“Brother, that was a great Bible study, but it wasn’t a sermon.”
That sentence from my pastor and mentor was inexplicable to me. I was a budding expository preacher, studying theology in college, and longing to show God’s people the glorious things I was seeing in the Bible. As a pastoral intern, any opportunity I had to preach to the broader congregation filled me with excitement. This is my opportunity. I have to show them all that I am learning. The result was sermons that were so swelled with information that they rarely applied anything to the listeners' lives. My pastor's comment helped me learn the difficult truth that all Bible-based oratory is not faithful preaching—especially when your sermon is a mere running commentary on the text.
A few years later, while in seminary, I became the pastor of a small country church in rural Kentucky. Through my preaching classes and experience there, I slowly began to transition from Bible lecturer to preacher. However, the temptation to exhaust my people with too much information remained. I also knew I needed to apply the text so the length of my sermons hit a significant growth spurt. A lack of homiletical discipline, coupled with a sense of pride that many young preachers feel about sermon length, left my sermons nutritious, applicable, and, unfortunately, bloated. Sure, eating a whole head of lettuce is good for you, but who wants to actually do it?
Since those days, I have come to appreciate giving God’s people what I call lean, hard-punching sermons. They don’t need unnecessary extras, loads of historical information, or overwhelming amounts of background information. God’s people don’t need to know everything I know every Sunday. In a decade of preaching, God has given me untold grace in helping me grow. Here are three examples of that grace paired with three suggestions for your own preaching:
1.) A countdown clock for preaching.
A turning point for me in developing lean, hard-punching sermons was something I despised at first: a countdown clock. I came to my first full-time pastorate just before I finished seminary. Our church is on live television which means that we have a fixed amount of time. There on the pulpit, staring at me every week, was a countdown clock. I could see it mocking and taunting me. Slowly, that clock transformed from a burden to a challenge to grace. I never would have edited my sermons down, thereby cutting chaff and making them more impactful, if I had not had the built-in discipline of a countdown clock.
Suggestion: Set a fixed time for your sermons. Decide ahead of time what your time will be, find a small timer, and begin the discipline of preaching in a fixed amount of time. Over the years, you will begin to only include things that are essential to the sermon. You’ll develop ways to convey thoughts with a smaller economy of words. Your rabbit trails will narrow and shorten. You’ll learn to say more with less words in less time.
2.) A patient congregation.
Another example of grace over the years has been the gift godly people who struggle through long sermons. I am thinking of the responses of my sweet people toward the end of my sermon in my mind right now: one doctor is struggling to stay awake, one woman is eager to leave as soon as I begin the invitation prayer, the guys in the TV production room are thinking about turning one of the TVs to the Golf Channel, a young mom is feeling the urge to check Instagram, and another person can barely concentrate because they are so overcome with worry and grief.
Years back, I was frustrated by distracted congregants. To be sure, there are people who have an ungodly attitude toward preaching. Others are just ignorant of the important place that God has given preaching in the life of His people. However, I have learned that most people don’t fit in those categories. Most people in our churches love the Word, want to hear it preached, enjoy God’s grace through a good sermon, and yet have a hard time listening for a long time.
Suggestion: get to know your people and learn about their lives. Maybe that dozing doctor has been up since 4 AM rounding at the hospital, has come to church, and has to go back afterward. The woman who shoots out of church like a rocket before the service has even ended? Maybe she’s hurrying home to finish lunch for her family—an act of hospitality and love that she’s performed for years. People are human, and even though they may feel the urge of distraction, guess what: they’re at church. They’re not Instagramming their brunch with friends; they’re breaking the bread of life with God’s people. They’re not teeing off with their buddies; they’re spending their Sunday serving the Lord’s people. They’re not laying in bed weeping; they’ve come to hear words of Life. The least a preacher can do is do his best to preach Christ’s gospel to the people God has given him to shepherd. That may mean adjusting our length, style, or our expectations. That’s not too much to ask when you’ve been given the wonderful privilege of preaching to God’s people.
3.) A voice from history.
I saved this for last because some of you are probably mad at me right now. “Doesn’t he understand the primacy of preaching?” “Doesn’t he know that the modern attention span is a significant detriment to the spiritual growth of the church?” I have felt that way before. I get it.
Perhaps Spurgeon might be of help here: “Certain brethren would preach better if they would not preach so long… Why do ministers preach long sermons? Is it for their own pleasure, or is it for the pleasure of the people? If it is the latter, they certainly are grievously mistaken; and if it is the former, they might practice a little more self-denial.” Spurgeon certainly wasn’t the type to water down the truth. He had the ability to hold vast audiences in rapt attention. Yet, he was an advocate for sermons of careful length. We may not want to listen to our people, but surely we will listen to the prince of preachers.
Suggestion: Discipline yourself not to feel the need to overwhelm in every sermon. It’s difficult to do, but we must get over the temptation to feed God’s people everything we have each week. While it’s tempting to show them all the glories and wonders we’ve absorbed in our study that week, it’s okay just to give them what they need. It’s okay to feed our people something that tastes good to them so long as it’s nutritious and helpful. Spurgeon put it aptly: “Our people do not want threshing-machines, and mills, and kneading troughs, and ovens: they want bread.”