Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Please Pastor, Could You Lengthen the Sermons a Bit?

I’m currently reading “Pastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry” by William Willimon, and came across the following quote:

“At a meeting of pastors, a noted church observer was asked, ‘What about the length of sermons?’ The observer responded, ‘From what I observe, sermons are getting both longer and shorter. It’s the tasteful eighteen-minute sermon that seems to be disappearing. In postmodernity, the middle disappears. I think the main factor is the median age of your congregation.’ Then he added an observation that surprised us. ‘And the younger your congregation, the longer the sermon.’ What? We though the under-thirty, MTV crowd had an attention span reduced to the length of time between television commercials.

He went on to say that those under thirty are unformed, uninformed, and malformed in the Christian faith, and many of them know it. They therefore long for formation, regeneration, so sermons to them will need to take more time to tell the story, to name the name, to go over the basics of the faith.” (216)

I’m not convinced that the older generation is any more formed than the younger in the Christian faith, but I do believe longer sermons are essential in an age when the catechetical sermon may be the most important form of sermon to preach. What do you think of the quote and its implications?


  1. Ironically, what may have killed the eighteen-minute long sermon is the institution of weekly Eucharist. Both time-wise we are limited because of the time that the Sacrament takes up, and we also displace the sermon from its importance in our preparation. We can easily tend to forget that the sermon - the proclaimed Word is just as much "means of grace" as the eaten and drunk Word. Can't we ever get it right? :)

  2. The last comment is something that I fail to understand. Why should there ever be a "time conflict" between the preaching of the Word and the celebration of the Sacrament? Is there something more important after Church that we Christians mustn't be late for?

    The mind-set seems to be that there is a hard-and-fast limit to how long we are willing to stay in Church. We'll sit still for a 20- or 30-minute sermon; or we'll be patient through the liturgy of Holy Communion; but God forbid that anyone should ask us to do both in the same service. If there is Communion, we expect the pastor to cut the length of the sermon in half. (Or worse: I'm ashamed to say that in our parish the pastor will sometimes omit parts of the liturgy - not read all of the appointed Scripture lessons, or skip the Creed - in order to "make time" for the sacrament.)

    I guess it's my background as an Orthodox rearing its ugly head again, but after being accustomed to standing in Church for 90 minutes (minimum; more if there is a baptism or other special service) every Sunday, this urge to get the liturgy over with and run for the door really sticks in my craw.

    It's by far the most important thing we do every week. It won't kill us to give it a full hour and a half.

  3. Chris,

    Trust me, it's not that I want to get out of church! Actually, in our parish, worship usually lasts 75 minutes or slightly longer. Our sermons are normally fifteen to twenty minutes long, and no one complains. Our communion, frankly, lasts longer than it needs to because we still commune by table (circular altar rail - we can accommodate about thirty people at a time).

    But another issue is scheduling multiple activities on a Sunday morning. For us it is 8:15 worship, 9:30 Sunday School, 10:45 worship. Sunday School normally starts late because worship ends at 9:30 or sometimes even later. I myself think we could probably stand to move the early worship back to 8:00 AM. But there is also a lack of desire to rock the boat.

  4. It is certainly easier to accomodate a flexible worship length if you don't have a series of things scheduled on Sunday morning. I have been finding that if the preaching is good, and we actually take our time with the liturgy and don't rush it, the congregation neither notices nor is concerned about a longer service, because the service is actually about worship and the performance of the gospel, rather than a perfunctory rite we have to get done in order to move on to other things. Nothing is more boring than something rushed.

  5. I love the "around the rail communion!" We do that at our "traditional" service which often runs late.

  6. As you might imagine, I'm with you guys who actually want to feed us with both Word and Sacrament -- and the more, the better. With Lutherans, part of the time issue can be addressed by remembering the difference between a low mass and a high mass. In my experience at any rate (and this is most certainly true in the congregation where I park my butt), we are not good at recognizing the cycles of the liturgy. During the summer green season, for example, there is nothing wrong with coming right out with the apostolic greeting and the prayer of the day and moving on the the prayers. Announcements belong in the bulletin; they needn't be read or made orally.

    Then on high Sundays, drag a little bit more of the goodies out -- even it it takes longer. Warn the education program of the schedule and help the teachers/presenters plan to pare down a little. (After all, Sunday school is an adjunct to the mass, not coequal with it.)

    Overall, I think congregations will not object to longer sermons IF there's content there. Don't simply string extra illustrations along. And vary the length: If pastors don't have something to say about an issue, they should recognize that fact and shut up.

    Or am I just thinking wishfully?


  7. To paraphrase Roger Ebert, no good sermon is too long, but all bad sermons are too long.