Painful Preaching

In pre-Revolutionary New England, to call someone a painful preacher was a compliment. It meant that he took pains to preach soundly, and usually at length, which was considered a sign of sound faith.

Many present-day Americans no longer have the ability to appreciate such painful preaching, especially if it lasts more than twenty minutes. Some attribute this shortened attention span to the influence of television, where the content is cut into small chunks and sandwiched between commercials. The avid TV-watcher can hardly be expected to digest a sermon that runs along for half an hour or more.

Many forward-looking clergy have attempted to adapt their preaching to the public taste. In many ministerial circles, the twenty-minute rule is adhered to more scrupulously than the Ten Commandments, or even the regulations of the Internal Revenue Service.

On the other hand, evangelicals soon realized that when all else fails, the long sermon may be taken as a token of orthodoxy. Most people today have difficulty understanding even relatively crude theological distinctions, not to mention the fine points that often separate orthodoxy from heresy (as in the difference between homoousios and homoiousios). But almost everyone can tell time.

In America, there is something almost sacred about the hour between eleven and twelve on Sunday morning. A service that begins at eleven is usually expected to end at noon. And that is almost always a sign of a spiritless, soft-living, fleshly approach to worship (to borrow a few phrases from Luther, who did not respect the twenty-minute rule). One way evangelicals have of breaking the mold is to begin earlier—at 10:45 or 10:30. No one expects a sermon to end at 11:45—it’s not a natural ...

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