A parishioner in one state wants to tactfully suggest that his minister shorten the sermon, while a preacher in another state inquires how to make his sermons more effective. Both invite my opinion on the subject.
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I am instinctively sympathetic toward preachers, having personally delivered two sermons each Sunday for about 20 years and still enjoying the pleasure of preaching from time to time. The truth is that a few listeners are bored by a sermon of any length and they need our love and prayers. However, preachers also need to remember the truth discovered by an African missionary whose audience sat on the hard ground: “The mind cannot absorb more than the bottom can endure!” A sermon need not be long to be of eternal value, as witness Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Even the Apostle Paul lost a member of his audience when the remarks went past midnight and the sleeper fell out of a third-story window (Acts 20:9).
An effective preacher will consider the attention-span of a specific audience. As a child, I used to regularly hear revival sermons that well exceeded an hour, but that does not mean I should normally preach such sermons today. Even an outstanding sermon does no good if the hearers’ minds wander. A well-known preacher once was asked how long it would take him to prepare some brief remarks. “I can speak for hours at the drop of a hat,” he replied, “but brief remarks will require several hours of work.” A preacher’s first task is to preach. Nothing else during the week should normally interfere with developing and honing the sermon. Sometimes a long sermon betrays a lack of preparation.
Principles of thoughtfulness and stewardship also apply. It is said that 90% of churches in America have fewer than 200 people in attendance on any given Sunday. If 180 people are present, that represents three hours of human time for every minute in the sermon. Scripture says we should redeem the time (Eph. 5:16). For a preacher, that means trying to make every word count. If a sentence isn’t necessary, leave it out. If an illustration is helpful, use it — but don’t recite three anecdotes when one will do. Be sensitive to the audience. Sometimes preachers reach a homiletic climax, then lose their hearers because they fail to discern that fact and continue with the sermon. Controlling the tongue includes knowing when to call it to a stop. “Better to end with people wanting more,” my father used to tell me, “than to keep preaching after they are ready to quit.” Good advice for any preacher who wants to keep them coming back.