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 (Mikey Lynch’s response is here).
Do we really want to leave the next generation a legacy of 20 minute sermons? It feels that way when I hear prominent Christian leaders arguing for shorter and shorter sermons. For some the gold standard is 18mins. Eighteen minutes! I can hardly believe it! And whenever these arguments are made, there is much applause. ‘Yes! Finally’, many seem to say. But ought we not also grieve? Isn’t this hurry, this impatience with listening to God’s voice, something to grieve over?
This is a world away from the world of Ezra. He preached from daybreak to noon! He read the word, explained its meaning, and revival followed.
It’s miles away from the book Hebrews too. That written sermon (see Heb 13:22, c.f. Acts 13) takes 45 minutes to read aloud. A 45min sermon!
Yes, of course, the Sermon on Mount can be read in less than 15 minutes. But does anyone truly believe that’s a full transcript? Or that he gathered a great crowd to himself on the mountain, spoke for 15 min, and then sang a song and dismissed the crowds to their busy lives? He didn’t want anyone fidgeting. The fact is he taught and taught. He came to preach. Because man doesn’t live by bread alone. Because we are saved and grown by the word.
Jesus taught and taught. He came to preach. Because man doesn’t live by bread alone. Because we are saved and grown by the word.
Now sure, we’re not the Son of God (there is of course still Hebrews). And, of course, longer doesn’t automatically make better. Except sometimes it does. It depends.
Quantity vs Quality?
I can’t help connecting this issue to the ‘quality not quantity’ debate about parents with kids. What a strange time that was. Of course, quality time is best. And surely quality sermons are our aim. But why was our community even having the discussion about quality vs quantity with our kids? Because we were trying to fit them in. We were too busy to have quantity and quality—which is obviously the best—so we told ourselves that parenting could be done more efficiently. Not great motives. Is it possible that there are some very poor motives lurking somewhere in this discussion as well? There are, of course, very noble concerns (thinking of you, Rory!). ‘
But I fear that, mixed in with the very noble aims of quality preaching, is a culture of distracted Christians—jaded and with their minds on other things. They want to get back to their busy lives. They want efficiency. So now we measure success by how easy it is to sit through a sermon. Oughtn’t we rather be striving for a culture of listening for longer? After all, this is the very word of God! The word of GOD.
We measure success by how easy it is to sit through a sermon. Oughtn’t we rather be striving for a culture of listening for longer?
The fact is, it is often only in quantity that quality truly emerges. The word preached isn’t a lecture: it’s an experience of devotion and worship; it’s immersion—and just being immersed in the word for a time brings its own blessing.
It is flawed logic to say that cutting out the less good bits will make what remains full of more of the best bits and so the resulting message will be better. Perhaps sometimes—for some sermons. But very often it is the pieces around the best parts that give context to the gold so that it shines all the more brightly. Quality often needs quantity—just like good parenting. The warnings of Hebrews don’t get better by cutting back on the expansive theological stuff. They depend on it.
Shaping a Culture
In yielding to short concentration spans, we risk long term losses for short term gains. A minister committed to 18 minutes sermons will create a culture in his church. He will educate his congregation and new members to think a certain way about the act of sitting under the word. The accomodation will create lowered expectations.
And that means less time for change. Certainly, God might use just one line to change a life forever. But it is a sure fact of christian history that very short sermons produce little change and so perpetuate a superficial christian culture. We need more not less. We need thick disciples, not thin ones (language I learned from a certain Rory Shiner).
We need both quality and quantity—especially today. And so we need preachers to get better at what they do and be able to keep us longer in the word. We need them to immerse us. We need to learn to want to hear more of God not less. Most of us only sit under the word once a week (some only make it once a month). So give us more, not less. We ought to grieve that we have so little time and patience, not cheer.
Some caveats. Sure, there are upper limits for most of us. Preaching over 35 minutes does sometimes undermine the good. We need to respect our listeners and work hard so that what we say will be worth listening to. But right now we seem to be in a race to the bottom. Twenty minutes sermons? Eighteen minute sermons? And this from some of our most able preachers. Why? Because Christians are struggling to sit still for less than half a Netflix episode? Is it true that we now have a culture where genuine spirit indwelt believers can’t sit through 25 mins of sincere attempt to explain and apply the life giving word?
45 minutes may be way too long for most preachers and for sure I’ve been guilty of going too long too often. Lord forgive me. But to set our sights on 18mins?
Let’s stretch people for more, wisely. Not give in to less. It is God’s very word. And we are setting culture and leaving a legacy, not just chasing short term wins. Let’s push for better from our preachers; and better from ourselves as listeners. Quality and quantity.