One Sunday after the morning worship service, my four-year-old son said: “Papa, are you tired? You look tired.” I replied, “Yes, Jonathan, I get tired when I preach.” He responded, “I get tired when I listen!”
An article advocating brief sermons should be brief. So I’ll get right to the point. Consider the following four reasons for preaching brief sermons.
Brief sermons improve preaching.
The best sermon I ever heard only lasted eight minutes. Yet it made a strong impact on the congregation. Brief sermons force the preacher to be focused. Unnecessary words are cut. Only the best illustrations are used. The point of the sermon is clear and concise. Time is not wasted chasing rabbits. People understand what is being said. In almost every case, a shorter sermon is a better sermon.
Brief sermons enhance worship.
Sermons are preached in the context of worship. Worship is not just a “preaching service.” Other elements of worship are not simply a warm up for the main event. Every element of worship is vital and has special purpose and value. Most worship services last about an hour. If the sermon lasts thirty or more minutes, little time is left for other elements of worship. Prayer, Scripture readings, congregational singing, the offering, celebration of the sacraments, and other important elements of worship are all slighted when sermons are too long. An excellent model of worship is found in Isaiah 6:1-8. Isaiah “heard the voice of the Lord” (v. 8, RSV). But he also praised God for God’s holiness, had time for self-examination, offered a prayer of confession, experienced the forgiveness of God, and surrendered his life in service to the Almighty. Isaiah’s worship was not one dimensional. He experienced balanced worship where proclamation of the word was central but not everything.
Brief sermons are appreciated by laypersons.
Preaching exists to proclaim the Word of God. Our goal is not to please people, but we must not neglect them either. Brief sermons respect the attention span of our congregation. Nobody, however spiritual, can listen effectively when the preacher rattles on and on. Laypeople appreciate a well-prepared, clearly focused sermon. A brief sermon with a clear point is far more helpful than one that says too much and lingers too long. It’s not that laypeople are lazy. They’re not. But everybody has a limit. And in the age of Twitter, attention spans for listening to sermons have decreased even more. We may not like that, but it’s a reality. A minister once asked the late comedian George Burns for his advice on how to keep his congregation awake during his sermons. Most laypeople would agree with Burns' response. He said: “The secret of a good sermon is a good beginning and a good ending. And having them as close together as possible.”
Brief sermons are biblical.
Consider the sermon of Jonah: “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” It was short but effective. Examine the preaching of Jesus. He usually proclaimed God’s Word by telling short stories. Even the Sermon on the Mount is not very long. It takes less than eighteen minutes to read it aloud. A biblical example of a long sermon is found in Acts 20:7-12. Paul preached so long that a young man named Eutychus nodded off to sleep, feel out a window, and almost died!
At a youth camp one summer, the preacher was preaching an extremely long sermon. About forty-five minutes into his sermon, he said: “I had not planned to preach this sermon tonight. I got it together this afternoon as I walked around the campground.” The person next to me whispered in my ear, “I wish he hadn't taken such a long walk!”
Take shorter walks. Preach briefer sermons. Your preaching will improve. Your worship services will be enhanced. Your congregation will appreciate you. And you will be following good, biblical precedent.
Martin Thielen serves as senior pastor of Brentwood United Methodist Church, Brentwood, Tenn. His sermons and series can be found on his website, www.GettingReadyForSunday.com. Martin’s most recent book is “What’s the Least I Can Believe and Still Be a Christian?” A Guide to What Matters Most. Complete information about the book, including a free Leader’s Guide for leading a seven-week congregation-wide initiative based on the book, can be found at http://thielen.wjkbooks.com.