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Brief Sermons: Recipe for Spiritual Starvation

July 8th, 2010
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A while ago, I came across a sermon posted on a Lutheran pastor’s blog. I was shocked at its length. It could not have been more than eight minutes long, if that! It was probably only six or seven minutes long. This is, sadly, not some exception. It is in keeping with a disturbing trend in Lutheran preaching: shorter and shorter sermons. Let this much be clear: I am a huge advocate for every Divine Service communion, but not at the expense of preaching. We can not expect our congregations to remain healthy and put them on a preaching starvation diet. In addition to the sermon in question being ridiculously brief, it was an anemic sermon, short on law and Gospel, not one actually preaching on a text, not a sermon actually teaching the people anything. This should not be so among us.

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Categories: Sermons
  1. July 8th, 2010 at 06:06 | #1

    What a revealing statement: “I am a huge advocate for every Divine Service communion, but not at the expense of preaching.” Revealing not of the attitude of the author of this blog but of the seemingly near-universal priority in churches of brief services.

    To which I reply: what’s the rush? Why not have meaty sermons and the Sacrament, and long hymns, and full readings, and the Athanasian Creed while we’re at it — and rejoice all the more in these gifts of God, in their abundance, not in their moderation.

    Sadly, too many people (clergy and laity alike) have come to think of church as a Sunday-morning activity, which mustn’t occupy too much time, so that people can have the rest of the day to do what they really want to do. Not quite in the spirit of the third commandment. In fact, it’s almost the opposite of the third commandment.

    Allow me an anecdote: The longest church service I have been to started at 9 with a Catechetical sermon, followed by a Confessional sermon and Confession & Absolution at 9.30, Divine Service at 10, with 6 or 7 long Lutheran hymns, a 45-minute sermon, and 600 people to Commune at a single altar. It was all done not long after 1 pm. Yes, it was long. But it was long because the abundance of the good things on offer. Oh, and it was an all-age congregation with a lot young families. And it’s not unusual in those parts, either. In fact, people travel great distances to get there. What is it, I wonder, that makes them choose that over the 59½ minute jobs next door?

  2. Steve
    July 8th, 2010 at 06:19 | #2

    One of the issues that we must deal with is that people have much shorter attention span. For example, I grew up with 20 minute sermons and now that seams to be forever. “Can you just get to the point” is the mind set.

  3. July 8th, 2010 at 07:16 | #3

    T. David Gordon makes a very good point, which I’ve quoted in a comment before:

    “When something is well done, we do not complain about its length. … When we experience a thing that is well done, we get caught up in it, become lost in the moment, and lose any sense of the passage of time. When a public speaker has something important to say, and says it in a well-organized manner that enables the audience to perceive its significance, the reaction is similar. People do not look at their watches, clear their throats, stretch, and do a number of other nervous exercises indicative of their boredom. But if that public discourse is litless, rambling, disorganized, without clear purpose, and uninspiring, ten minutes seems like an eternity … People may very well have a reduced attention span, but even so, they have no difficulty giving attention to a discourse they deem important and well organized … Sermon length is not measured in minutes; it is measured in minutes-beyond-interest, in the amount of time the minister continues to preach after he has lost the interest of his hearers (assuming he ever kindled it in the first place).”

    T. David Gordon, Why Jonny Can’t Preach (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2009), 28-31

  4. July 8th, 2010 at 07:25 | #4

    I hope you spoke to the brother…

  5. Pr. Tom Fast
    July 8th, 2010 at 08:05 | #5

    Well, my sermons rarely go over 15 minutes. But they seem really long. And that’s gotta count for something.

  6. Jeff H.
    July 8th, 2010 at 08:23 | #6

    Unfortunately, in my experience, there are few pastors who have the skill of giving a good quality sermon of any length. This isn’t an issue of attention spans or not wanting to both hear the Word and recieve the Sacrament or limiting it to an hour. It is an issue of whether a 20 minute or longer sermon is actually better than an 8-10 minute sermon. Most pastors simply do not offer more content than that.

