What is the Purpose of Preaching?

I touched a nerved this past week on Facebook. I spent two days at a clergy retreat last week. The purpose of the retreat was not focused specifically on preaching. But, during one of the breaks, I got to talking with another pastor. To set the scene, he is starting a new church, and many of his members are not “used to” church yet. They are settling into worship. He was taught at a new church start training to preach for 12-15 minutes to be concise and keep folks wanting more. The question I posed on Facebook was this:

I was challenged at a clergy retreat to preach less (…and the church rejoices…). I noticed my sermons are creeping to the 22-25 minute mark (admittedly too long). The challenge was to aim for 12-15 minutes! Not for the sake of getting to lunch quicker, but to present a clear and focused idea that give people energy to act, rather be worn out from listening. What do you think?

Thirty-three reply comments and countless “likes” on a variety of views brought up several issues. Here are the summaries, each of which are points that deserve a blog posts themselves:

  • Consumerism: Many expressed concern that shorting a sermon felt like we were worshiping the clock. In a world which prizes instant gratification, the church needs to present a different, healthier, response. Kristen really wrapped this up well.
  • Precision: A 25 minute sermon that just rambles could be brought into 12 minutes with more focus. Precision in preaching allows us to do the most good. Here is where things like toastmasters and public speaking can help a preacher. Joey gave a great image. “Scenario #1: A fighter can punch his opponent for 10 rounds, kick the crap out of him, win the fight, and people will know he won… Scenario#2: A fighter can knock his opponent out in the first round, win the fight, and people will be talking about that knockout for days.” Remember, this is an image, no one is advocating beating people up in preaching.
  • Biblical Examples: I was grateful for the variety of biblical examples. Daniel reminded us of the Apostle Paul’s night long sermon, and Paul (the campus minister, not the apostle, though he is a fantastic leader) reminded us of Jesus’ 6 minute sermon. It’s hard to make a clear determination on length, as each preaching setting is unique.
  • Creating Holy Spirit space: I enjoyed Chris’ comments here. Looking at the worship service as a whole, rather than in parts, can create lots of different opportunities. Worship is a “thin space” where the presence of God is closer (or at least more discernable) than other times.

One issue stood out to me above all else. In each response, and in my questions, I found myself asking “What is the purpose of preaching?” Again, several great answers were given. Preaching was described as (“giving meat”), provoking thought, spirit-led, education, and motivation. All these are right.

Upon personal reflection, I settled on preaching as illumination. Sometimes, I look at a list of lectionary scriptures, other times I am motivated by an issue or topic. Either way, scripture is my starting point, and thus, some form of education must happen. Attention needs to be given to the setting, situation, and context of the verse or verses. Christian education happens in small groups and Bible studies, but it also happen in the pulpit. Jesus’ repeated use of Old Testament scripture in His preaching speaks to the need for continued education. But, I don’t want to stop there. Application is the process where what we have learned in God’s presence, is applied to our lives by the leading of the Holy Spirit. So the scriptures have light shed on them, and in turn, God shines light onto our lives and journeys. When I finish preaching, my hope is that God will have spoken through me. That listeners will have heard the Lord speak into their life. Perhaps this is why it can be hard to define preaching. The ways God works in and through our lives is not always crystal clear. There is a certain mystery when we worship God.

I really appreciated all the feedback, as it helped to bring a variety of observations into perspective.

I copied the reply comments from Facebook:

Kristen Only in America…

Matthew I’m going for 12 minutes this week!

Brian Johnson Say more Kristen, I think I know what you mean, but I’m interested.

Andy Sermon-ettes create Christian-ettes

Chris I think if you can say it in 25 minutes you can say it in 15 minutes …

Kristen Hmmm…my first thoughts…we want instant everything…what is easy…what doesn’t require too much out of me…etc. Second, I think by shortening a sermon to 12-15 minutes it creates a need to dumb-down (can I say that?) the material and therefore looses depth and challenge. I also think that shortening the sermon means we are shortening the amount of time we are allowing for the Word of God to be spoken/proclaimed. It sounds like it is more about pleasing a crowd than preaching the Word of God. Now, I know this is America, and it is not the rest of the world, but if you look at other cultures you will see most services going for hours at a time (and no one would complain)…we cannot even fathom giving that much time out of our lives. Ok, I’m done because now I am just rambling. Just my two cents. 🙂 🙂

Brad How much of our time is God really worth? We seem to be more concerned about the length of the sermon than we are about the hurting people in this world.

Paul I read somewhere recently (a blog maybe? can’t remember) that the longest recorded sermon in Acts, when you read it aloud, was 6 minutes….seemed pretty effective for them, lol…

Ryan I preach for 25 minutes and I’m having to cut a great deal out of the sermon to make it fit. I find 25 isnt enough time to tackle a passage faithfully. Giving the flock meat takes time.

Barbara I believe God will work in 12 minutes and 25 minutes…let Him speak through you. Sermon moments are great but it’s everyday when He speaks the loudest to those who witness your life.

Brad If you think you are being to repetitive or just filling space (Not likely) then fine shorten your sermon. Just don’t shorten your sermon because of complaints from the congregation. If it’s something God has put on your heart, take the heat and deliver what He has given you.

