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More Thoughts on Sermon Length

August 28th, 2007
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We are having a good discussion about my recent post about sermon length. One younger brother in office told me that he felt I was saying that pastors who preach ten minute sermons are being unfaithful. I can understand why he might feel that was my intention. He also indicated he preaches 10-12 minute sermons, etc. Jim, my friend, I was not saying you are being unfaithful because you don’t preach twenty minute sermons. And that goes for the rest of you.

I certainly do not believe that short sermons are necessarily bad, but I can’t help but wonder how or why we have moved from regarding the sermon and its length differently than all our fathers in the faith, from the Early Church period to the Reformation period, down to our own times. This is what I mean by a "starvation diet." If I do say so myself, I can’t help but wonder if I might have a point. Bear with me, if you will.

One comment in particular in the previous post’s discussion, I thought, nailed the point I’m trying to make. Dr. Aaron Wolf is commenting on something my good friend Pr. David Petersen said about this subject. I’ll just put Aaron’s comment here for your consideration.

Pastor Petersen writes that "I think [the Rev. McCain] wants expository, didactic sermons."  He also notes that "This, despite what he wrote in Law and Gospel, was Walther’s view. It was also Luther’s view despite what he occasionally said. So also: Chyrsostom, Leo the Great, Gregory, Augustine, etc."

Doesn’t that jibe with the quotation from the Apology below?

"On the contrary, in our churches all the sermons are occupied with such topics as these: of repentance; of the fear of God; of faith in Christ, of the righteousness of faith, of the consolation of consciences by faith, of the exercises of faith; of prayer, what its nature should be, and that we should be fully confident that it is efficacious, that it is heard; of the cross; of the authority of magistrates and all civil ordinances [likewise, how each one in his station should live in a Christian manner, and, out of obedience to the command of the Lord God, should conduct himself in reference to every worldly ordinance and law]; of the distinction between the kingdom of Christ, or the spiritual kingdom, and political affairs; of marriage; of the education and instruction of children; of chastity; of all the offices of love."Click through to the rest of the post as I put forward some more thoughts.

Contrast this with what another friend posted about the goal of sermons. I think we have here a helpful "case study" in precisely what is going on today with sermons.

My thoughts on sermon length and the content are simple: it should be
as long as it takes to tell your flock that they are sinners who
deserve nothing more than eternal damnation from a holy and just God;
God, the One Holy Trinity, has looked upon His people in mercy and has
sent His only begotten Son, true God and true man, to earth to live the
holy life we are unable to live, to die as a holy, perfect and complete
offering for our sins, and to be raised to new life for our complete
justification. This Jesus Christ is our sufficiency, our completeness
and in Him we live new lives. In Him we are everything God wants us to
be.

My reaction to this comment would be simply to say, respectfully, "Really? Is this really the only point of our sermons?" If so, frankly, you could simply stand in the pulpit and say these very words, in all of two minutes, if that.

Here is another post from a younger brother in the ministry that well summarizes what we have all been taught at the seminary for the past several decades.

Is a preacher first and foremost a herald of the Gospel, or is he first
and foremost a teacher. Is my goal on Sunday morning to proclaim Law
& Gospel, or is it to teach the hearers something new? I believe in
the former–but many of the sermons found on Sunday mornings seem more
geared toward the latter. Do we "intentionally" preach sanctification
in our sermons (in other words, do our sermons end with "Go and do
likewise"), or do we simply preach the sternness of the Law and trust
that the Holy Spirit will work all three uses of the Law in the lives
of the hearers? I haven’t made up my mind on this one. My basic point
is that our church could do a better job distinguishing a "theology of
preaching."

This is a very interesting comment and points to precisely where I believe we need to do some serious, very serious, rethinking. Is the pastor a preacher or a teacher? I would say he must be both. We are commanded to keeruxon ton logon, to "preach the Word" and the same Apostle who penned those words under the Spirit’s inspiration listed this as an absolutely essential attribute of one who aspires to the churchly office he must be apt to teach. I believe we have probably gone wrong by making this distinction in such a manner as to suggest that the sermon is preaching and teaching is teaching. We never want to teach anything "new" but we do want to declare the whole counsel of God.