    Standing in the pulpit repeating “All have sinned; Christ died for your sins” for 20+ minutes doesn’t make it any more real than the first time it is said. Parishoners are not dumb; and most are actually Christian! (Yes, some people need to hear it more than others; but don’t be surprised that the rest of us aren’t appreciative of your efforts to reach a single person in front of 150. There is a place for individual counseling.)

    If you read Luther’s sermons or other good sermons (Walther, maybe), you see actual preaching. They go into detail about what the sermon text means or go into other, specific issues (such as, heaven forbid, sanctification!). Modern pastors don’t do that. If you want to give a speech for 45 minutes, fine, go ahead. But make sure you have something worth hearing. We probably don’t agree with what they are saying, but TV preachers like Charles Stanley at least have a point to what they say and they systematically try to get there in their hour-long programs. Most Lutheran pastors just ramble on for their alloted time.

  7. July 8th, 2010 at 08:31 | #7

    I don’t think you can necessarily judge the length by what’s posted. It’s quite possible he used his manuscript as a kind of detailed outline. I sometimes do that.

  8. Rev. John Schuetz
    July 8th, 2010 at 09:01 | #8

    Pr. McCain,

    To me, the bigger problem is what you cited in the second part of your analysis–the anemic content of the sermon. The best sermons I heard at chapel at CTS were by Prof. Chad Bird, who, at least at chapel, preached very short sermons, but the last thing that you could say about them is that they were anemic–when he delivered law it was like a punch to the gut, when he delivered gospel he brought great comfort. Now having said that, very few preachers are so gifted as he, and I realize that preaching in the context of seminary chapel is very different from preaching in the context of a Sunday morning Divine Service. But I really don’t believe that more words are always better.

    Every congregation has its own expectations about sermon length. Some congregations expect longer sermons, some shorter. I remember when at my home congregation an interim pastor began to serve, and he was used to giving really long sermons because that was the expectation where he had served previously. It began to cause major schedule issues with Sunday School between services, so he did then after a few weeks adjust his sermon length to what was going to work as a whole. It’s not a matter right or wrong, but, it is what it is.

    I personally find longer sermons difficult to appreciate, I find them disorienting. I guess I’m more of a pointer than a painter–gimme the bottom line. Like Pr. Fast who posted above, my own sermons don’t tend to go over 15 minutes very often. That’s about my comfort zone in the pulpit, and I believe it’s a right amount of time from the congregation’s point of view.

    Just my opinion . . .

    John Schuetz

  9. Rev. Bobby Niemtschk
    July 8th, 2010 at 11:05 | #9

    Here is an interesting quotation from Martin Luther concerning the length of the Divine Service:
    “Now when the lesson and its interpretation have lasted half an hour or so, the congregation shall unite in giving thanks to God, in praising him, and in praying for the fruits of the Word, etc. For this, the Psalms should be used and some good responsories and antiphons. In brief, let everything be completed in one hour or whatever time seems desirable; for one must not overload souls or weary them, as was the case until now in monasteries and convents, where they burdened themselves like mules.”

    Luther, M. (1999, c1965). Vol. 53: Luther’s works, vol. 53 : Liturgy and Hymns (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.). Luther’s Works (53:V-13). Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

  10. Mark Veenman
    July 8th, 2010 at 20:27 | #11

    Wow. A problem I didn’t expect: shortening the sermon for a Sunday School!? I like the idea of a Wednesday night catechism sermon. I’d go for sure.

  11. July 8th, 2010 at 21:59 | #12

    How does that even work? Is the Service of the Sacrament included in the 1 hour time frame with the half hour sermon? Or is Luther considering them separately?

    I come from a Reformed background and suffered through many Christless 30-45 minute sermons. I find the 10-15 minute Christ-centered sermons that are still able to explain the text refreshing. Law and Gospel should always be there and it should always be about Christ-crucified and the text should always be explained but I don’t know that you can set a definite time as to how long a sermon should be. Jesus and the Apostles seemed to preach some very short and some very long sermons. The 30-45 minute sermons that I have heard either seem to have been all full of ramblings so that the pastor could fill the 30-45 minutes he was expected to fill or commentaries that explain nuances of Greek and Hebrew words but said little about Jesus.

