Thursday, 5 July 2018

'Long' sermons

What constitutes a long sermon today - at least in Anglican circles - is 20-30 minutes, at least in my church. If I stray over the 25 minute mark it is now almost inevitable that someone will point it out to me. What to make of this? Several possibilities:

1. I am a poor preacher. This tends to be the first thought that assails me whenever someone makes a comment. Such is my complete lack of self-belief and self-confidence, that the devil knows where to strike and the thoughts that come take away any sense I may have had of having laboured successfully in the vineyard of my study. As I grow older I have become more and more careful in my preparation and typically a sermon can take about 8-10 hours to prepare including several re-writes. So I can come to terms with being considered a  poor preacher  - I have no delusions otherwise and in fact rejoice, for God's power is made perfect in weakness (2 Corinthians 12:19) - as long as I am not accused of being an unprepared preacher because that is not true.
2. The attention span of your average parishioner is a lot shorter than it used to be years ago. I can believe this of the younger generation brought up on social media and soundbites, but the average age of an Anglican congregation is in the high sixties and seventies which means that they should be more used to concentrated listening. Having said that do we pander to the culture? I was brought up in the evangelical wing of the church which taught that "sermonettes make Christianettes" meaning that the truth of the Gospel is so important that it cannot be taught in small bites without losing something crucial in the telling. It seems straightforward to us to learn what God says about loving Him with all we are. That takes a fraction of time to tell. But what does it mean? And how can I do it? What does that look like and what does God expect us to do and the Scripture teach? That, as any serious student of the Bible and the Christian faith will tell you, takes far longer to explain and think through.
3. The congregation is not spiritually hungry. Jesus says that those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be satisfied. When you are truly hungry the size of a meal will not dissuade you but encourage you to eat your fill. If you are not hungry however, no matter how enticing the meal you will not want to eat beyond one or two mouthfuls.
4. Spiritual warfare. In the parable of the sower the seed bounces off the hard ground which Jesus uses to illustrate the fact that the Devil does all he can to snatch the truth away from the mind before it has a chance to penetrate and bring forth a harvest. Similarly are there minds among the congregation who are closed to the gospel, hardened by years of resistance to Biblical truth and preaching?
5. Priorities. Sometimes the same people who baulk at giving thirty minutes to listening to a sermon will think nothing of sitting up to an hour at a classical concert or watching over an hour long film or listening to a lecture or political speech. Interesting and as important as they may be, besides the spiritual food offered in a sermon they are less so. But it depends on what your personal priorities are.

Whatever the reason the preacher must make a decision. Does he cave in to demands for bite-size sermons and give in to the demanding voices of a vocal minority or remain true to the Gospel imperative to preach, teach and make disciples? If the latter, then surely that will take time, care and attention and cannot be diminished into small portions.

I have been recently reading the life of John Newton, slave-trader, sinner and blasphemer turned Vicar in the Church of England. In a chapter on his parish ministry is a passage about his preaching. In it he is critical of long sermons and writes:

"Overlong sermons break in upon family concerns and often call off the thoughts from the sermon to the pudding at home which is in danger of being overboiled."

He also wrote:

"Perhaps it is better to feed our people like chickens, a little and often, than to cram them like turkeys till they cannot hold one gobbet more."

Here we find great encouragement for those who complain about overlong sermons. Surely Newton is right and long sermons are not appropriate.  Except we read that he was in fact being critical of two-hour and three-hour sermons! In which case even the most laborious of today's preachers would probably agree. Also as the writer Jonathan Aitken comments, 60 minutes was an average length sermon in those days.What of today?

You could argue that each age is responsive to it's own social context and makes adjustments accordingly. What was the norm of an hour a century or so ago is much too long now. But at this rate attention spans will eventually make 3 minutes appear too long. Does that mean we should follow the trend and reduce the length of sermons in consequence? Surely not. And doesn't Paul counsel against allowing the world mould us to its own standards (Romans 12:1ff)?

In responses then I made a quick survey of sermon lengths in the churches that are growing. When we do this we will find some thought-provoking results.

St. Ebbe's, Cambridge a thriving evangelical Anglican Church in Cambridge has average sermon lengths of over 30 minutes.

St. Helen's, Bishopsgate in London another thriving evangelical Anglican church also averages 30-40 minute sermons.

In Holy Trinity, Brompton, London, home of the Alpha Course, we see that sermons are about 30 minutes long.

The same for All Souls, Langham Place, London home of the Christianity Explored Course.

Moving across to America we find sermons are slightly longer, about 40 minutes (Passion Church, Atlanta - a typical Mega Church and Tim Keller, Redeemer Church); 50 minutes( Mars Hill with Mark Driscoll) or varying between 30-50 minutes (Francis Chan from We Are Church a church-planting network) to name a few.

If we were to shift across to other denominations in Wales we will find average sermons lengths as 40 plus (Steve Levy, Mount Pleasant Baptist Church, Swansea and Cornerstone, Swansea) or 30 plus (Elim Pentecostal Church, Swansea and St. Michael's, Aberystwyth an Evangelical Anglican Church)

The question arises "Is the length of a sermon a contributing factor to a church's growth?" Not necessarily as it all depends on the content of the sermon as well as other contributing factors. But it is worth noting that where there is good content and good length - meaning 30 or more minutes - there tends to be a growing church. I have yet to see a growing church where sermons are just 7 minutes long and which are spiritually healthy.

Conclusion? Although long sermons - by which I mean 30-40 minutes - are not in and of themselves the key to a growing church, yet they do at the very least underline the importance that the preacher and the congregation give to the Word of God. Both take very seriously the word of Jesus that "man does not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God" (Matthew 4:1-11). If it is that important then - which I sincerely believe it is - why should I give any less of it to my congregation who need it, or to God, who has called me to preach?

Let me leave you with some words from one of my great Anglican heroes of the faith, Thomas Cranmer:

"Wherefore, in few words to comprehend the largeness and utility of the scripture, how it containeth fruitful instruction and erudition for every man; if any things be necessary to be learned, of the holy scripture we may learn it. If falsehood shall be reproved, thereof we may gather wherewithal. If any thing be to be corrected and amended, if there need any exhortation or consolation, of the scripture we may well learn. 

In the scriptures be the fat pastures of the soul; therein is no venomous meat, no unwholesome thing; they be the very dainty and pure feeding. He that is ignorant, shall find there what he should learn. He that is a perverse sinner, shall there find his damnation to make him to tremble for fear. He that laboureth to serve God, shall find there his glory, and the promises of eternal life, exhorting him more diligently to labour. ...

Here may all manner of persons, men, women young, old, learned, unlearned, rich, poor, priests, laymen, lords, ladies, officers, tenants, and mean men, virgins, wives, widows, lawyers, merchants, artificers, husbandmen, and all manner of persons, of what estate or condition soever they be, may in this book learn all things what they ought to believe, what they ought to do, and what they should not do, as well concerning Almighty God, as also concerning themselves and all other. 

Briefly, to the reading of the scripture none can be enemy, but that either be so sick that they love not to hear of any medicine, or else that be so ignorant that they know not scripture to be the most healthful medicine." 

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