John Wesley’s Advice – Part 2

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.

7 Waste Points on Your Preaching Clock

Some preachers are incredibly aware of the clock as they preach.  For manuscript readers, the clock can be entirely predictable.  For others of us, time tends to move past quickly and sometimes erratically.  It is helpful to figure out where the time actually goes.

Here is one approach that could be helpful.

Step 1 – Before preaching try to anticipate how long the message will be, and how long will be spent on each section of the message (introduction, background, first point, second point, etc.)

Step 2 – After preaching try to evaluate how long the message was (if possible don’t check your watch!), and write down how long you felt you spent on each section of the message.

Step 3 – Using an audio or video recording, take notes on actual timings of each section and the whole message.

With these three steps under your belt, you are now in a position to evaluate the whole process.  Where did reality (step 3) differ from steps 1 and 2?  You may find that you are fairly careful with your timings, but lost track of time in one section.  Or you may find that time is lost repeatedly throughout the message.

Here are seven common trouble spots:

1. Introduction – Sometimes we can struggle to generate momentum at the start of a message.  Maybe more crafting and rehearsal is needed for a strong start.

2. Textual Background – Some of us get very excited when we have a chance to dive back into the biblical world and we end up giving more background than is needed for this message.  What is the most pertinent and helpful information for this message to communicate?

3. Illustrations – Sometimes illustrations just need too much time to explain, especially if our listeners look less familiar with the context of the illustration than we anticipated (beware of needing to tell whole Bible stories to make sense of a biblical illustration, or telling a whole movie plot, plus comments about spoilers, for the sake of a movie illustration).

4. Humour – Perhaps illustrations are ok, but when you say something a little bit humorous you can end up circling around that moment for too long?

5. Explanation – Some love nothing more than making sense of a biblical text for our listeners, but are we labouring the point longer than the majority need?  We would be surprised how long it takes to be truly heard, but how quickly we can annoy our listeners if we lack momentum.

6. Transitions – Perhaps your content is crisp, but your transitions involve too much review of earlier content?  It is easy for time to drift as we try not to rush ahead too quickly at transitions – a good motivation, but may need some work to do effectively.

7. Conclusion – Would your message be better if you simply landed the plane more directly?

How Long Is Just Right?

I’d like to answer a question offered in a comment a few days ago by Peter D:

“I have heard a couple times that people tune out after about 20 mins in hearing a speech or sermon. With that being said do you think that there are times we can force a text to be longer than it needs to be? It seems like most sermons I hear are bewteen the 45-and hour long mark. That being said do you feel that sometimes they might be more effective if they were shorter (still keeping the context in full view) or is there something internal that tells us they need to be so and so long?”

This is an important question for us all to think about.  Some sermons would be more effective if they were shorter, while some would always feel too long no matter how quickly they finished!  We have a tendency to simply preach to the standard length for our own context and personal comfort (our own more than the listener’s).  But it is not a bad idea to consider what would be most effective.

1. There is no “right length” of message, but there is an appropriate length for any specific context. Tomorrow I am preaching in my home church and I know it will need to be slightly shorter than usual.  If I go ten minutes longer, on this occasion, it would not be appropriate.  Not only does the specific church influence this, but so does the culture in which that church exists.

2. Listeners do not have shorter attention spans, but listeners struggle to concentrate beyond a very few minutes. Is that not contradictory?  Sort of.  So many harp on about today’s listener being unable to concentrate beyond 15 or 20 minutes – yet the movies of this generation are considerably longer than most were twenty or thirty years ago.  Actually though, listeners struggle to concentrate beyond 3-5 minutes at a time, so even a 15 or 20 minute sermon can easily be 10-15 minutes too long, unless . . .

3. The preacher needs to engage and re-engage the listener regularly in the message. Some speakers are engaging in content, manner, delivery, energy, empathy, etc. and listeners who regularly declare they simply aren’t able to concentrate beyond fifteen minutes, will listen fully engaged for an hour and then act surprised at how much time has passed!  Other speakers can make the briefest of devotional thoughts feel like the most tedious of hours.

4. Thus we can’t “blame” the listeners if the concensus is that our preaching is too long! Every speaker should do a self-evaluation, and then get some honest input from others, to determine areas of strength and weakness in respect to their ability to engage the focus and attention of the listeners.  These are weaknesses worth addressing, for without attention, there is no communication – at least not the kind you are trying to achieve.  Disinterested listeners are receiving a message, often one reinforcing negative associations between the Bible and words like “boring” and “irrelevant.”  What a tragedy that some who preach are, somewhat inadvertently, communicating the very opposite of what they intend!

5. Finally, I appreciate Don Sunukjian’s point about explanation and application ratios. If a passage requires lots of explanation, thus only leaving a short time for application, so be it.  But if a passage is relatively easy to understand, don’t pad the time with unnecessary explanation, instead use the time for lots and lots of application.  It is often the lack of application that undermines the effectiveness of our preaching.  More qualifiers are needed, but this post has gone on too long now!