Long Sermons

sermon

I have never liked sermons.

They are three points too many and fifteen-to-twenty minutes longer than necessary. Even then, it took my church years — years — to get through Jeremiah, verse by verse. My then-boyfriend, a Catholic used to getting through most of Scripture every year, cracked up about this. He’d call me on Sundays and ask, “Still going through Jeremiah?”

“Actually, we just finished,” I said, “and we’re starting a new book.”

“Oh, really? Which one?”

“Isaiah.”

But hey, I give a Baptist church props for reading the Old Testament at all!

Being in a relationship with a Catholic, I heard his odd complaints about Protestant church services, like, “Why do these churches call themselves ‘Bible’ churches when there’s more Scripture read at a Catholic church?” But all of his occasional, confused questions ultimately went back to this point: “Why are the sermons so long?”

I didn’t get his exasperation until I spent half the year in Catholic and Orthodox churches. Their homilies are blessedly, blessedly short. They’re more pastoral. They have one point. They’re about fifteen minutes tops, because everyone’s really here for the Eucharist, not a crash course in systematic theology or verse by verse exposition of Jeremiah.

I love that for two reasons: (1) you’re not sitting there crossing and uncrossing your legs and wiggling and wishing with all your might that you were that two-year-old passed out in his mom’s arms. (2) Less sermon time means more participation. Even though Orthodox liturgy takes longer than the average Protestant service, we’re singing almost the entire time. We’re crossing, bowing, and prostrating. All five of our senses are engaged in worship.

Now that I’m used to short homilies, I’ve lost all patience for long sermons, especially those that go over their allotted time by twenty minutes because the pastor keeps telling stories. I get so passionately grumpy about this issue.

I attended a Christian educators’ conference with three fifty-minute sermons in two days. The irony was we would get out of hour-long sessions telling us the importance of utilizing all three learning styles (kinesthetic, auditory, and visual), differentiating for different students, and moving quickly to maintain student interest….and then we would sit for the same amount of time listening to speakers who did none of those things.

I’m a kinesthetic learner, and I was having none of it.

It was ages since I heard a long Protestant sermon, with that intro of getting everybody to shout “GOOD MORNING!” at the top of our lungs as if we’re eight-year-olds, and then that good ol’ liturgical phrase, “Now take your Bibles and turn to the book of Luke. The book of Luke.” The pause for dramatic effect. Then the well-scripted, articulate launch into the first tangential story.

Fifty minutes later I woke up to the crowd laughing at the pastor, who was still milking that same funny story, the same line, for five minutes, over and over again, as if he were a stand-up comedian. By that time, we’d all forgotten what his second point was.

And we still had the third point to go.

How do you feel about sermon lengths?

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27 thoughts on “Long Sermons

  1. Allison Caylor

    Interesting post!

    A pastor’s faithfulness to the truth, humility, and love for Christ and his congregation are so much more important than time. An earnest, gifted pastor can give a well-studied, well-prayed-over exhortation in five minutes that will benefit the listener more than a long sermon series from a man more interested in how impressive he is than in who he’s talking about. At the same time, if the first man takes that love and zeal and puts it into a longer study, perhaps even delving verse-by-verse into the riches of what the prophets have to tell us about Christ, it can bless a church so deeply and lastingly.

    As for being bored during sermons, well, we’ve all heard the story (Acts 20) about Paul preaching until midnight, yes? It was his last night there, and they used it to hear him talk “on and on.” One of his hearers actually fell asleep, fell out the window, and died. I think that’s proof that Paul wasn’t engaging all the senses and learning types. But Paul didn’t see the error of his ways; God raised the boy to life and Paul went on teaching until daybreak. I’m sure there’s much to learn from that, but one thing surely is how to value auditory teaching. It’s a precious gift to us, not because it’s easy (it’s most certainly not) but because that’s one of the main things God has given to bring us nearer him.

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    • Bailey Steger

      I think the boy fell asleep because he was tired, not because Paul was a bad preacher. :) I definitely think preaching is one of the ways to bring us closer to him, but I’m very glad it’s not the only way! :)

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      • Allison Caylor

        Yes, I’m so thankful for the blessing of hymns, praying together, and those awesome casual conversations that bless one with spiritual mind-bombs. :)

        I didn’t mean to imply that Paul was preaching badly or drily — just the opposite: he was giving an excellent sermon (he was an apostle, after all) and the boy still fell asleep. Even a good sermon requires work from the listener.