  12. Steve Foxx
    July 9th, 2010 at 06:38 | #13

    Please let me encourage all of you Pastors who have spent years honing your skills of sermon preparation and delivery. I had the privilege of being a Pastor’s kid and seeing my dad spend hours and weeks on the preparation and delivery of his sermons (special kudos to you who, like my dad, started with a fresh translation of either the Greek or Hebrew!!). When I grew up and joined the military after college I found quickly how rare that was and literally spent years starving for good preaching (I was reared in a Bible church and so didn’t become Lutheran until 40 years old). One of the reasons I changed to being a Lutheran was true theology but a significant side bar was that I found the sermons were written out and read by the men I was privileged to sit under. So far that has been the case in each church we have been wherever we were stationed. We have been privileged to sit under some wonderful shepherds. I’m sure not every LCMS Pastor writes his sermons out and prepares that well but God bless you guys who do!!!

    Steve Foxx SSP

  13. Jedidiah Maschke
    July 9th, 2010 at 09:19 | #14

    @Rev. Bobby Niemtschk
    Bobby, the quote you took, when read in context, is actually referring to the daily office that Dr. Luther proposed be observed first thing in the morning, not the Divine Service. A few paragraphs earlier, he says, “This was the custom among Christians at the time of the apostles and should also be the custom now. We should assemble DAILY (emphasis mine) at four or five in the morning…”

    Luther, M. (1999). Vol. 53: Luther’s works, vol. 53 : Liturgy and Hymns (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.). Luther’s Works (12). Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

    • July 9th, 2010 at 09:36 | #15

      @Jedidah: Excellent work digging out where the quote comes from and putting it in its proper context. Something *very* important to do when quoting Lutheran.

  14. July 9th, 2010 at 09:23 | #16

    I certainly do not think a short sermon is a bad thing, nor a long sermon necessarily means it is good or filled with content.

    Two of the best sermons I have ever heard were at both ends of this: one that clocked in at just over 4 minutes and another that was nearly 30 minutes. In each case the Law proclaimed was so precise in its application that it utterly left me in need of Jesus only… which was precisely what was proclaimed… Gospel that comforted like no other. This can be done in a very brief amount of time or in a rather long sermon.

    Point is: preach the text, bring the congregation Jesus specific to that text. If you do that, it shouldn’t matter how long or short the sermon is.

    • July 9th, 2010 at 09:38 | #17

      I really don’t think a good case can be made for “micro sermons.” There is no example from the Church’s history we can point to for justification of the practice of reducing our sermons to just several minutes. While good things can be said in four minutes, I do not think a text can be adequately taught/covered in such a brief period of time. I do think this is a growing problem in our circles.

  15. Randy Keyes
    July 9th, 2010 at 10:33 | #18

    OK, you’re probably all going to toss me of the bridge but here goes.

    First, this is a generalization and I am sure as such that many will not fit into this mold, but in my experience as an outsider, who is now an insider, this is what I have seen: Lutheran seminaries train theologians. Baptist/Non-denom/Free Church/etc seminaries train preachers. While you will not agree with all their theology (well, duh), a Dallas Sem grad is built to preach. This is because the core of the revivalist movement was (and still is) the preaching.

    A good deal of LCMS parishes currently focus on the sacrament. Notice I did not say “Word and Sacrament,” but the sacrament. The congregants pick up on this. Many Lutherans I’ve spoken to don’t expect great sermons, so they sit through them just waiting until they can get the sacrament so they can go home having punched their time clocks with forgiveness. For them to sit through a longer sermon is akin to passing a kidney stone—suffering through it until it is finally, thankfully over. Unfortunately, most dispensational preachers I know can hold the attention of a congregation in far better fashion than most Lutheran pastors I know. Have I seen how Lutheran pastors are trained to preach? No. I’ve only seen the result, the product of the training, technique and approach.

    It’s wonderful that your sermon has both law and gospel in it, but if you’ve lost the people because no one is listening, have you really given them either?