Let’s keep mulling this over brothers. The Church deserves our best thinking on this and I for one have over the past fifteen years or so gone through a serious reconsideration of all these things, particularly as I have spent more time reading sermons from our fathers in the faith.

The interesting distinction that comes out again and again is that
of the distinction between "proclamation/preaching" and "teaching." I
think I’m hearing from a number of you that if a sermon is to be a
proclamation then it will perhaps be better for it to be short, or
shorter. This is all relative though, isn’t it? My 20 minute sermons
are LONG sermons to pastors who preach for only ten minutes. My 20
minute sermons are SHORT sermons to pastors of days-gone-by who
preached for 45 minutes to an hour. Several people commenting have said
that are sermons are not teaching, they are preaching. I heard this a
lot when I was at the seminary from certain folks, and I believed it
then. Now, I’m frankly just not so sure anymore about that.

I left the seminary convinced, absolutely convinced, that the Early
Church fathers, and all the great Medieval preachers [yes, there were
some] and Luther, and all the orthodox Lutherans and Walther and all
the American Lutheran preachers of the 20th century and, of course, the
preachers from the so-called "bronze age" in American Lutheranism were
all wrong, wrong, wrong and we chosen few, who were graced to learn
homiletics in the latter half of the 20th century had now finally been
blessed finally to "get it" to truly understand what preaching is, and
what it is not. We were plainly informed that Luther and Walther and
all the rest talked a good game about Law/Gospel and such, but didn’t
actually practice what they preach. In the past ten years or so my
former certainties have become quite uncertain and I’m beginning to
think that maybe, just maybe, it has been more than a little arrogant
for me to assume that in fact they were all wrong and we in our day are
correct. In fact, I’m certain something has gone very wrong and we have
taken a wrong turn and our sermons are turning more into theological
poetry readings and mood settings than the kind of "apt to teach" stuff
of which the sturdy sermons of yesteryear were, and are, made. Yes,
that’s a bold statement, put on the table to generate more conversation.

There are a number of complicating factors and since this is my blog
site I can say whatever I want and not propose any solutions! Here are
the problems as I see them.

Nobody in our modern culture ever hears or listens to public
speeches, period. The exception being those odd ones who gather in
church buildings on Sunday and listen to live orators orating. This is
a very unusual thing in our culture today when everything is
prerecorded, rehearsed, taped, digitized, etc. Ironically, some in the
church believe the best way to inculcate a love for live oration is to
add a bunch of electronics to it and provide a "multimedia" experience.
[Side note: our culture never experiences public singing either, except
in church and at baseball games, that's another post for another day].
Notice on those rare occasions when there is a good speech made by a
politician during a national convention how every raves about it. I
generally sit there and think. "This is nuts. That man just did what
95% of any self-respecting Lutheran pastor can do on any given Sunday:
deliver a speech that is engaging, interesting, informative, moving and
passionate." But it just goes to show what a rare thing public speaking
is these days when on those rare occasions the public does hear a good
speach, it is though to be novel!

Attention spans are accustomed to thirty minute and twenty minute
"shows." And, one minute commercials. We live in the world of the
soundbite. Meaning seems now to be measured in seconds. Church
services, either because they must, in order to move people in and out
of churches that routinely have over 1,000 every Sunday, or because
they choose to be, are now restricted to one hour. People my age will
remember groaning at the thought of a "communion Sunday" because that
meant church would last at least one and half hours, not just 60 or 70
minutes. But now a service that runs over an hour in length is viewed
with dread by many. Funny though how the very people who get squirmy at
a service of more than an hour will gladly plant themselves in
uncomfortable bleachers, or chairs, in boiling sun, or freezing cold to
watch their favorite sports team, or little Johnny’s or Susy’s little
league whatever. That’s something to think about too.

