Preaching to fill time

Preaching to fill time February 10, 2015

ClockA few weeks ago I was sitting in church listening to a very thought provoking sermon. The pastor had made a powerful point that hushed the crowd. You could sense the Spirit at work in the hearts of the congregation. They were ready to respond to God.

Had the pastor concluded his sermon right then and asked for commitments, I’m guessing there would have been a huge response.

But instead, he continued to preach 23 more minutes. A sacred moment was lost.

Many a time I’ve heard a pastor make a powerful, life-changing point. I’ve thought to myself, “That’s it! He’s done. I’m ready to respond.” Yet he continues to speak.

Have you experienced something like this? The Spirit moves early in a sermon – perhaps just seven minutes in. You have that sense in your heart: Wow. That was amazing. Give me a minute to absorb what I just heard. Yet the sermon carries on.

Whenever this happens I’m saddened. The pastor had the fish in the net – and he let them go.

This is one of the tyrannies of our modern, stage-driven model of church. Pastors have an allotted time slot in which they preach. It’s the same every week. They are allowed to be 5 minutes short or 5 minutes long. Any greater deviation from these norms and they’ll hear about it from critical congregants.

If my pastor had stopped preaching after 7 minutes he would have received angry e-mails from longtime members who felt short-changed. “We pay you to preach – and you give us a seven minute sermon? I want my tithe back!”

Shortening the sermon on the fly would also have wreaked havoc with children’s church, which runs concurrent with big church. Dozens of volunteers would have become discouraged when they had no time to deliver their lessons.

At Church for Men, we advocate short, one-point sermons. This is not because men are dullards. Some guys really enjoy long messages. I hear from them on my blog and on the Facebook page all the time.

But the majority of men are hoping to leave church with a single, powerful, clearly articulated idea. Something they can noodle on all week.

Thom Schultz, founder of Group Publishing, writes, “Research shows that people remember just 10 percent or less of what they hear in a lecture or sermon. Most of those well-prepared words are quickly lost. Forever. The longer the sermon, the more that’s forgotten.”

One time I during a long plane flight I decided to read all the parables of Jesus and time them on a stopwatch. Then I took an average. I was shocked – the median length of Jesus’ parables is just 38 seconds. The lessons that changed the world comfortably preach in under a minute.

We also advise pastors to build their sermons around an object lesson. People tend to forget what they hear, but remember what they see. If you can tie your sermon to a powerful visual, your congregants (both men and women) will be more likely to remember it. Don’t just start off with an object and then set it aside – make it the central metaphor of your message. Refer to it again and again.

Should pastors preach to fill time? I don’t see this changing any time soon. Seminaries train pastors to spread a theological buffet every Sunday. As a result, many pastors have a “more is better” mentality. They see preaching as their highest duty and would sooner cut off an arm than shorten and focus their sermons. Churchgoers get used to a certain sermon length and would be upset by change. And church programming depends on predictable scheduling.

Please don’t read this post as an attack on pastors. Ministers have one of the toughest jobs on the planet. Most could make more money bagging groceries at Safeway. They do it for the love of Christ, and we should be grateful for their service.

But this blog is focused on making church better for men. As such, we question everything about church culture, in an attempt to reach more guys. In that spirit, here are some questions to consider:

  • Should pastors have the freedom to truncate their messages if the Spirit is moving?
  • Would you attend a church that offered widely varying sermon lengths? Or is it better to have a regular time slot for preaching?
  • Can a 10-minute sermon adequately meet the spiritual needs of the congregation?
  • What is the purpose of a sermon? How well do sermons fulfill this purpose?
  • Are object lessons a valuable tool, or are they merely a gimmick?
  • If sermons were shorter, what might we do with the additional gathering time? For example, could there be more opportunities for personal interaction and relationship building among the congregation, or is this impractical?

Please, share your thoughts below, or join the conversation on our Facebook page.

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