Why (and How) I Started Preaching Shorter Sermons

What would I tell the young man who surrendered to the preaching ministry almost twenty years ago? I would insist, in addition to studying the Scriptures (i.e. theology, scriptural interpretation), that he becomes a student of (1) how people learn and (2) how to communicate effectively to them. Sadly, many pastors have ignored non-theological disciplines, such as communications and educational philosophies, which are paramount to their vocation/calling. If the goal is to communicate biblical truth and make disciples of Jesus, then why are so many of us unwilling to learn or relearn how to teach and communicate? Frankly, it is either ignorance or arrogance and sometimes a combination of the two that has kept many of us from becoming effective communicators of biblical truth.

Law School Created a Good Crisis

My experiences as a pastor, professor, and student have exposed me to a plethora of theories and approaches to teaching. However, it was my last educational venture that propelled me to rethink my approach to preaching. In law school, students are subjected to basically one style of teaching, lectures. These lectures include a modest form of the Socratic method, which is (in reality) only used to verify that students have read the cases. The majority of questions posed by the professors seem to have very little to do with engaging the reasoning or logic behind the holdings (i.e. decisions made by the court). Instead, this pseudo-Socratic method requires dry recitations of facts and holdings by the student on call. (A dry recitations of facts? Sounds like the majority of sermons.) Throughout the lecture, various students are called upon to answer questions, which sometimes feels more like an interrogation. While one student is in the proverbial “hot seat,” the other students wait anxiously for their name to be called. In order to be prepared for a cold call (e.g., “Mr. Francis tell me about Marbury v. Madison.”), most students are not listening to the current case but instead are reading their notes on the next case to be prepared if their name is called. One student aptly stated that everything he learned in Law school was during the two weeks of cramming that ALL students do between the last day of class and the final exam. Frankly, the primary teaching method used in law school is archaic.

preaching shorter sermonsAs I sat through boring and long lectures, waiting anxiously to be called upon to discuss any 1 of the 30-50 cases I had read for the week, I began to ask a simple question, “Am I effective as a preacher?” No hiding behind trite statements about the power of preaching. No quasi-spiritual proclamations that the Holy Spirit uses all preaching. It was time to ask hard questions about how people learn and how to communicate effectively to them. Understanding how people learn would lay the groundwork for becoming a more effective preacher (communicator) of the Word of God.

Long Sermons are More About the Preacher than the Word

Although the blowback for making such a statement will be strong, I am willing to take the heat for my opinion. That is, long sermons are more about the preacher’s ego and/or insecurities than the call to make disciples. If the average attention span for a lecture/sermon is roughly 10-15 minutes, then why would someone preach for an hour? If retention rates plummet after 20 minutes, then why continue to speak well beyond that point? I can hear the pseudo-orthodox preachers now, “Because it is the Word of God.” To which I respond, “You’ve defeated your own argument.” Since it is the Word of God, you should seek to maximize the amount of material that your hearers retain.

If it is the Word of God, which I absolutely believe that it is (all 66 books), then why overwhelm, overload, and exhaust the people who so desperately need it? The answer is simple–some of us just don’t know how to teach differently. We’ve either learned by watching others or through trial and error. Thus, many pastors are simply ignorant of how to communicate effectively. Conversely, some pastors are egotistical, which is usually a cover for insecurity. This type of pastor uses the sermon to overwhelm the people with information, covering every word, pronouncing Hebrew and Greek words (although the congregation is ignorant of both), and proudly announces every possible theological point in the text. But why? Because he needs you to need him. That is, he may be very insecure and uses the pulpit to obtain what would otherwise elude him–the respect of people. Thus, the longer the sermon the smarter the pastor, right? Not necessarily!

Before I go any further, I want to make it clear that I am not advocating for an ideal length for a sermon. However, I am suggesting that the length of many sermons is not the result of careful research on how people learn and retain information. Moreover, the length of most sermons has more to do with the pastor’s personality than an intentional and strategic use of time. Imagine a scenario wherein you have only five minutes to communicate the meaning of a text and how to apply it. Sadly, it takes some pastors five minutes to get past the irrelevant comments about their week, remarks about their time studying the passage, and how excited they are to preach. Just stand up and preach!

The reality is that you can be more effective if you are willing to be more intentional. Develop a plan to strategically present each part of the message to maximize impact and retention. Don’t write/develop sermons that would impress your preacher friends. Who cares what those monkish nerds think? Instead, write/develop sermons for the congregation that you’ve been called to shepherd. Jesus said, “Feed my sheep” (John 21:17), not impress your long-bearded friends in the gospel-ghetto.

Caution: Don’t misunderstand my previous comments as advocating a felt-needs approach to preaching. The content of your sermon must be biblical and centered on the person and work of Jesus Christ. My previous point is singularly focused on the delivery and duration of a sermon, which is not a substitute for biblical content.