    Why do I think this issue developed? We have tried so hard to emphasize that we aren’t pietists and that we have the best theology (which we do) that we almost believe using any emotion (other than perhaps anger) or techniques to keep attention in a sermon is wrong, so as to become cold, or “stately” or….boring, because that is better than “leading the people on as those revivalists do.”

    After having read a great deal of Luther when deciding (I know, don’t ever use that word) to become Lutheran, I dare say that some of the emotion and technique he put forth in his messages would be poo-pooed by many of the Lutheran pastors I have seen as “over-the-top.”

    Keep the theology AND keep their attention. My favorite preacher often preaches 45 to 60 minutes and most people would listen to him for longer than that. Is his theology perfectly Lutheran? Nope. I wish it were, but what he does have he communicates and the people remember.

    Ok. Throw me from the bridge.

    Grace and Peace,
    Randy Keyes

  16. Randy Keyes
    July 9th, 2010 at 10:36 | #19

    @Jeff H.

    Randy Keyes

  17. July 9th, 2010 at 10:53 | #20

    Chryosostom’s Easter Homily is 504 words, takes under 4 minutes to preach. Peter’s sermon in Acts 2 is 526 words (about 1/3 of it is the text he was preaching). Luther’s Invocavit sermons were all very brief. There are all sorts of examples of sermons approximating 500 words. If we reclaimed the historic practice of multiple (different) services during the week, I think it would be of great benefit to the Church.

    In these brief homilies, one does not teach or cover the text, but proclaims the text. Teaching is great, and I do think that considering the state of Biblical and doctrinal illiteracy teaching is necessary (and the sermon may be the only place to do such teaching). I still cannot rule out the clarity and precision that an occasional brief homily brings.

    • July 9th, 2010 at 11:25 | #21

      Matt, I can find very few examples of ten minute sermons in the chief service on Sunday, in any of the early church fathers, or our Lutheran fathers. A Chief Divine Service that features a ten minute sermon is a “novum” unique to the last couple of decades, and I only see sermons getting shorter. I don’t think it is a good thing. In fact, I know it is not.

  18. Rev. Bobby Niemtschk
    July 9th, 2010 at 11:44 | #22

    @Jedidiah Maschke
    Thank you for correcting my carelessness.

  19. July 9th, 2010 at 13:36 | #23

    For what it’s worth, my rule-of-thumb is that I preach 100 words per minute, so when I write my sermons, a quick word count tells me how long my sermon will be. I generally shoot for 1000 words, usually landing in the vicinity. Our Director of Youth and Family Ministry delivers strong children’s messages, so when you add those minutes to mine, you get into the 16-minute range most Sundays.

    But on the other hand, I’m a firm believer in taking as many words as are needed to accomplish the task at hand—proclaiming the Word in light of this Scripture in the context of that day among these people.

  20. July 9th, 2010 at 15:56 | #24

    Were the people also going to hour-long Bible studies on Sunday morning in the times mentioned above? I don’t know the answer to that (but I have my suspicions). Granted, a Bible study is not a sermon, but then some of the sermons of Augustine or Chrysostom are much more like Bible studies than what we would today consider a sermon (i.e., proclamation).

    • July 9th, 2010 at 16:17 | #25

      I think that you put your finger, perhaps not intending to, on the crux of the problem. This is actually an extremely important conversation we are having.

      In the last few decades there has developed a theory which, again, is quite novel in the history of the Lutheran Church, that there is a distinction to be made between “proclamation” and “teaching” when it comes to preaching. St. Paul said the one who aspires to the office of the bishop/pastor must be one who is “apt to teach” . . . interesting he did not say “apt to preach” or “proclaim” but “teach.”

      I do understand your point though Chris. But I really think we’ve taken the thought too far and we have reduced our people to very a very poor diet of very, very short sermons, which, frankly, and I say this with all due respect to my brothers in office, fail to deliver the kind of practical sermons about which our Confessions speak as those that attract people to church. Our sermons end up sounding the same, nearly every Sunday, and fall into a rather formulaic pattern, because they are so short and pastors are so anxious to try to get in the obligatory and rather formulaic Law and Gospel phrases, with an exhortation about Holy Communion. I’ve come to eschew some of the theories I was taught about preaching when I went to the seminary, and what helped me “cure” me of some of the things I was taught was careful study of the sermons of our Lutheran fathers, in particular.

