In a casual conversation with two friends, the topic of preaching length arose. In their comments they pointed out the correlation they noticed between the length of sermons and the age of the preacher. They, interestingly, pointed out that many of the preachers who give lengthy sermons tended to be the younger ones. Of course, this claim was merely a claim of individual observation, but one comment my friend made particularly seemed to resonate: ‘When you’re older, you just understand that what you have to say isn’t really that important.’
At first glance, one may think that this friend has a hardened heart or is just immature to sit through a sermon of forty-five minutes plus. But that is because, of the two italicized words in the comment, most of us find the stress in the latter: ‘say’. That is, when we find the stress in ‘say’, we are believing that preaching is important, and rightfully so, but the above comment wasn’t stated to mean that preaching isn’t important. The actual stress was on the ‘you’, meaning, older preachers seem to have a better sense of their place in influencing change in people’s lives. They understand that 15~30 more minutes will not necessarily be of positive impact (or sometimes it’ll be of negative influence). Theologically speaking, they have a better sense of God’s sovereignty. It was interesting to notice after pondering upon my friend’s comment how much young leaders (me including) preach in our prayers. There is a level of guidance that is good in group prayer, but sometimes as one leads, they start to preach again, a prayer topic becomes a sermon as if the listeners must pray in a very specific manner, almost countering the sovereignty of intercession we can find in Romans 8:26. Ed Welch, in a CCEF blog (titled “Edit Your Counseling“) about understanding that more words are not necessarily a good thing, corroborates the goodness of brevity with an anecdote:
I submitted a chapter for a book. The editor suggested that I should aim for 8-10,000 words. After I submitted it, the publisher pulled rank and mandated that all chapters be 5,000 words or less.
I labored to cut it back but it was still over the word count. I told the editor I was at bare bones—there was nothing else I could cut. I assumed (hoped?) that he would say something like, “Oh, don’t worry about that silly word count from the publisher. Your chapter is so good they will make an exception,” or something like that.
What he actually said was, “No problem, I will edit it down to 5,000 words for you,” which he did, and the chapter was better than before. As you might guess, this word butcher is a highly skilled editor. Greater editing skill produced a chapter that is more succinct and clear.
But this is not only true in writing; the same principle applies to preaching and counseling.
Welch’s concern in the post is practical for the listener as his main point is “The more words you say, the less people understand – at least as a general rule.” But my concern, though also practical, is for the speaker. Preaching a long sermon is not inherently wrong or bad, but the concern is the heart and mentality of the preacher, where if the length of his/her words becomes a safety net for that person’s ability to change. If that is the case, maybe we place too much weight on the ‘your’ of ‘your words’. Maybe in our minds we think the words are important, when in fact, WE have become important. Again, this is not a post to say that hour long sermons are in it of themselves a negative thing, but it seems healthy to ask, “Do I have to say everything?”
At the same time the other side of the issue is not to stop talking. The Word must be preached, it must be known. But maybe the issue is that we have far detached listening from our talking. We have assumed all the questions, and forget to ask ‘one more question’ as Welch teaches in his class lectures. Harvie Conn, in Evangelism, puts it this way:
Maybe it’s time we stop asking, “Would you like to come to our church?” and begin constructing surveys around the sincere statement, “We’d really like to know why you’re not going anywhere.”
The first service that one owes to others… consists in listening to them… Many people are looking for an ear that will listen. They do not find it among Christians, because these Christians are talking when they should be listening…. Christians have forgotten that the ministry of listening has been committed to them by Him who is Himself the great listener and whose work they would share. We should listen with the ears of God that we may speak the Word of God.
This is not to say that young preachers must replace speaking with listening altogether, as listening by itself is rarely useful, but rather to put them together. For some this may mean that they listen more and talk less, for others it may even mean that they begin listening. Whichever it may be, behind our behavioral change it may be good to remember my friend’s earlier quote on the wisdom of old age, that it’s quite ok NOT to say everything, all at once, every time.