. From this perspective a sermon is suppose to be light and entertaining, the audience is king, and thus if the sermon is not sufficiently interesting or entertaining to the congregants they feel they have the right to “tune out” and let their minds wander wherever they will. (In addition, they often feel they have the right to find another church with a more entertaining preacher if they don’t find their current pastor to be sufficiently entertaining.) But from a Scriptural standpoint all of this misses the boat entirely. Listening to a sermon is not meant to be a passive activity (like plopping down on your couch to watch a movie or going out to hear a stand-up comedian). Faithful preaching requires faithful listening, and faithful listening requires diligent preparation, hard work and sustained concentration. After all, if God Himself is addressing His congregation through the preaching of the Word by the minister of the Word, then to listen carelessly to the sermon (or especially to tune it out entirely) is to show deep irreverence toward God Himself, and thus to take the Lord’s Name in vain (Exod. 20:7). To “tune out” during the preaching event involves not merely tuning out the preacher, but tuning out the God who chooses to address us through preaching. Of course, in writing this I am not trying to defend poor preaching, but rather to suggest that the people of God need to realize that the preaching event is dead serious business where God Himself confronts and communicates to His people through His ordained servants (weak and sinful though those servants may be).
Finally, short sermons do not usually do justice to the Scripture text upon which they are based, nor do they contribute to the maturing and spiritual growth of believers. I could not do justice to the depth and riches of even a short sermon text in a mere five-to-seven minutes. God’s Word requires careful consideration and investigation, and that simply is not possible with brief sermonettes. To give the sense of an interesting saying I read recently: Long(er) sermons produce Christians; sermonettes produce “Christianettes.” In the Christian world today it is common to hear church leaders and lay believers alike bemoan the shallowness, superficiality, and the doctrinal and biblical ignorance so prevalent in the churches today. I am tempted to respond to such complaints by saying, “Well, what do you expect? With your short, vacuous, superficial sermonettes you are doing well in training your members to be vacuous, superficial, biblically ignorant and spiritually immature Christianettes.”
In closing this post I will leave the reader with the Bible-based wisdom of our Shorter Catechism in its answers to question # 89 (“How is the Word made effectual to salvation?”) and # 90 (“How is the Word to be read and heard, that it may become effectual to salvation?”):
“The Spirit of God maketh the reading, but especially the preaching, of the Word, an effectual means of convincing and converting sinners, and of building them up in holiness and comfort, through faith, unto salvation.”
“That the Word may become effectual to salvation, we must attend thereunto with diligence, preparation, and prayer; receive it with faith and love, lay it up in our hearts, and practice it in our lives.”