Karrie Some things can be said in 12 minutes, others take 25 or more. Say what you need to say to be effective. We don’t mind how long you speak…unless of course there’s a Packer game on…. ha-ha, just kidding! Maybe those who think it needs to be shorter are not truly hearing the message?!

Mark If they are truly challenging the organization of the message, this could be a helpful strategy for a short-term practice of making better use of your speech. However if this is a challenge to manage worship time, I find it discouraging. As a beginner student pastor, my messages were originally fairly short. With more experience, the message laid upon my heart dictated length. With that in mind, I usually strove for 20 minutes (plus/minus 5). Without knowing the context of the “retreat,” it is difficult to know the intent.

Robert I would hope there were actually challenging you to preach better, not less. Usually less rambling means better organization and presentation which can be translated into less “preaching”.

Joshua Brian, I actually apply this to prayer life as well. I was spending a good hour a day in the Word and prayer. In order to be more efficient I cut it down to 30 min. of more focused prayer. Eventually if I get really good I may be able to condense it to 15 min. or Lord willing 5 min.

Pete Sechler Ha! We should talk. I do a lot of public speaking, lecturing and presenting and this has always been my challenge. Its tough – I have always said that a well written 500 word essay is much tougher that a 1500 word paper. Jesus was a master at direct, concise and impactful messages that hit people right where they lived.

Joey Scenario #1: A fighter can punch his opponent for 10 rounds, kick the crap out of him, win the fight, and people will know he won… Scenario#2: A fighter can knock his opponent out in the first round, win the fight, and people will be talking about that knockout for days. Hell, it might even be on ESPN’s Top Ten.

Heather I”m not convinced that shorter, more concise sermons are the issue. Perhaps it may be the listeners? Particularly in the West… jmo. 🙂

Katie I think 12-15 minutes is probably long enough to give a clear, focused idea, but I don’t think it is enough time to develop that idea. How will people know how to apply what you’ve told them? How will you have time to dig into the text and build background? But maybe I’m prejudiced because I enjoy Beth Moore’s hour long teachings so much . . .

Ashley I’m all for the 12-15 minute sermons. Jason has picked a great Methodist church for us but if I had done the picking we’d be Episcopalian and enjoying 13 minute sermons. 😉 (but I do love our church!)

Charles my goal was usually 20 minutes, but time should trump message. Sometimes the presentation and the voicing can keep the time reasonable.

Laura really? Our sermons are always 40 minutes and are never rambling or repetitive…just meaty, thought-provoking, & Spirit-led. I don’t think I would want a shorter message… And I hope Joshua above was kidding?

Brian Johnson To clarify; the goal was more effective preaching by being more concise and creating a way for people to leave wanting more. Keep discussing, this is really helpful

Mark I think it may be a good exercise to develop better precision in proclamation. However, I still cringe at putting time restraints on listening to what God has for us. You need to be direct without sacrificing the fulfillment of what God has for us.

Josh All elements of a worship service are important but I think you can make a strong argument from Scripture that the “main event” (for lack of a better term) is the opening, reading, explanation, and application of God’s Word. It makes sense then that the most important thing gets the most amount of time devoted to it. In my experience, 12-15 minutes just isn’t enough time. I’m all for clarity and try to be as clear and concise as possible but some texts just can’t be adequately covered in that short of time. One thing that has helped with clarity is to type out manuscripts of my sermons (which I admittedly still don’t always do). As Thabiti Anyabwile said, this will help you to “squeeze your thoughts through your fingers.”

Chris Why make a rule? Spend time with your team (musicians, artists, other creative types …) and think of the service as a whole story; use what the scripture demands, no less, but no MORE either …

Jason Ye without sin cast the first stone. Pretty powerful and spoken in seconds!

Drew An interesting discussion. Chris Logan – personally I think you have it right. At FUMCO we are blessed with having adult sunday school classes which I feel is an appropriate place for my educational learning. Not everyone is that fortunate. As a congregant I feel the real question is do I need to be educated in worship or motivated?

Daniel Deliver the Word, no matter how long or short. Deliver the Word! And for the comment above, the longest sermon I know of in the Bible was the one Paul preached all night until the son came up where the kid fell out of the window, and they prayed for his healing. I sure wish I could have been there to hear Paul.

Clint ‎Brian Russell always said exegete your audience. If you have an audience that can only handle a fifteen minute sermon then you have to limit your depth and be as efficient as you can.

Brian Remember it is also about the skill of the speaker. Most who preach shouldn’t speak more than 5 minutes… Remember short message does not mean watered down or lacking substance. Longer sermon does not guarantee quality either.

Cindy  I truly believe that the Holy Spirit is the one Who should be talking through our pastors. For this to be done, a lot of prayer and guidance should be the goal for giving sermons. Let the Spirit flow! Your preparation should be made and then prayerfully given to congregation. You are intstruments of the Lord, His voice. If you are truly allowing the Spirit to use you, His timing will be right. That is my two cents. 🙂

Joey I wanna see you on ESPN’s top ten!

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