The Equation is Simple:

Preach Biblical Content +

Communicate Effectively =

Your Responsibility.

It is the responsibility of the Holy Spirit to illuminate the preaching so that the hearers are convicted, called to Christ, etc. Sadly, so many of our sermons have given the Spirit very little to work with.

The Imperative to Make Disciples Means that Preachers Must Make the Most of Every Sermon

Before you write me off, consider the main point (the only imperative in the Greek text) of the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20): make disciples. Only a fool would try to teach a congregation of English-speaking people in German (or any other language for that matter). However, we foolishly employ ineffective ways of communicating every Sunday in our pulpits. Such as long, dry lectures filled with every possible contextual fact, endless etymologies, etc. But, why? If we are serious about making disciples then we must be serious about learning how to communicate effectively. Making disciples requires learning the language, norms, trends, etc. of a culture. If we are going to evangelize unbelievers, we must learn to translate complex theological concepts into a language they can understand. For example, the New Testament provides different metaphors for explaining soteriology (the doctrine of salvation). Here a few examples: 1) The doctrine of redemption is expressed in the imagery of the slave market with Christ purchasing us from our previous masters (i.e., a depraved mind, Satan). 2) The doctrine of regeneration is explained in the metaphor of the cemetery. That is, those who were once dead in their sins have been made alive in Christ. The use of metaphors in the New Testament demonstrates that the inspired authors sought to communicate effectively, both intra- and cross-culturally, by employing language (e.g., images, terms, metaphors) that their readers/audience could understand.

If the inspired writers of the New Testament went to such great lengths to communicate effectively the gospel, then why do so many preachers teach in a way that is difficult for their congregations to either understand or retain? Pride! The sermon is the insecure pastor’s opportunity to demonstrate his intelligence and competence, or so he thinks. Although his skill in exegeting the Scriptures and his understanding of theology may be on display, sadly his ignorance of how people learn and his inability to communicate effectively are equally and painfully apparent.

A Few of the Reasons I Started Considering the Length of My Sermons (not in any particular order)

1. A Lack of Retention: In conversations with my family, church members, friends, colleagues, and other pastors, I realized that very little of what I taught was retained a few days later. My methodological analysis was simple, ask them to share with me what they took away (remembered) about the sermon. If I was lucky (blessed!), some of them could tell me either a paraphrased version of the main point or an illustration. However, the majority of those asked could only remember an illustration or a secondary point of the sermon. Some could not remember anything. It is humbling to realize that much of what you say is “going in one ear and out the other.”

2. Video Analytics: The two venues that I use to post video sermons, Facebook and YouTube, provide helpful analytical tools. These analytics include total views, the average length of a view, etc. Based on the analytics for fifty teaching/preaching videos, I discovered the average retention time is between 3 to 5 minutes. These numbers can be easily skewed by the fact that some people watch the entire sermon every time one is posted and others only watch for a few seconds. These statistics, however, made me realize that I had to be very intentional about how I use the first 3 to 5 minutes of every sermon. Why? Because that may be all that some people ever hear. Although the attention span of someone in the pew may be longer, it is not a stretch to conclude that they are also quickly tuning you out.

3. My Best Friend: My wife is the most faithful Christian that I’ve ever met. After almost two decades of listening to bad sermons preached by her husband, she has earned the right to provide guidance. As my biggest encourager, she always tries to say something positive about my preaching. However, when I convince her to say something critical, which is very difficult, she has said that the sermon was too long. Moreover, she has told me that the way I present some information makes it difficult to understand. Any man called to be a pastor who doesn’t take seriously his responsibility to disciple his own wife is neglecting his first and most important ministry, his family. I’m not just preaching to a crowd, I am pastoring a church, which means that I must take serious such loving criticisms.

4. My Children: As a young pastor, I erroneously believed that my children needed to learn how to listen, and then they’d be able to understand preaching. Wrong! My job as their dad is to disciple them. Thus, my preaching should be structured to impact their lives. Recently, I asked my younger children what my sermon was about. They each shared the same illustration but had no idea what it was about. Ouch! Clearly, I’ve got some work to do when it comes to communicating more effectively.

5. The Congregation Deserves My Best: Young pastors, both in age and ministry experience, erroneously believe that the congregation wants all the notes and footnotes from their favorite commentaries. They’ve bought into the myth that the congregation can digest in forty minutes what it took forty hours to study and develop. Although I work hard studying the Scriptures, giving the congregation my best doesn’t end in my office (i.e., my kitchen table), it continues throughout my delivery. Therefore, I must learn how they learn and communicate in such a way that they can (1) understand, and (2) apply the content of my sermons.

6. It’s Not About Me: Preaching should never be about the preacher. It is irrelevant how long I “like” to preach, how long I “feel” comfortable preaching, or how long my monkish pastor friends think I should preach. Preaching is about making Christ known through the exposition of His Word. That is, it is all about Jesus. Taking up your cross, pastor, may require you to humble yourself and admit that you have a lot to learn about how people learn and how to teach effectively.

