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Home > 2014 > May Web Exclusives > A Case for Shorter Sermons

The most celebrated speech in American history was less than three minutes. Lincoln's address at Gettysburg was only 269 words, but it captured the history, pain, and aspirations of the nation with soaring eloquence and inspiring imagery.

Many forget that Lincoln's speech was not the keynote at the ceremony that day. The featured speaker was Edward Everett, a celebrity orator. His address at Gettysburg was 13,607 words, over two hours long—not unheard of for a gifted speaker in the nineteenth century. After the event Everett wrote to the President saying, "I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes."

Beautiful brevity

As a preacher I have to remind myself that brevity can be as effective as it is beautiful. I don't believe every sermon should be as brief as the Gettysburg Address, but most of mine would benefit from a nip and a tuck. Lincoln's famous speech makes me wonder if I might accomplish more by speaking less, and whether a great deal of what I cram into a message is more about meeting expectations (mine and the congregation's) rather than truly benefitting my hearers.

Sometimes I feel stretched by a service order that calls for a 30-minute sermon. What if I only have 12 minutes of meaningful content to share? That's what the cute illustration about my 6-year-old is for, and if that's still not enough I can always read a lengthy C.S. Lewis quote or show a clip from the latest Christian-ish movie. The structure of most evangelical worship services can force the pastor to stuff his sermon hotdog with indistinguishable bits and pieces simply to fill the space between the enriched bun of sentimental music. Is it nutritional? Hey, McDonalds didn't reach "billions and billions" by serving health food.

More often we face the inverse problem—we have too much to say and refuse to edit our remarks. In the last year I've had to preach sermons on tough topics including the doctrine of the Trinity, the Incarnation, and Genesis 1. One could easily conduct a week-long seminar on each of these and still not cover them sufficiently. For this reason a preacher will take every minute he is allotted, and very often more, to squeeze in everything he can. Right?

The error pastors make is assuming the Sunday sermon is primarily for teaching content rather than inspiring devotion. Teaching is critical but a large group lecture, as most of us experience on Sunday, is a terrible forum for learning. It's an ideal setting for preaching, however. Communicating the complexities of Trinitarian theology in 15-minutes is impossible, but illuminating a vision of a loving God who invites us to share in the perpetual, eternal relationship that exists between Father, Son, and Spirit—if a preacher can't accomplish that in 15 minutes, then he missed his true calling.

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Skye Jethani is the executive editor of Leadership Journal, an ordained pastor, and the author of numerous books. He co-hosts the weekly Phil Vischer Podcast and speaks regularly at churches, conferences, and colleges. He makes his home with his wife and three children in Wheaton, Illinois.

Posted: May 5, 2014

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Displaying 1–5 of 6 comments

Robb Wood

May 24, 2014  8:07am

I like the article. There are very few gifted preachers who can keep my attention. I am 45.

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Robb Wood

May 24, 2014  7:59am

It takes a person who is secure ìn their relationship with God to write knowing their brothers and sisters wìll disagree and even accuse. I don't know why we Christians are quick to shoot and lack tactfullness. I wish we had more confidence/determination in our relationship with Christ like we have in our expression of faith.

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May 13, 2014  10:12pm

Excellent point, think you.

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Ron Sheveland

May 13, 2014  4:07pm

Skye's presupposition is "The error pastors make is assuming the Sunday sermon is primarily for teaching content rather than inspiring devotion." You must embrace that concept for this article to have value. If you, like I, believe that a good sermon is a good blend of both instruction and inspiration, more time is usually required. Perhaps the biblical illiteracy that is found in many churches is because too many preachers have shifted into giving these little devotionals that are aimed more at the heart than the mind.

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Bill Mullen

May 13, 2014  12:37pm

Good preaching should not be limited by TV conditioned attention spans. If your congregation does not comeprepared to be bathed in God's word, you may need to preach on that or stop preaching soft,luke warm, social gospel sermons.

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