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Chris Thompson: Does the length of the sermon matter?

Chris Thompson

Christian churches, as a rule, have a long and glorious history of lengthy sermons, often an hour or two long. My suggestion last week that a 20-minute sermon might be an appropriate length drew the ire of some readers. Let’s face it: Our current communications paradigm is one of talking heads and sound bites. Too many Anchorage pastors squander precious sermon minutes with long stories or illustrations, full of emotional appeal, and narcissistic “I” statements with few ties to the chosen subject.

Consider Abraham Lincoln’s ‘Gettysburg Address’. Five variants of his powerful speech exist, with word counts running from 267 to 272. In the brevity of 10 sentences Lincoln brought the nation together. Lincoln’s address takes only two minutes to recite, but the images burned into one’s mind form a lasting impression. Preceding Lincoln that day, famous orator, politician, diplomat, and pastor, Edwin Everett gave a two-hour oration numbering 13,607 words. Everett is now a historical footnote, but every schoolchild in our country is exposed to the ‘Gettysburg Address’.

Dan Bollerud, Julia Seymour, and Martin Eldred, a group of courageous ELCA Lutheran pastors in our community, release a weekly online 10-minute liturgy, true to Lutheran liturgical format, presenting the basic elements of a worship service. (Called 10W, it is available on the Internet at www.10worship.blogspot.com/ or you can have it automatically sent to you weekly by texting 10W to 22828.)

Many famous preachers and theologians consistently deliver excellent, Bible-based sermons in a 20-minute timeframe. Noted pastor, author, and religion educator Barbara Brown Taylor consistently delivers her sermons in 20 minutes or less. She’s delivered many Duke University Chapel sermons in under 20 minutes. Her powerful Feb. 9 sermon this year at Duke Chapel, “The Grace of Good Works,” is inspiring and motivational, and at only 14 minutes in length, a marvel of brevity. (You can find it on YouTube using Google search terms ‘barbara brown taylor duke chapel 2014’.)

Highly sought-after theologian Walter Brueggemann’s sermons often last less than 20 minutes. His Duke Chapel sermons are similarly brief as are Barbara Brown Taylor’s. His December 5, 2010 sermon at Duke Chapel, ‘Continuing Through The Disruptive Conjunction’ is under 20 minutes, and full of Christian power. (You can find it on YouTube using Google search terms ‘walter brueggemann duke chapel 2010’.)

The length of a sermon is not the sole focus of this article, but it’s an element. A sermon should deliver quality content but also depends on whether or not a hearer is open to receive it. Clearly we as hearers bring something to the table. But there are limits. Mark Beeson, Senior Pastor of Granger Community Church, a 5,500-member United Methodist Church in Granger, Indiana quoting his mom says, “The mind can only absorb what the seat can endure.”

However, sermons are the documented reason many attend church. Today’s sermon practice has morphed significantly from Old Testament and apostolic times. In the book “Pagan Christianity”, Frank Viola and George Barna comment on key features of Old Testament preaching and teaching.

• It was participative, accepted interruptions, and addressed current concerns.
• Prophets and priests spoke extemporaneously not delivering regular speeches.
• Preaching was sporadic but allowed audience participation.

Documenting Jesus’ style they note, He didn’t give regular speeches, preached and taught in many different ways considering audience, time, and place. Dialogue was often used.

They further observed New Testament apostolic style embraced many of these same characteristics. Preaching was sporadic, used special occasions to deal with problems, was extemporaneous, and used dialogue. Adherents worshiped in leaderless house churches. Today’s preaching style was basically unknown in early church days.

So what is the purpose of preaching? Basically, it is to explain and apply scripture. 1 Timothy 3:16 says “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (NIV). When is the last time you had a dialogue during a pastoral sermon applying these principles in a New Testament manner? Probably never, because the format of today’s preaching does not allow it. Some pastors are televised and it would interrupt the flow of the process. Some may be recording it for replay so that’s clearly not an option. Mostly today’s preaching is a monologue. A few churches offer texting questions to the pastor. In my personal experience, the tough questions are screened out by screeners.

The Barbara Brown Taylor and Walter Brueggemann sermon examples, while not dialogical, explain and apply scripture in a way that’s clear and understandable, in less than 20 minutes. In the vernacular of our culture, they are “sticky” thoughts. I sincerely desire that readers exercise discernment about preaching, regardless of length, which appeals to a broad spectrum of hearers looking for essential truth. I’m most concerned the millennial demographic has access to preaching that engages. Great Land Christian Church is a church with many millennials and fosters an encouraging format of interaction between hearer and preacher. I like the interactive format between congregant and preacher at Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church. There are others offering congregant engagement in Anchorage, but they are definitely in the minority.

But what I’m hearing in many local churches may not satisfy them.