Well, there you go. Some more thoughts. For what they are worth.

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Categories: Sermons
  1. Rev. James Roemke
    August 28th, 2007 at 17:25 | #1

    Yep, you sure could. And that is the beauty of it. The pastor certainly has important obligations to actively teach and catechize his congregation. It is part of our ordination vows and the Luther’s sacristy prayer that I pray every day. But the Divine Service, I firmly believe, is not the best place for this.
    —————————
    McCain: Let’s stop for a moment and think through this. Where did this notion come from? Not from the New Testament of the Church Fathers! We know from the Scriptures that it was precisely within the context of the “Divine Service” that the Apostle Paul would preach late into the night. I have come to realize that we need, for our own good, to examine a lot of what we have been taught about sermon theory in the past forty years or so.
    —————————–
    This is where God comes to us with His gifts of Word and Sacrament, this is where He again kills us with the Law and revives with the sweet Gospel. If you learn something new, great, but, as we see over and over again through Scripture, worship and teaching are simply about remembering. And that is the point I was making when I said it should be as long as it takes to tell your flock that they are sinners who deserve nothing more than eternal damnation from a holy and just God; God, the One Holy Trinity, has looked upon His people in mercy and has sent His only begotten Son, true God and true man, to earth to live the holy life we are unable to live, to die as a holy, perfect and complete offering for our sins, and to be raised to new life for our complete justification. This Jesus Christ is our sufficiency, our completeness and in Him we live new lives. In Him we are everything God wants us to be.
    A big part of my job, visiting the sick and elderly and home-bound, the repentant and unrepentant, catechesis, etc. is reminding God’s people of what they already know. The Gospel is so easy, yet so easily forgotten.
    ———————–
    McCain: However, you only have Sunday morning to reach the most people you will every be able to reach in any given week. And I’m not so sure anymore that our formulaic approach to preaching is what our fathers had in mind. In fact, I know it is not what they had in mind. They have shown us: in their preaching.
    ————————–

  2. Rev. James Roemke
    August 28th, 2007 at 17:36 | #2

    Also, thank you for clarifying your position a little and the humility to address a lot of concern. I understand that you are not calling us “shortie” pastors unfaithful (though I did and still balk at the assertion that I am starving my dear flock!) I still don’t agree with you, but I can better understand where you are coming from.
    I went to a private “Christian” (i.e., non-Lutheran) high school. We had chapel every week and on occasion I would go to church there with friends. The sermons were typically 30-50 minutes and I was utterly starved! What a great blessing to hear that wonderful Law/Gospel message that was only 15 minutes at the Lutheran Church I started to re-attend again!
    ——————
    McCain: Ah, interesting background for helping me understand where you are coming from. I would say simply however that just because 30 minutes were poorly spent does not mean they can not be well spent! [I doubt any of us could get away with thirty minute sermons today, but more's the pity, as far as I'm concerned]. I am growing concerned, and your comment reminds me of this, that we are judging our “Lutheran-ness” by how much distance we can put between ourselves and Evangelicals. I don’t think this is good. We reject their false doctrine, but we should not think that the “solution” to their bad thirty minute sermons is as easy as preaching good ten minute sermons. Imagine, for instance, a thirty minute sermon that was a constant feast of Law/Gospel proclamation on a text. Your heart would burn within you, even as those disciples on the road to Emmaus as they heard the Scriptures opened to them.
    ———————
    For me this is personal because I have been on the business end of some pretty awful LONG sermons. The sweetness of the Gospel was lost, the pastor’s personal soap box was regularly in plain view, but no real Law of God, “challenges” to be better for Jesus, to do this or that, or to wear this ring or this bracelet with various initials on it were there, but no Christ crucified. That is what I react to, a fear of going in that direction.
    For what it’s worth.

