Monday, 17 January 2011

How long, O Lord? Some thoughts on sermon density & length

I recently had an interesting series of comments on my Facebook page re length & density of sermons. I didn't contribute to the debate, I just read my friends' arguments (so they're all still my friends...). Here's my thoughts.

As responsible preachers, we must consider two potentially competing principles:
  1. Accurate communication of what the text is saying - which includes, amongst other things, clarity of language and comprehensiveness in covering the material; and
  2. The congregation's ability to take in info - which will be affected by a variety of factors, mainly outside our ability to control: their educational background, age, health, etc.
A long, detailed sermon will emphasise point (1) at the expense of point (2). A short, snappy sermon, full of illustrations and application, will emphasise point (2), potentially at the expense of point (1). I don't think there's a way around this tension. Part of our role as preachers is to best work that tension in the particular congregational context that we're in.

In some places, the people will tend not to need or want detailed sermons, heavy on explanation and justification. The're not dumb - but they're not analytical, they're more practical.

In such contexts, it'd be pastorally irresponsible to subject them to careful dissection and justification of my exegetical conclusions. That would either get the congregation annoyed ("is this guy just showing off how smart he is?") or bored (*zzzz...*) or depressed ("wow! He's so smart! I could never understand the Bible like he does!"). Instead, we should take a few verses, explain them in simple language, and then give the congregation clear illustrations, and plenty of application to show them how to appropriately respond to the passage. The trade-off is: we're implicitly inviting them to trust us - that we have correctly understood the passage in our personal, private preparation.

In a different demographic context, the opposite will be true. The act of demonstrating that we can understand the Bible in a clear, reasonable, publicly verifiable way (= careful dissection and justification of my exegetical conclusions) will itself be a challenge to arrogant modernists who think naturalistic science comprehensively defines all true knowledge, and to equally arrogant post-modernists who know that all claims to knowledge are veiled power-plays. Indeed, in this context, I think it would be evangelistically and pastorally irresponsible not to do this kind of exegetical demonstration. If we don't demonstrate the Biblical-based rationality of our teaching, we'll reinforce the popular misperception that Christianity is anti-intellectual and authoritarian.

This is not to say that illustration and application is unnecessary; it is to say that taking the time to make this exegetical demonstration will, in this demographic context, be pastorally and evangelistically useful, and worth the cost of a longer, denser sermon.

Thoughts, anyone...?

1 comment:

David said...

Generally I agree with your thinking but... I think it wise to expect that the congregation will continue to mature in Christ so that it would be ok to start at point two but over an unspecified time dependent upon the congregations maturity Christ I would hope that you would be heading more to Point one. (Avoiding the Corinthian church problem 1 Cor. 3:1-3) Christmas, Easter, Weddings and Funeral services would be very much Point two as there would be an expectation of many unsaved or bible illiterate attendees.