Lin Manuel Miranda has given us something special in Hamilton, a hip-hop musical based on the life and legacy of the Hamiltons. I won’t go into a review or the 31 ways it is redemptive; I’m sure others can give you more than I can. But I found there is something we can learn about writing sermons from Miranda.
When discussing how it took him one year to write just 1 of the 44 tracks on the album (“My Shot”), he took us into his process of lyrical composition and why it took so long:
“If I express something in four lines, the challenge became ‘Can I express that now in two lines?'”
What if more preachers thought like this?
Ok so maybe he was referring to the art of theater and not the art of prophesying but the counsel remains the same. Work harder to preach shorter.
Is there a way to make what you are saying sharper or more poignant?
If you can preach something in 45 minutes, the challenge should be, ‘Can you now express it in 30?’”
Tim Keller was asked to comment on a recent study done by The Pew Research Center on sermon lengths that found the average Evangelical sermon was 39 minutes long. His response: “I don’t think most evangelical pastors are good enough for a 39-minute sermon. That needs to shorten.”
This isn’t an all-out call for every sermon to be the exact same length or a charge against all longer sermons. Instead, this is a gentle push against a growing and troubling trend I’ve noticed amongst younger evangelicals and aspiring pastors. I have noticed a tendency for some to equate orthodoxy with the length of a sermon. The longer a sermon is, the more theologically robust the pastor must be. The shorter a sermon is, the more fluffy he must be.
The churchgoer or seminary student wears it almost like a badge of pride, “Well my pastor preaches for an hour!” The opposite is also true where it can seem like an indictment, “Oh those sermons aren’t even 30 minutes long. They must not take the Bible seriously.”
Perhaps we should make the substance of a sermon the standard of orthodoxy, not the length of one.
During the quarantine, our young church moved to online services. The camera we used to record the sermon had a maximum recording time of 30 minutes. I had no choice but to shorten my sermons.
What I found, though, is that I was forced to go on fewer tangents. I had to strive for clarity. I had to be more careful. I had to be more precise. I had to work more to preach less.
And the result was a clearer sermon with more homiletical force that lifted up the main point of the text to more clearly make it the main point of the sermon.
There are certainly some gifted preachers that can hold a congregation’s attention for 45 minutes to an hour, but that isn’t everyone. And those that can, make it seem like it’s much less. My preaching professor in seminary told us that every sermon should feel like 18 minutes. I wonder if there are many that feel much longer than that.
There’s a quote that has been attributed to Mark Twain, Benjamin Franklin, and Blaise Pascal just to name a few. Regardless, it remains helpful when someone at some point in history said “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”
Preacher, take some extra time and work to compress your sermons.
This isn’t about catering to attention spans and making sermons more like TED talks, it’s about stewarding the responsibility you have to preach the best sermon that you can. The length of your sermon is not your marker of orthodoxy. Be persuasive. Be creative. Be exact. Don’t spend time on wasted words. And find the time to preach shorter sermons.
You may not like Hamilton, but maybe it can teach us a thing or two about how to be better preachers.
Newsweek Interview with Miranda: https://www.newsweek.com/lin-manuel-mirandas-my-shot-wasnt-easy-write-he-explained-why-1516924?utm_term=Autofeed&utm_medium=Social&utm_source=Facebook&fbclid=IwAR3UUV5k3iIBguWbSAN0Adhd_3W8kPNa2Yjhn1rIE9zZhlnrAypDiEcn1K0#Echobox=1594469604
Discrepancy on Shorter Letter quote: https://quoteinvestigator.com/2012/04/28/shorter-letter/
Washington Post article on study of length of sermons: https://www.washingtonpost.com/religion/2019/12/17/does-your-pastor-preach-too-long-new-survey-shows-dramatic-differences-sermons/