  3. August 28th, 2007 at 19:29 | #3

    [Rev. McCain said: I left the seminary convinced, absolutely convinced, that the Early Church fathers, and all the great Medieval preachers [yes, there were some] and Luther, and all the orthodox Lutherans and Walther and all the American Lutheran preachers of the 20th century and, of course, the preachers from the so-called “bronze age” in American Lutheranism were all wrong, wrong, wrong and we chosen few, who were graced to learn homiletics in the latter half of the 20th century had now finally been blessed finally to “get it” to truly understand what preaching is, and what it is not. We were plainly informed that Luther and Walther and all the rest talked a good game about Law/Gospel and such, but didn’t actually practice what they preach. In the past ten years or so my former certainties have become quite uncertain and I’m beginning to think that maybe, just maybe, it has been more than a little arrogant for me to assume that in fact they were all wrong and we in our day are correct. In fact, I’m certain something has gone very wrong and we have taken a wrong turn and our sermons are turning more into theological poetry readings and mood settings than the kind of “apt to teach” stuff of which the sturdy sermons of yesteryear were, and are, made. Yes, that’s a bold statement, put on the table to generate more conversation.]
    Speaking from recent, personal experience, the Theologia II:Preaching course taught at CTS-FW as part of their new curriculum does not diminish the role of the fathers, Luther, Walther, and even later Missouri. If anything, our two+ weeks on Augustine’s preaching, three+ weeks on Luther’s preaching, our week on New Testament preaching, and our week on early church preaching all reinforced our place in a tradition. We, as new students of preaching should not only be aware of their practice but learn their technique. Recent preaching style and technique only builds on the tradition.
    Walther’s Law and Gospel is primary material for every Homiletics I student and every Fickenscher class. Never was the importance of a proper distinction downplayed or diminished in my first two years.
    Now I am blessed with a bishop for my vicarage who is using the one-year series and encourages me to read Luther and Walther for sermon prep. By using this series, I can read the patristics as well.
    I know my fellow FW vicars have similar experiences. Perhaps the situation has changed since your days at seminary?
    (BTW: Dr. Fickenscher’s definition of a Lutheran sermon: “20(+/-) min. proclamation of Law and Gospel within a liturgical context”)

  4. August 29th, 2007 at 00:15 | #4

    Pastor McCain,
    I am not sure if this is a red herring to the discussion and am offering my comments. Please feel free to ignore them.
    The question about sermon length is interesting since most parishioners blame the sermon for a slow moving service or one that does not keep their attention. Fortunately, God does not have a short attention span in the service. But I have a mildly different take on this situation.
    I have attended many services where the clock seemed to be the single most important principle governing the service content and within that content, the length of the sermon would be constrained. But the sermon is only one element of the service. Consider a service in which the hymns are selected because they have a word in common with the sermon. Consider that the sermon is about self improvement. Then the parishioner could get the same meat listening to Dr. Laura on the radio (assuming that she is still on the radio). It isn’t the attention span of the parishioner that is the problem; it is the inability to grasp that the sermon is an element of an integrated whole – the divine service. The example that I just mentioned is an example of incidental cohesion within the service and the sermon is just another distinct part.
    If a sermon is indeed a part of the whole, then the sermon would match the music, the music would reinforce the Scripture, the Scripture would point to the joining of Christ to the parishioner in the Eucharist and all of it would shout about Christ’s election of each parishioner. Each element would function within the whole service opening up the opportunity that Christ gave us on the Cross. Not only have we entered into the body of Christ in Baptism, but Christ continues his sanctification of us in the Supper. That’s where so many short sermons err – they look to the third use to pull the chestnut out of the fire. However, having failed to distinguish law and Gospel, they then create a first use of the law by calling that the third use. But, the service has opened up for us the very real possibility and opportunity that the third use speaks to: we are in the body of Christ, his Spirit does indwell in us, we have the opportunity to serve the Lord in truth, an opportunity that is unavailable to the non-Christian. The intention of the service is not merely to tell me what I get, but to justify our confidence that Jesus does not command a disorganized rabble. There is a purpose (Eph 2:10, Josh 5:13-15) that creates the communion of Saints – we have been hand chosen (a pastor’s hand in our baptism) to join the church militant and ultimately the church triumphant.
    Even if the sermon fails to deliver the goods, a cohesive service delivers law and Gospel and out of that the confidence that we have in our Savior. If the service delivers that message of confidence, then the sermon will amplify that for those of us who are listening. If the sermon lacks attention getting capability, then perhaps the service focus is on us getting something rather than Christ creating an army from a disorganized and sinning rabble.
    In Christ,
    Gleason (CA Deacon)

