The Sleeping Congregation by William Hogarth (1736)You have all done it. Or at least have been tempted to. You have been in church and grabbed your smart phone to check quickly your email, text messages, Facebook, or whatever else you do with that thing. Not that using your smart phone in church is inherently evil, but you did it during the sermon! You did it during the preacher’s fourth sub-point of the third main point of why serving is healthy for Christians. He’d already been going for a half hour, you plead to your conscience.
Or worse, you committed the eternal church sin of falling asleep during the sermon, only to be nudged awake by an elbow in your side—or by a fall out a window. We’ll get to that, just wait.
As I estimate, the average committed church member will likely sit through about 48 sermons every year (missing a Sunday here and there for vacation, sickness, or other reasons). But add in other meetings throughout the week and special occasions where some sort of sermonizing occurs, and that number increases.
Consider the recent Pew Research Center analysis:
billed as the first of its kind — of 49,719 sermons delivered in April and May  that were shared online by 6,431 churches. Pew described its research as “the most exhaustive attempt to date to catalogue and analyze American religious sermons.”
According to Pew, the median length of the sermons was 37 minutes.1
Multiply 37 minutes by 48 Sundays, and that’s about 30 hours total of listening to Sunday preaching every year!
But before you click the back button on your browser assuming I am lobbying for the complete deconstruction or elimination of the Sunday sermon, I am not, really. I just want to think critically about what could be modern Christianity’s most sacred cow in need of revision, and what the benefits could be of shorter sermons.
Let me ask you: do you remember the points of the sermon you listened to this past week? More importantly, what did you do with them in your personal life? How about the week before? And the week before that? If long sermonizing actually were as effective as the Church believes it to be (as evidenced by its 500-year history as the centerpiece of the Protestant Sunday church service), shouldn’t it have a much greater effect on the personal lives of those in the audience?
With the average adult attention span of someone listening to a lecture in an audience environment being somewhere around 20 minutes, why do we think a monologue given every week by the same person for 37 minutes or more is the most effective way to generate real life change or transfer biblical knowledge?
As clearly shown and thoroughly documented by David C. Norrington in his scandalous book To Preach or not to Preach, the Sunday sermon as we know it today and are accustomed to was not a staple of the typical New Testament Sunday church meeting. From the available information in the New Testament, the sermon as we know it today (the long monologue) was something done only periodically, on special occasions, or for certain purposes in the New Testament church. A more regular teaching method was what is called “dialogical,” characterized by dialogue or participating in dialogue. In other words, people conversed with one another about spiritual content during church.
Of course one could argue that Paul once spoke all day and night:
7 On the first day of the week we came together to break bread. Paul spoke to the people and, because he intended to leave the next day, kept on talking until midnight. (Acts 20:7)
But look what happened next:
8 There were many lamps in the upstairs room where we were meeting. 9 Seated in a window was a young man named Eutychus, who was sinking into a deep sleep as Paul talked on and on. When he was sound asleep, he fell to the ground from the third story and was picked up dead. 10 Paul went down, threw himself on the young man and put his arms around him. “Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “He’s alive!” 11 Then he went upstairs again and broke bread and ate. After talking until daylight, he left. (Acts 20:8-11)
In light of the aforementioned, here are 7 benefits of shorter sermons:
1. Easier to remember one main idea
This assumes that a shorter sermon is a more concise, pointed, and simple sermon. Not simple in the meaning of being dumbed down, but simple in that the preacher chose one point and one point only. He got his one main point across and because it is only one point, the people can remember it easier to apply and consider it through the week.
In fact, popular mega-church preacher Andy Stanley wrote the book Communicating for a Change on the power and methodology of the one point sermon. Shorter sermons with one main point make it more likely that the listener will apply what he can remember the next day (or even that same afternoon).
2. TED does it
While this may sound funny at first, and possibly sacrilegious to purists who would never appeal to secular examples of doing things to apply in the church, there is a specific reason why TED structures its speeches the way it does. (If you do not know what a TED talk is, check out the TED website.) Here is a quote from TED curator Chris Anderson when he was asked why TED talks are 18 minutes long:
It’s long enough to be serious and short enough to hold people’s attention. It turns out that this length also works incredibly well online. It’s the length of a coffee break. So, you watch a great talk, and forward the link to two or three people. It can go viral, very easily.
The 18-minute length also works much like the way Twitter forces people to be disciplined in what they write. By forcing speakers who are used to going on for 45 minutes to bring it down to 18, you get them to really think about what they want to say. What is the key point they want to communicate? It has a clarifying effect. It brings discipline.2
Long enough to be serious. Short enough to hold people’s attention. Forces discipline on the speaker. Communicates a key point. Has a clarifying effect. Because of these things, people will better remember it. And they will want more to listen to it. There is a reason why that since June 2006 there have been over one billion (yes, billion) TED video views online. Enough said.
