More Thoughts on Sermon Length
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
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
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.