“Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season;
reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching..”
(2 Timothy 4:2)
This week I posted a question on two different Facebook discussion groups to which I belong, asking about the average length of their (or their pastor’s) sermons. The resulting conversations were interesting, and I thought I would share with you some of my observations.
- Never ask a Pastor’s Discussion Group a question unless you are prepared for a lot of answers. There is an old adage, “never give a pastor a microphone unless you’ve got 20 minutes to spare.” That lesson came home this week. I posted my question about the length of sermons on a Monday morning, and by early that afternoon, I had over 200 responses. My phone, my tablet, and my computer all kept chirping away to let me know I had received a new message. It sounded like a flock of birds had moved into my office.
- Some People really need to Relax. The question I asked was innocent enough, “How long are your sermons?” Most pastors, and many laypeople, responded just saying approximately how long the sermons lasted. Others, however, took the opportunity to hijack the discussion forum into a diatribe about how long (or short) a sermon should be. “If you can’t preach for more than 30 minutes, then perhaps preaching isn’t your gift.” Yes, that was actually said. “If you can’t say it in less than 15 minutes, then it doesn’t need to be said.” That was said, too. Heated arguments erupted over “catering” to the congregation’s attention span or caving to worldly pressures; snarky comments were posted comparing people’s willingness to sit through a 2 hour movie or game and their rejection of worship lasting more than 1 hour. It was disturbing to note the lack of humility and graciousness demonstrated in the conversations. IT’S A FACEBOOK DISCUSSION FOLKS – RELAX!
Now on to the actual question:
- The responses on sermon lengths were vastly different based on the group responding. The first group I asked is a discussion group of rather conservative PCUSA pastors. Sermon times reported there ranged from 15 to 30 minutes, with the average being about 20 to 25 minutes, depending on how much is scheduled for the worship service that day (baptism, communion, etc.).
The other group I asked is not specifically Presbyterian, but is a group of Reformed (Baptist, Presbyterian, etc.) believers from all over the US, pastors and layman alike. The overwhelming response from this group reported 40 to 50 minute sermons. Their worship services lasted over an hour, with the sermon being the central part of the service.
Just to share where I come in – my sermons, on the average, are about 18 to 22 minutes long, including the Scripture reading and prayers. I don’t intentionally time them, but each week I have to take the recording of the sermon, and edit it down for our 15 minute radio broadcast.
- One of my favorite comments was this one:
“When I was a kid, our pastor’s response to people who were chronic complainers, including opinions about sermon length, was this: “Sermonettes make Christianettes.” I guess those folks needed to hear hour long sermons. Anyways, he never caved. I actually listened to him from about 5th grade on. His sermons were shorter than any class I had in school and about the same length as Gilligan’s Island. I was convicted at an early age that if I complained about sermon length, I would sound stupid.”
The overall lesson is this: Preaching should explain and apply the meaning of the Bible. The sermon ought to deliver the truth of God, not give the preacher’s opinion on current events, or pass along the latest self-help ideas. Every sermon should explain the Bible and then apply it to people’s lives.
My preaching may not conclude with an overtly practical application. You will not often hear “because of this, we need to do this.” Rather, my hope is that through the sermon I may show and celebrate in the glory of God revealed to us through His Word, that we might grow in the likeness of Christ together. This may not be immediately practical, but I pray that it is eternally helpful. Whether my preaching takes 15 minutes, or whether it lasts an hour, the Word of God must be read, taught, and applied to our hearts for our salvation and for God’s glory.
“Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing,
but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
(Hebrews 10:25 (NIV)
Last Sunday it finally hit me about half way through the Prayer of Confession during our morning worship service – that feeling, that awareness – “I am here to worship.” That’s right, it took me a good twenty minutes before I was really present and accounted for in the worship service.
Saturday had kind of gotten away from me. It began with a nice long run (preparation for a marathon), then a funeral, followed by a birthday party for a young church member, topped off with pizza and a movie with the boys that evening. When Sunday morning came around I found myself totally unprepared for worship – and I’m the Preacher. Sure, I had put together the bulletin, planed the scripture readings and prayers, the sermon was all ready to go, but my heart was about a mile away. Not good, not good at all.