  5. Rev. Steve Schlund
    August 29th, 2007 at 11:12 | #5

    Your comments (especially the analogy of “starving”) remind me of the old debate in parenting over “quantity” vs. “quality” of time spent with a child. When guilt ridden parents said “It doesn’t matter how much time you spend with your child as long as it is quality time”, I remember someone responding, “Even if you have one morsel of the best filet mignon and one shot glass full of the finest champagne, the one who receives them will still starve, even if quality at its highest.”
    Might not the same thing apply to sermons – that, despite the finest quality, quantity is still needed?

  6. Tom Fast
    August 29th, 2007 at 11:23 | #6

    Rev. McCain,
    You obviously are not a football fan. Otherwise you’d sing a different tune. Then again, I’m not too eager to get home and watch the NFL, due to the fact that my favorite team is the Bengals. The Bengals do field a pretty decent team–that is–when they can keep themselves out of jail.
    It is most interesting to read the comments made by you and Pastor Petersen. I will confess to being partial to Pastor Petersen’s understanding of the preaching task, insofar as I understand it. But I confess that with fear and trembling, knowing that it might signal be a radical break with the past.
    Question: when do you think the “break” or “shift” in the approach to preaching changed? Was it with the advent of Caemmerer? A couple of essays I have read seemed to imply that—unless I’m reading my own ideas into them. I happen to be fond of Caemmerer, so please keep my delicate sensibilities in mind when you answer my questions. :-)

  7. Rev. Al Bergstrazer
    August 29th, 2007 at 13:42 | #7

    Or maybe the brothers who are delivering short sermons spend too much time online writing on blogs when they should be in their study writing? :)
    (Yes, that was intended as sarcasm.)

  8. Rev. Lance Armstrong O’Donnell
    August 29th, 2007 at 17:02 | #8

    Paul,
    This is an exceedingly important discussion because–at its core–it’s about good Law & Gospel preaching, preaching that is (to use the buzz words) confessional AND missional. Ten years ago when I was taking Lutheran Worship the professor said something that floored me with its veracity. He said, “I think a lot of the contemporary worship stuff is just a cover up for bad preaching.” The accuracy of that statement still floors me, but as a man who loves the ancient, I have also come to the conclusion that the same can be said for the high church side of ritualism. However, it can also be said for good old fashioned “bronze age” worship. One of the great blessings of ordinaries and propers is that on any given Sunday I can totally blow it, but the people–thank God!–will still hear Law and Gospel. It’s easy, I think, to hide behind that blessing, take it for granted, and not pour heart and soul into a homily that draws upon and accentuates the ordinaries and propers, lives from among the people, and breathes the new life of the Gospel. I think that if we preachers live among the people, get to know them well, and work HARD at the art of preaching, we will be able to vary the length and style of our homilies, guiding the flock as graceful undershepherds.
    Thanks again for the post.

  9. E. T. Jackson
    October 22nd, 2007 at 00:02 | #9

    Jesus’ greateast wermon can be read in eight minutes – Matthew 7
    His best known story can be read in 90 second – Luke 15:11-32
    He summarized prayer in five phrases – Matthew 6:9-13
    He silenced accusers with one challenge – John 8:7
    He rescued a soul with one sentence – Luke 23:43
    He summarized the law in three verses – Mark 12:29-31
    He reduced all his teaching to one command – John 15:12
    It appears to me that brevity wins!

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