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  2. Abigail

    This genuinely surprised me, because I’ve always enjoyed sermons. I’ve had three different pastors in my lifetime, and sermons usually ran from thirty to forty-five minutes. I never minded the length because they were chock full of exposition, analysis, and application. If a sermon dragged on endlessly with a preacher saying the same thing in ten different ways or going on pointless tangents, I would have been annoyed, but my pastors have always been intellectually stimulating and practically helpful. ….That reminds me. I live in a seminary town. That contributes to the wealth of options for great churches.

    I’m a kinesthetic learner too, and I deal with that in sermons by taking copious notes. I rarely reread what I wrote, but note-taking helps me stay focused and engaged.

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    • Bailey Steger

      If a speaker or topic is good enough, I can definitely sit and listen for an hour or so! I think part of my problem — and I wonder if you’ve ever experienced this, since you live in a seminary town — is that I’m already very familiar with the stories and typical expositions of things. So the sermon will either tick me off because I’ve studied the topic before and disagree, or I do agree but I’ve still studied it before. :D I like more non-expository sermons for that reason.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Allison Caylor

      ^ Yes! If I find the preaching drag on and on with no spiritual meat to give, I usually consider that it’s a bad sermon; whereas if there is a lot of meat, I usually find an hour won’t hold all the goodness it has to give me.

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  3. Adele

    This is an interesting question. I do not like long sermons. On the other hand, I do like the minister to make it personal and tell stories and bonus points if the minister makes me laugh. My perspective is skewed as usual of course. I attended maybe one or two Catholic services as a child (with my paternal grandparents) and one or two Methodist services (with my maternal grandparents). I never went to church regularly for most of my life until I joined a Unitarian Universalist church. I have attended an Episcopalian service and a Jewish Shabbat service as well as a Buddhist meditation session as part of a “Neighboring Faiths” class. Oh, yeah, and a wiccan ritual. As an adult, I remember thinking more and more desperately “when is this going to end??” at a Lutheran service and the Shabbat service. Services at my Unitarian Universalist church are almost always about an hour. Of that approximately 20 minutes is sermon. The rest is the readings (less than five minutes), singing hymns, other congregational singing like the doxology, singing the children to their classes, etc., special music (instrumental or the choir sings, or whatever), meditation/prayer, Joys and Concerns, the call to gather, the welcome, the offering, sometimes a pulpit editorial or faith statement. In general, our services move along at a good pace and usually don’t drag too much in my opinion.

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  4. Thalia

    I’ve always attended churches where the sermons ran about an hour, so to me “long” means over an hour and a half. An hour is just business as usual to me, and less than 50 minutes is short. And honestly, if the sermon is like the ones at my church, packed full of explication, analysis, theology, and intelligence, that hour just flies by. I’m always a bit disappointed when the service ends, because I just want to stay and learn and think and study forever.

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  5. Elizabeth Erazo

    Oddly enough, “good preaching” (is) one thing I miss from my old evangelical culture. My priest actually gives very good homilies, engaging and thought provoking. But I still tune into Adrian Rogers etc. every once in awhile just to get a good, classic sermon fix. I love how, in the really good ones, it always comes back to Jesus. Not “we’re the awesome one true church”, not the sacraments, just Jesus and how much he loves and wants to heal you. I could hear that sermon a million times over and a million times more, and for some reason, I find an old school down-to-earth Protestant preacher (wo)man usually does it best.

    I don’t say this to denigrate the homily, often times on Sunday, that 15 minutes with all the prayer that precedes and follows, is enough. But sermons are great for car rides or when I’m working around the house.

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    • Bailey Steger

      I get what you mean about that kind of sermon you could hear over and over. Certain evangelicals do it quite well. I found myself chuckling this summer because a Catholic priest in a little backwoods church preached the *exact same* sort of sermon my fundamental Baptist pastor always did: God loves you. Come to him. I think it’s that simple gospel message I want to hear, that often gets obscured in long sermons.

      Still, I prefer listening to roundtable discussions rather than sermons for everyday. I wonder if it’s because I have such a short attention span all of a sudden, or if I’m just burnt out by hearing people “study” the Bible!

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      • Allison Caylor

        Bailey – So, what do you think is the ideal way to study the Bible, as a church? Small groups? Reading alone? That could be a post. :)

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      • Bailey Steger

        I think the assumption that the church needs to study the Bible in the way most Protestants do it — verse by verse, expositionally — is faulty. ;) I think the church needs to be immersed in Scripture — in hearing it, in understanding the main sweep of it, in celebrating it, singing it, praying it, living it, etc. So I prefer my sermons to be more pastoral, not a college lecture straight out of systematic theology class. I think churches should catechize members, primarily, and have Bible studies, and personally study it.

