So last time we started this list of 12 points of advice to preachers from John Wesley. Let’s keep going!
3. Choose the plainest texts from the Bible to preach on. Again, if I were purely speaking to non-believers then I would completely concur. However, in a typical church setting, we will be speaking to both Christians and non-Christians. A steady diet of the same evangelistically oriented passages will lead to some malnourishment among God’s people. I think it is good to help our churches experience the full breadth and scope of God’s Word. You might preach more from the New Testament than the Old, but if they never hear the Old Testament preached, why would they read it? And if they don’t read it, what a vast vista of theological truth is lost. Different types of text are also important for the health of the church.
So on the one hand, I would agree that every passage has a redemptive force that should be brought out because believers never move beyond the need to hear the gospel being applied to their lives. On the other hand, while every passage is useful, not every passage is equally useful on every occasion. Don’t be stubbornly preaching through Jeremiah when people are coming for a Christmas Carol Service. Bottom line? Be selective and choose what you are going to preach appropriately for the listeners and the occasion, but in a church choose from the whole Bible because people need more than your favourite five passages.
4. Take care not to ramble from your text but to keep close to it. Can I just say I agree and move on? Of course not, otherwise this would be a “Quote” rather than a “Blog!” It is quite remarkable how little weight the Bible passage will have in some sermons. Some will leave it behind to ramble into excessive personal anecdotes and humorous illustrations. Others will leave it behind to ramble into theological presentations that resemble explosions in a concordance factory! (Hyper cross-referencing is very common in some circles!) Few seem to recognize that this passage is uniquely powerful and should not be missed by superficial coverage in the sermon. Your church may not be back in that passage for several years. Keep close to it, do it justice, allow time for clarity to emerge and its impact to be felt.
5. Be sure to begin and end at the time appointed… People imagine the longer a sermon is, the more good it will do. This is a grand mistake… the Methodist rule is to conclude the service within an hour. Several points in this one. Let’s go one-by-one – (1) begin and end on time. I understand that different cultures have different expectations in terms of time. But the point still applies. Abide by the expectations of the culture. Once we break the general expectation, then we distract attention from the sermon. If we go 10 minutes over, parents are concerned about children in kids’ groups, volunteers in kids’ groups start to lose their joy in serving, and others are concerned about their plans, their lift home, etc. Generally speaking, stick to time. Seems fairly simple.
(2) Longer is not necessarily better. Again, agreed. Haddon Robinson was captivated by how some preachers preach for ten minutes and it feels like an hour, while others preach for an hour and it feels like ten minutes. Length tends to become the key focus when too little attention is given to clear, engaging and relevant content and delivery. Generally speaking, longer sermons could be sharpened into shorter sermons. But shorter is not automatically better either. Some things take time. Just as an illustration might be lost in two sentences, but really capture hearts in two minutes, in the same way, a sermon can be technically precise in a shorter timeframe, but more vivid and engaging with enough time given to let the listeners’ imagination flourish. There is no right length of sermon. It depends on preacher’s skill; listener’s background, expectations and focus; and the occasion too.
(3) Service length should be less than one hour. That feels quite arbitrary and culturally bound. I imagine that didn’t translate effectively in some other global contexts! But, service length should be considered for the sake of church attendees, as well as their perception of service length for potential guests they might invite in the future.
Ok, let’s leave it there for this time.