Biblical literacy is on the decline, but people's spiritual hunger continues. Twenty to thirty minutes isn't enough time to engage a congregation in Scripture.
A recent guest preacher in our congregation announced that the sermon he was about to preach would be as long as he was tall. He was about 5’5” so, as you may imagine, the congregation erupted with laughter.
I appreciated the pastor’s humor, but the length of a sermon can be a hot issue for listeners. Some people think that a sermon less than forty-five minutes is shoddy or underdeveloped. Others think a sermon more than sixteen minutes is a tome. For a long time I aimed to preach more than twenty minutes and less than thirty. I am now of the opinion that a sermon should actually be much longer -- much, much longer.
Twenty to thirty minutes is simply not enough time to engage a spiritually hungry congregation in the Scriptures. Not even a full hour gives listeners enough time to feast on the riches of God’s word. Good sermons take awhile.
How long? I think my best sermons have lasted at least six days.
Now, before you decide that you will never visit my church when I am scheduled to preach, allow me to name a few assumptions and then explain what I mean by a six-day sermon.
The key assumption, which is no secret, is that we live in an age of biblical illiteracy. Twenty-first century North American Christians do not have a robust biblical imagination. Sunday School participation is lower than it was a generation ago and many current church members have not always been regular church attenders.
A second assumption is that I was not taught to preach to this crowd. Seminary homiletics classes taught me to exegete a text, discover the central idea of the text and discern the main objective of the sermon. I learned to craft a sermon with a focus and function statement and to deliver it in less than twenty minutes tops. But over the last few years, I stumbled into certain practices and learned from educators why effective communication of the gospel takes longer than I thought.
Good teachers are taught to pre-teach, teach, assess and extend the student’s learning. Pre-teaching outlines the major ideas. Teaching engages a text to help the learner gain meaning. Assessment checks the student’s learning. Extending helps the student take new information and apply it to their lives. Can you imagine what might happen if we let the practices of good teaching inform our preaching? According to Ephesians 4:11, the pastoral calling is inseparable from the calling to teach. We are pastors and teachers.
Several years ago I began to include sermon notes in the Sunday bulletin. The sermon notes typically contain exegetical or pastoral insights that do not make their way into the sermon. The notes also set up the listener for the sermon without ruining the surprise or suspense of the text. Teachers call this practice “frontloading,” which prepares students for what’s to come by teaching vocabulary and providing background knowledge to help them engage the text.
I now send out a weekly sermon study guide after the sermon. The guide has six days of Scriptures, prayer themes and reflection questions which are all connected to the sermon. When we gather for Wednesday Bible study we can assess comprehension and extend learning by using the Scriptures from the weekly guide as study texts. This approach allows listeners to engage the sermon every day during the week.
Frequently I hear from listeners who enjoy the sermon notes and anticipate the weekly guides about how much they appreciate them. This process does take more effort and planning, but with Bible study attendance on the rise, I am already convinced that a twenty-minute sermon is just too short. Paradoxically, our culture is less biblically literate, but people are increasingly spiritually hungry. Perhaps that is why no one has complained about my six day sermons. At least for now.
Prince Raney Rivers is pastor of United Metropolitan Missionary Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.