7. The Call to Make Disciples: Frankly, the amount of time that I invest in preaching should produce substantially more fruit. Not setting aside the role of the Holy Spirit, I know that I must work smarter and not necessarily harder to see results. By results, I mean making disciples.

The How of Preaching Shorter and (Hopefully) More Effective Sermons

The Public Reading of the Bible +

The Exhortation/Explanation of the Text =

One Sermon! 

Although I’ve covered the importance of reading the sermon text separate from the sermon in a different post, I will quickly address the why and how of essentially breaking the Sunday sermon into two parts. First, most pastors don’t take seriously the public reading of the Bible. The Bible alone, without your comments, is powerful enough to bring conviction, encourage believers, and call unbelievers to faith and repentance. Second, by reading the Bible and then immediately jumping into the exhortation (commonly referred to as the sermon), the people aren’t given any time to think about the text. Thus, I’ve intentionally broken what would be a 30-35 minute sermon into two parts.

1st The Strategic and Intentional Use of the Public Reading of Scripture

As a young pastor, I wanted to break my sermons up into smaller portions that would be presented at different points in the worship gathering. Tradition, logistics, and the fear of being misunderstood always prevented me from turning the Sunday morning gatherings into my own laboratory. However, as a church planter, I’ve been able to insert minor and progressive adaptations to the worship gatherings. Over the past three years, I’ve slowly and patiently enhanced the public reading of the preaching text to an essential and foundational part of the sermon, although it happens 5 to 10 minutes before the “real preaching!”

The Nuts and Bolts of How to Use the Public Reading of the Scripture as an Effective Introduction to the Sermon

A. Read and reread the text 10-20 times throughout the week. You’d be surprised at how many preachers don’t read the preaching text more than a few times during the week. The goal here is twofold: (1) to become so intimately acquainted with the text that you can refer to it with ease during the sermon, and (2) to be prepared to read the text publicly. During the week, I time how long it takes to read the text. I want to know how long it takes to read when adjusting my voice (tone, inflection, etc.) for different characters and emphasis in the text. I typically try to imagine how I would read the text to my wife and children, all of which have short attention spans. Try to make the text come to life in your public reading.

Caution: Don’t try to be somebody you aren’t during the public reading of the text. It’s not theater, it’s worship. However, this is not an excuse for being dry and monotone.

B. Prepare the congregation for the text. Although I don’t take a great deal of time setting up the text during the public reading, I do tell the congregation what to look for in the text as they listen. For example, while reading from the early chapters of Revelation, I urged the church to look for and underline any word or phrase that was related to “perseverance.” On a different occasion, before reading from Leviticus 1, I asked the congregation to consider the elements of worship that would shock a contemporary audience (e.g., wringing the neck of a bird, tearing apart livestock, throwing blood on the altar). These are examples of how I am trying to prepare the congregation for the sermon (i.e., exhortation, explanation, and application of the text).

C. Giving the congregation time to digest and reflect upon the text. The time between the reading of the sermon text and the typical sermon is so short that the listeners have only seconds to think about or react to the text. Thus, the average congregant is not proactively listening to the sermon, but instead is reacting to each element of the exposition, which decreases the rate of retention. However, if the congregation has already actively walked through the text, then is given time to reflect upon it, they are more likely to actively listen to the sermon, which increases the rate of retention. I recommend placing at least one worship song between the public reading of the text and the sermon. This will give the congregation approximately five minutes to think about the text. Additionally, I insert the children’s sermon (i.e., catechism) between the public reading and the sermon, which provides another 3 to 5 minutes for the text to be absorbed.

The Public Reading of the Bible (5-7 Minutes) +

The Exhortation/Explanation of the Text (25-30 Minutes) =

One Sermon (30-37 Minutes)!

Point of Clarification: There are times when longer sermons are appropriate and effective. However, these occasions are the exception and not the rule. When a preacher is led by the Holy Spirit to continue preaching beyond his normal length of time, he must be obedient. To do otherwise would be reckless. Thus, my constructive criticism should be weighed across a wide spectrum. There are still occasions when I preach up to 45-minute sermons because the circumstances or text calls for it, or simply because the Holy Spirit is leading me to continue. Yet, I do so with the understanding that I must be intentional about my teaching method and approach. This is especially true when I am preaching through a book or chapter of the Bible. The sermon may be longer because I am connecting the current text to what proceeds and follows. Thus, the extra material is reinforcing retention not taking away from it.

Conclusion: What is your ultimate goal, pastor? If it is to sound smart and impress people, then ignore everything I’ve written. If it is to make disciples, then start challenging your own presuppositions about your preaching style. I’m not suggesting that if you approach preaching differently than me that you will be ineffective. However, I am saying that all of us need to be intentional and strategic about how we approach preaching God’s inspired, inerrant, and infallible Word.

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