In response to Rory Shiner’s recent plea for shorter sermons and more careful preparation, we are happy to publish two responses presenting the alternative perspective (Andrew Heard’s response is here)

Rory Shiner’s recent article on preaching provided many (super!) interesting and helpful insights into his own sermon preparation process, as well as a persuasive argument in favour of editing sermon manuscripts. However the article was framed as an argument for why a twenty-five-minute sermon is better than a forty-minute sermon.[1] Rory acknowledged in our back-and-forth on Twitter, that this framing is a bit ‘click baity’, creating the most intriguing pitch for his article. However, he does make a string of strong claims about the relative strengths of the twenty-five-minute sermon, such as: “Forty minutes sermons are too long. Almost always.” I am far from convinced. And it is to these that I would like to respond. [2]

A Storm in a Teacup

First up, however, let’s recognise that we’re not talking about advocates for one-hour sermons and ten-minute sermons. For the most part, the choice of length within the spectrum of twenty-five-to-forty-minutes comes down to a mix of the attributes of the preacher, congregation and context. Many of our opinions on this are shaped by personal experiences and preferences—which is largely fine.

In many ways, I would just like to go through Rory’s article and soften and qualify all his click-baity assertions and leave it at that. But I am still much more on team Long-Sermon rather than team Short-Sermon, in terms of preference and opinion. That will come out in what follows!

Learning is Possible

The first point is that I think Rory is too pessimistic about the possibilities of preparing good sermons quickly. I doubt whether the forty-minute sermon draft Rory has written by Wednesday is “truly terrible”—though maybe he has come to embrace a particular process that works for him, and perhaps others can relate to that. But many preachers should be able to find a third “way to 40” that results in neither a terrible sermon nor an eighty-minute first draft.

Many preachers should be able to find a third ‘way to 40’ that results in neither a terrible sermon nor an eighty-minute first draft.

To this end, we can learn to prepare more swiftly. I’ve heard it said that in his church-based ministry, Don Carson over-prepared his Sunday morning and under-prepared his Sunday evening sermon. That enabled him to practice two valuable and complementary skills. We can develop those same skills too by regularly preparing longer and shorter sermon lengths, with the goal of improving both speed and quality.

Martyn Lloyd-Jones and D. L. Moody provide additional examples of how to facilitate faster preparation without sacrificing quality. Moody would keep a file of illustrations to accompany his sermon outlines—enabling him to preach variations of the same sermon with different illustrations. This highlights a general principle: a certain amount of any sermon is made up of ‘widgets’—illustrations, theological explanations and applications that can be worked up and kept for re-use: cutting down the drafting process without sacrificing quality.

Lloyd-Jones, similarly, spoke of sermon ‘skeletons’: the broad outline of a sermon that could be fleshed out and expanded upon at a later time. The habit of assembling a very serviceable skeleton speeds up the preparation time and builds confidence in extempore explaining, illustrating and applying.

Resist Low Expectations

I worry about Rory’s assumptions that most of us are average preachers who shouldn’t attempt too much and that the ability to preach an engaging forty-minute sermon is exceptional. I’m all in favour of giving over-confident preachers a reality check and freeing struggling preachers from unrealistic standards and expectations. However, there’s something kind of defeatist in telling preachers that they are getting above themselves if they fancy they can preach God’s word with power for any longer than twenty-five minutes.

We can get better. We can learn to prepare more quickly.

We can get better. We can learn to prepare more quickly. We can learn to write more persuasively and communicate more engagingly. It will involve cutting material, yes. It will also involve keeping the material and learning to craft and deliver it more compellingly. Because, honestly, an engaging forty-minute sermon is not that hard. An hour, maybe. But I’ve heard plenty of fairly ordinary, but nevertheless engaging and edifying, forty-minute sermons over the years.[3]

Some Notes on the Benefits of (Slightly) Longer Sermons

Before I finish, allow me to give a few notes on what I see as the value of the forty-minute sermon and a defence of some common criticisms.

First, there is something to be gained from expansion. While longer sermons can be painfully boring and convoluted, shorter sermons can also be underwhelming and unsatisfying. On some difficult topics, they can be almost offensive in their simplicity. A crisply summarised sermon may carry the weight of deep reflection, but the subtleties will pass many listeners by. To convey the full richness of an idea, we often need time to rephrase and illustrate it. We need time to commend a fresh way of thinking; a fresh set of loves; different modes of living. We need to go slow so our listeners can see it and feel it. We need time to address common objections and grey areas, and so on.

Second, especially in a world that is so diverse and often divergent from the Christian faith, the congregation needs help to see how God’s word relates to the ideas, values and practices of the world. Longer sermons assist in deep discipleship. That is one reason why, as Rory says, many of the most life-changing sermons we have heard were probably longer sermons. A longer sermon does more, intellectually and emotionally. If we recognise the impact of these things in a conference context, why not aim for at least some of that on Sunday?

Good preaching repeats, summarises, circles around topics, so that there are various hopping-back-on points.

Third, we need to be a little more realistic in our conversations about attention span and engagement. Very few longer sermons suffer because they do not hold everyone’s attention at every moment—and very few twenty-five-minute sermons do that anyway. Engagement just doesn’t quite work like that; a good sermon shouldn’t be prepared and delivered like that. Good preaching repeats, summarises, circles around topics, so that there are various hopping-back-on points.

Fourth, a sermon is not merely about maximal propositional information transfer. The optimal goal is not that every congregation remembers everything that was said. The educational and spiritual dynamics in a sermon (and a whole church service, and the rhythms of the Christian life) are more holistic and formative.

Fifth, pursuing the Best is not always best. Rory’s article suggests that a sermon should aim to remove all the good-but-unnecessary elements so that the core message has a chance of being heard. That is a noble goal, but it is not as universally desirable as it sounds on first hearing. Rory writes about the crystallised brilliance of Shakespeare’s sonnets, but there is also the ridiculously expansive brilliance of Hamlet. Not every single line or stanza in Hamlet is as brilliant on its own as each line of a sonnet because in long-form literature—as in longer sermons—there’s an important place for the Good as well as the Best.

A Modest Protest

As I said at the beginning, the difference between twenty-five minutes and forty minutes isn’t enormous. Moreover, there are significant strengths and weaknesses to both ends of the spectrum and ways to maximise the strengths and minimise the weaknesses of each. At the very least, this article aims to dial back the twenty-five-is-usually-better rhetoric. I am also arguing that all would-be preachers consider learning (and helping others learn) to preach both slightly longer and shorter sermons.

[1] Rory recognises that a Christian conference is a different context, with different luxuries of preparation and expectations of congregation.

[2] Thankfully Rory doesn’t go too into the realms of communication theory and educational theory. The research, analysis, popularisation and application of these theories have many pitfalls. Theorists, practitioners and everyone else should tread very carefully.

[3] And possibly, possibly, possibly, if someone we have recruited to lead a congregation simply cannot do a somewhat decent job at engaging and edifying a congregation for forty minutes (even if it’s not their ‘sweet spot’) we might be recruiting the wrong people.