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      • Elizabeth Erazo

        I do notice two things: first, that I had been immersed in Catholicism for about 1 – 2 years before I began missing the art of preaching. Second, my churches sermons usually ran closer to 20-30 minutes, so I probably don’t have a lot of room to speak on long sermons!

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  6. Hannah B.

    I just want all the singing. Hymns, psalms, spiritual songs. ALL of the singing, haha.
    I loved the corporate confession of faith in my reformed Presby church (telling me I’ve got approximately 5 minutes to remember and repent of any unadressed sins before my husband/father [I know] gets back to my pew with the Lords Supper is a surefire way to make me blank and panic, especially if I’m managing children) so I appreciated the prompt, haha.
    I like the idea of responsive Scripture reading, but not in the deadpan, monotone way it usually happens.
    Singing covers it all. :-p

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  7. Rebekah

    Ooh, I love talking about the point and purpose of sermons!

    Here are a few assorted thoughts:

    1. You probably know this, but I was fascinated when I learned that pews only exist because of sermons. Protestants had such long sermons that people needed to sit down, and the Catholics then followed suit. (There are some hilarious treatises that you can find on Google books where the proponents and opponents of pews exchange fierce arguments!)

    2. I sometimes dislike long sermons, too. I attended a Baptist church in D.C. for a semester, and the sermons were around an hour and a half. At least, it felt that way! I thought they were scripturally sound and taught truth, but they should have been 20 minutes shorter minimum.

    But I think the point of sermons is for the church to “devote [herself] to the apostles’ teaching” in a communal way, although it can easily become more like listening to an individual lecture (this is a danger for Bible churches everywhere).

    At their best, sermons teach, exhort, encourage, and advise. And they shouldn’t be pseudo-intellectual, not-very-good literary analysis of scripture. Listening to a sermon is not an endeavor simply for the mind, as the point of sermons really is to proclaim the Gospel, to which we respond with our hearts, souls, and minds.

    While I share your distaste for long personal anecdotes in sermons (we visited a church lately where the pastor spent 15 minutes telling his proposal story!) and I have certainly heard many not-so-great sermons, it’s really hard for me to become jaded about them because I grew up attending a church where sermons did serve a way to be devoted corporately to the apostles’ teaching.

    Last year, I had a friend who kept telling me about the things he was learning about nature and grace, prayer and spiritual disciplines, etc. in RCIA, and I remember thinking, “ALL of those topics were covered in my pastor in his sermons, and he gave pretty much the same answers that you’re getting.” Of course, what my low-church Protestant pastor said differed from what my friend was learning in RCIA regarding the saints, the Eucharist, etc., but much of what he had learned was the same as what I had been taught through sermons.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bailey Steger

      I didn’t know that about pews!! I do know the Orthodox originally didn’t have pews because they stood (and continue to stand) the whole time, but I didn’t know why the West switched over to pews. That’s funny!

      I LOVE your philosophy on sermons. That’s a great way of putting it.

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  8. ChrisW

    I find the problem with long sermons is that they allow the preacher to be undisciplined in their content. They can also fall into the trap of teaching the *Bible* rather than conveying/imparting the word.

    The problem with short sermons is that they are usually too restricted by time to put the readings into context and dive into the complexities of application. I have heard many sermons, for example, that talk about one aspect if forgiveness. I am yet to hear a decent sermon on the complexities of forgiveness.

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      • ChrisW

        I have a high view of the Bible, but I hold very clear in my head that the Bible is not a person. The Bible doesn’t speak to me, the Holy Spirit does. Moreover, I also believe that the Bible is God’s word written, but I do not believe it is God’s Word. Jesus is the Word.
        I regularly encounter people who don’t make these distinctions and idolise scripture. And I think there is a tendency to believe that if you exegete a passage you will open people’s minds to God automatically, as if to know the Bible is to know God. I don’t believe this is true.
        Hence, I often have beef with sermons that are oriented around getting people to understand the Bible – because what they’re can be a lecture or (worse) a disguised form of propaganda for whatever agenda the person preaching has.
        Politics aside, and to use an analogy: it can become like a painstaking analysis of whether Beethoven’s original manuscript had a slur here or a slur there, completely divorced from the fact that to play music is about making a good sound. It is as if faithfulness to the manuscript trumps all possibility of performance or interpretation – with the added irony that Beethoven is actually in the room.

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