  21. July 10th, 2010 at 06:39 | #26

    I agree completely with Pastor McCain. This is a serious problem and something I’ve complained about before. I don’t think there is a golden time on how long a sermon should be but do think less than 20 and more than 30 is problematic. In terms of time, sure, Baptists love their stories and jokes but these rarely have anything do with the Word of God they are supposed to be proclaiming. It is an embarrassment, in my opinion, to be called to preach the verbally inspired and innerant Word of God and spend a good portion of your time prattling on about yourself and reveling in your own cleverness. A total embarrassment.

    Here’s the problem:

    1. The three year lectionary has removed our Lutheran pastors from the rich tradition of Lutheran preaching. Can the three year be used? Yes, but only by exceptional Lutheran pastors. Otherwise, you have no business departing from the historic pericopes as retained (for the most part) in the LSB one year. Read the sermons of Luther, Gerhard, Loy, Walther, Stoekhardt, Sieck, to name a few, all based on the Lutheran lectionary. They will teach you how to preach. Any one that tries to convince you that there are preaching “theories” that you should embrace likely doesn’t know how to preach. You preach the Word of God and rightly divide it.

    2. Most Sundays pastors need to preach the text–verse by verse. That will be the better sermon. Sometimes it is appropriate to offer a thematic sermon based on the text but again most pastors cannot do this well. Preach the text and allow our Lord’s Word to determine and shape your words. Put simply, stop trying to be theologically clever.

    3. If at all possible, take nothing more than an outline into the pulpit. If you are going to read your sermons, then I agree 20 minutes will likely be the most people can endure. We do not have a culture, if ever one existed, that can bear someone reading a highly technical and carefully worded sermon to them. I go to too many boring conferences where I have to endure such a thing. Sermons are meant to be preached. When you preach, people listen. I’ve never written a sermon out and have never seen the need to do so. I preach one of the appointed lessons of the day, usually the Gospel, and simply follow the structure of the text. I do use a recorder that tells me how long I’ve been preaching. I always end by 30 minutes and am usually around 25. If I don’t cover everything in the text, so be it, I’ll get to that next year. (Note, I don’t actually think you can ever cover everything in any appointed pericope).

    4. Finally, one of the chief problems is lack of time meditating on the text itself. If our pastors put half the time into sermon preparation, which includes a number of things, not just translating the pericope, as they do with creating their own liturgies, debating the finer points of liturgical movements and gestures, or filling their days with internet discussions, I suspect Confessional Lutheranism, which has always had the best preachers since the Reformation, would once again be known for its robust, Bible-based preaching.

    Rev. Carl Beckwith

  22. Pr. Tom Fast
    July 10th, 2010 at 10:46 | #27

    If a pastor sets aside the regular and public confession of the Creeds, the singing of the canticles, the praying of the Our Father, the use of the lectionary, and the like, there is no way—-no matter how long and well he preaches—-that he is ever going to make up for the loss of these rich and doxological Ordinaries. And I haven’t even mentioned the catechetical impact of the artful arrangement of these things, which is also substantial.

    I’m such a weak preacher that I can’t stand the pressure of having to preach the entire shape and history of God’s dealings with humanity and the application of such to my congregants every single time I step in the pulpit. So count me as a pastor who not only doesn’t feel “restricted” by the traditional Services, but utterly relieved and even liberated.

    There is a context to every sermon. The gospel is not preached to the Church in a vacuum. This fact also needs to be taken more seriously. Just as seriously, I dare to say, as the length of a pastor’s sermon. But I’m tempting you toward thread drift, so I’ll stop here. :-)

    Suffice it to say, getting back on topic, that if we continue to walk down the path we’ve taken wrt worship, then we will need the best and fullest preaching in the entire history of the Church if we are to avoid congregational malnourishment you so properly fear.

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