“Seated in a window was a young man named Eutychus, who was sinking into a deep sleep as Paul preached on and on” (Acts. 20:8).
Every pastor has to deal with the issue of preferred sermon length among his or her congregation. What is the ideal sermon length? In some traditions, the 15-20 minute homily is typical. I grew up in this tradition. This is fine if your goal is to merely impart a thoughtful reflection on a brief Bible text and offer a couple points of application to send the worshipers away with. The goal here is typically inspiration.
I have come to a far different view of the weekly sermon over the past many years. I have spent the past 10 years in churches where the average sermon is 40 minutes. Here’s a few of my personal convictions and goals surrounding my philosophy of preaching. I hope sermons at MainStreet would provide not only inspiration, but a rich time of education, active participation and evoke supernatural transformation. That’s a lot to cram into 20 minutes.
(Note: I am a young, inexperienced preacher who has no idea what he’s doing. I don’t even claim to be an average preacher. Those who put up with me each Sunday are enduring what I hope will be the worst sermons of my life — as I hope to constantly improve with practice. But by God’s grace this is the kind of culture I hope to cultivate at MainStreet on Sunday mornings. Please pray for me as I grow as a preacher!)
1. I view the sermon as an invitation into another world, the strange and unfamiliar world of a text that requires more than 10 minutes to find our footing in the world of the text. I lament that most people want their pastor to take that journey into the text alone in his study all week, and merely bring back to our world a few snapshots and souvenirs for a 15 minute “show and tell” time. I believe this deprives the people of the joy of the journey, the excitement of new discovery, the surprises one encounters along the way. People who just want a short 3 point teaching and who aren’t willing to go on a longer trip will miss out on the deeper, hidden treasures in a text. You can disagree with me, but there’s a huge mental difference between a 15 minute and a 45 minute commute to work — and I believe the same holds true for a sermon.
2. I view the sermon as an invitation to a deeper conversation with the Living God through His Word. Transformative conversations that take us to the deeper places of our souls usually require a good hour to get warmed up. It’s the difference between the 15 minute chat at the bus stop and the 2 hour intimate conversation over coffee with that special someone. If we’ve never had a mind-blowing, life-changing 15 minute conversation with another human being, than why would we expect it to happen with God during a 15 minute sermonette? Think about it.
3. Attention span during a sermon is directly tied to the spiritual condition of the listener. I often hear sociological studies quoted to argue that the average person’s attention span is only about 20 minutes….therefore the sermon should be kept short. This is only relevant, it would seem, if one is assuming that we are talking about a one-way human presentation or lecture where one person is a passive receiver of the message. This may be the case in a university classroom lecture, but this is not what we believe is happening during the sermon. Let me explain.
During the sermon we believe there is the potential for a mystical interchange to happen between five different persons: preacher, congregant, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We pray the listener is active, that God is active, and the Word is “alive and active” (Heb. 4:12) as it comes from the mouth of the preacher. The sermon time is a dynamic experience with the explosive potential for all kinds of soul-searching, wound-healing, eyes-opening, heart-softening, conscience-convicting, etc. to be happening throughout the room.
For those with spiritual eyes to see all of this explosive potential hidden in every sermon, attention span is really not an issue. Still many others will find themselves among those who Jesus said would be “ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding” (Mark 4:12). Even the Son of God couldn’t hold the attention of such as these. Jesus ended his sermons with, “Let all those with ears to hear listen.” That seems to have been his two-cents on the issue of attention span.
4. Finally, and related to the point above, we view attention span differently when we apply it to a personal two-way conversation between friends or lovers. If I take my wife Keri out on a date and tell her she better keep her conversation to 20 minutes or I’ll lose interest, I will be sleeping on the floor that night. In this situation, the problem clearly isn’t the length of the conversation, but rather my interest level in the person with whom I’m conversing.
May we all ask God to transform the sermon time from a passive listening experience with our watches timed and attention spans counting down, to begin encountering God in a real and powerful ways through the dynamic, active listening to His Word. And if the Living God abides in the expounding of His Word every Sunday, then why in the world would we want to make that time shorter….?
Let all those with ears to hear listen.
I realize this approach cuts against every fiber of our ADD, drive-through, sound-byte, efficiency-driven, “entertain me or I’ll go elsewhere” culture. But there are many other churches where people can go to find a shorter sermon.