3. Holds the listeners’ attention
The average adult attention span of someone listening to a lecture in an audience environment is somewhere around 20 minutes.
What happens when you go on Facebook and see someone’s comment on a post that extends all the way down the screen? How likely are you to read it all? Even the sight of it is a deterrent.
Or how about when you go on YouTube. Are you more likely to click and watch something that is 15 minutes as opposed to something that is 30-45?
Shorter sermons with a clarified message keep the listener engaged. Much more could be said here and supported by endless statistics that point to the average adult’s short attention span.
The bottom line is people are less likely to get bored and reach for that smart phone if the mental load of engaging with the sermon is not too heavy, drawn out, detailed, verbose, or just plain boring.
4. Less is more and can lead to a greater impact
As discussed in point 2 above about TED talks, less is more. And the impact is greater. I can personally attest to sitting through countless sermons with multiple points while not being able to remember them even that same afternoon. Am I just stupid? Lazy? Unwilling? Defiant? No. I am human.
Isn’t this why you often hear a preacher say in a tongue-in-cheek way, “If you don’t remember anything else I have said this morning, then remember this!” Speakers utter this phrase when they have come to the true main point, the most important point, of their entire talk. I would rather have a pastor in a sermon just tell me what he actually expects and wants me to remember, and focus on that.
To-do lists from sermons of how to grow spiritually go mostly unchecked through the week. One main, meaty point though can focus like a laser. It can lead to greater impact and retention, because we can deal with it.
5. Teaches the members to rely on their own personal diet of Bible study rather than the pastor’s
Why are we at church Sunday after Sunday, anyway? Have we been so conditioned to the Sunday church routine that if there were no sermon some Sunday morning we would feel like church did not really happen? Or there was something wrong? Would everyone sit there and look at each other wondering why the programming is not going on? Ephesians 4:11-12 is clear that it is not a pastor’s job to do all the work of ministry for the flock. He is to teach them to do it themselves, and they build up one another.
Many are in the habit of living off the preacher’s weekly Bible study, one meal a week on Sunday morning, spoon fed. Shorter sermons teach the people that Sunday morning messages are merely a supplement to what should be going on during the week. It was never God’s design for a Christian to fall into the lifestyle pattern of relying on someone else to feed him the Word of God—especially in a country where literacy rates are sky high and bibles are freely available.
6. Helps restore a healthy balance of expectations…
…for the pastor and for the people.
For the pastor: Is the most effective use of a pastor’s time to sit in an office for 20-30 hours every week polishing a 40 minute sermon with all the Greek words perfectly parsed, all points and sub-points on cue, and with the proper number of jokes and illustrations in strategic places to keep people’s attention? Where in Scripture do we see the model where one person’s Sunday sermonizing abilities are responsible for the rise or fall of an entire church concerning its numerical growth or decline, the happiness and contentment of all of its people, and its overall spiritual reputation? This model is unhealthy as well as unbiblical.
For the people: It is our job to take care of ourselves spiritually. We personally signed up to follow the Rabbi, not to rely on someone else to do it for us and then get upset when he does not meet our expectations. We can even fall into the trap of leaving for another church with a “better” preacher who we “like” more. The spirit of the shorter sermon encourages the people that they are the ones responsible for feeding themselves the Word of God and seeing to their spiritual growth.
Churches that refocus on the spirit of the shorter sermon are more likely to produce in their people a sense of ownership and expectation that is healthy. The people know that their spiritual growth is not determined by or tied to how talented the preacher is.
7. It can help relieve the pastor (and the church) from performance-based ministry
It breaks my heart to know that so many pastors have full-time jobs that hang on their weekly sermonizing abilities. Let’s just admit it: the significant majority of churches pay pastors to perform on Sunday mornings. Could this be contributing to why pastoral burnout is extremely high? Has the typical American Sunday morning church experience come down to a professionally trained pastor sermonizing to a passive audience? Every week? And the greater the pastor’s celebrity, charisma, and stage presence, the higher the church attendance? So it goes.
The spirit of the shorter sermon can help refocus this show mentality and relieve the pastor from the trap that his Sunday performance is what makes the church go. Nowhere in Scripture do we ever sense that someone’s teaching or preaching has a performance-like feeling. And nowhere do we sense that people are expecting the preacher to have prepared for hours to keep their attention, make them laugh, bring them to the brink emotionally, and that the whole church’s success depended on how well he did it.
There are plenty more benefits of shorter sermons. Hopefully these have been helpful and, if anything, stir critical thinking to what most Christians do every Sunday.
*Find the actual study data here
|The interview Chris Anderson: The Art of the TED Talk, which is the source of this quote, was originally published at bizmore.com and is no longer available.