In thinking about this, I realize that I’m probably not the only one who’s ever felt this way. Hoping to help myself as much as I help you, here are a few things to consider to help you prepare your hearts and minds for worship.
- Worship through the week. As mentioned a couple of weeks ago in church, when the church gathers for worship it ought to be merely the continuation of what the church had been doing already when scattered. Your home is a micro-church. Deuteronomy tells us that we are to be teaching our faith to our children “when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up” (Deut 6:7). No children? Then teach and share the Word of God with your spouse. No spouse? Then commit yourself to the daily study of the word of God and coming before Him in prayer and devotion. Nothing nurtures the spirit of corporate worship than when members of the body are thriving in daily worship. If worship seems dry and boring to you, ask yourself, “What is the state of my private devotion?” I would bet the two are intimately connected.
- Get a good night’s sleep the night before church. I know this sounds simple and pedantic – and it is. But seriously, plan ahead. If you desire to truly enjoy the close communion of God that is offered in worship each Sunday morning, you can’t expect to find it when you’re operating on only a couple hours of sleep. I know that many work late on Saturday night and can’t help their schedule. I know that some suffer from sleep conditions that prevent them from getting a good night’s rest. But closing down the party on Saturday night doesn’t put your heart, mind, or body, in the right condition for worship on Sunday morning. Plan ahead; lay out the kid’s clothes, make sure you know where your Bible is, get a good night’s sleep, and wake up early enough on Sunday morning so that you’re not rushing to church.
- Read the scripture lesson before coming to church. Each week in this Midweek Message there is a section called, “Scripture for Sunday.” There you will find the Scripture that will be read in Worship. We give you this with the hopeful expectation that you will read it before coming to worship and begin to meditate upon the text yourself. Other churches might use the Lectionary, and those calendars are available in numerous places, including online, so you can read ahead and be prepared. Back in school, when you were given a reading assignment and wanted to have an informed part of the discussion, you read and prepared. Why should worship be any different? Read ahead. Turn to a commentary or even the cross-reference notes in your Bible. Start asking questions of the text; what’s being said, what does it mean, how does it shape me? In doing these small steps, you will find that the sermons will take on much more meaning and significance for you.
- Come with a prayerful expectation of meeting God in worship. What is your general attitude when coming to church? Are you already dreading having to wrestle the kids in that small pew for an hour? Worried that you might have to shake hands with that guy who really upset you last week? Or do you come hoping for, and expecting, to have an encounter with the living and loving God? If you were to take a snapshot of most people in worship on a Sunday morning, the best way to describe them would be: bored. That doesn’t mean that we need to make worship more entertaining – worship is the service of God at the pleasure of God for the benefit of all men, entertainment is the service man at the pleasure of men for the benefit of the entertainer. The answer to our attitude toward worship is not to change our worship, but to radically alter our expectations of worship. When you gather on a Sunday morning, you are coming to meet the Living Christ. You are in the presence of His life-giving Spirit, coming in His heart-searching Word. You are worshiping God the Father Almighty. Are you ready to meet your God?
- Actively participate in worship, singing, praying, and listening. Worship is not a spectator sport. You don’t get to sit back and watch it all happen. It involved active participation. You are invited to sing, and even if you don’t sing, you can thoughtfully read through the words of the hymns, hymns which teach our faith and instill hope and assurance in the promises of God. You are invited to pray, through responsive prayers, and even as the Pastor is praying for the people, you can offer your own prayers, or even echo the prayer being said. You are invited to meditate upon the Word. When the scripture lesson has been read, don’t shut your Bible, but actively listen to the sermon, pray through the sermon, take notes on the sermon, and keep coming back to your open Bible and ask that the Spirit will continue to teach and guide you.
Richard Baxter, in his “Directions for Profitably Hearing the Word Preached,” wrote:
“Cast not all upon the minister, as those that will go no further than they are carried as by force… You have work to do as well as the preacher, and should all the time be as busy as he… you must open your mouths, and digest it, for another cannot digest it for you… therefore be all the while at work, and abhor an idle heart in hearing, as well as an idle minister.”
This list is by no means exhaustive, but it is a start. If you have other suggestions for preparing for our corporate worship, I’d love to hear them.
Until we gather again in worship, Grace and Peace be with you,