Wednesday, March 28, 2012

20 Minutes and Counting

Time is always an issue in church. As I said on Monday, this time last year I was told, “no more than 20 minutes”. The first time I heard 20 minutes was the line that many expected came when I received an angry letter after my second Easter, a year before the debacle (although I've come to realize it was underneath many of the sermon length complaints early on), when I preached about 35 minutes (at the time I was averaging 25 min). What made the day even longer was that then there was communion, which also went longer than usual. 

Now, to be honest, I didn't understand the roots of this issue when I arrived. I have never bothered with a church that limited the sermon to twenty minutes in my whole life. The pastor I grew up under regularly cracked 45 to an hour. I want to learn, to be fed, and when I picked a church, that was how I decided. I’m someone who has been an admitted preaching junkie, someone who chose his church based on preaching, preaching, preaching. Short preaching always irked me, and turned me off. But what I came to understand over time us that part of the time compliant is rooted in the fact that there are various preaching traditions, and lectionary preachers tend to be different; shorter and less exegetical. But as someone that was from and trained in exegetical preaching and never sat under lectionary driven preaching, it didn’t make sense, I didn’t have any frame of reference to understand where the whole issue was coming from. So, I first had to try to understand the cultural issues. 

But, having done that, I think at the same time, it's worth interacting with some of the various reasons that I have come across in and out of First Baptist as to why sermons should be no more than 20 minutes, and some thoughts on them.

First, the excuses

Older people can’t sit through the sermons, it hurts too much. The pews are too uncomfortable.

If this is true (and having sat in many pews, including the ones in my church, I think it is), fix it. Get pads for the pews. Deal with the physical impediments that are easily remedied. Simple and easy solution (I recognize church treasurers that read this will have their hearts stop here...).

There is a contingent that needs a ride home.

In any church, you have seniors who are getting rides. The church should work with the congregation to meet them where they are at and care for them, call it widows and orphan care, 2012 style. Care for your people. If these people need rides home, have someone get them rides home. Deacons, leaders, this is your area.

People are busy and have places to be.

So true... We live in a busy, fast paced world. But, first of all, can’t we take one day, and devote more than a little time to God from it? Sunday is supposed to be the Lords Day; the day where we celebrate the resurrection of the king and worship him. It’s a day of worship and rest. In many places, people spend the whole day in church. We think an hour to an hour and a half service is all we should have to give to God. A two hour service is a travesty (remember, 15 minutes equal 1/672 of a week. An hour and a half is 6/672, 2 hours, 8/672- not even two percent of your week). If our walk with Christ is supposed to be the most important thing in our lives, should we be able to stop, and focus on Him? For an hour, an hour and a half, or even two… Please?

On top of that (and this is just my observation from a lifetime of church life), some of the same people who bang the drum for an hour or hour and 15 minute service saying they have places to be stay for an hour or more at fellowship hour. Some make it an hour and a half (That’s the record at First Baptist since I became pastor). Now I love fellowship hour; it’s great, but it is not the main event, or even a close second or third.

Next, the foolish
Shorter sermons are easier to remember because they make the preacher be more precise.

I heard this from time to time, and yes, I’ve heard it at the church I pastor, First Baptist Medfield. My take on this argument is, maybe this is true, but most likely, it’s not (the more I think about it, the more I think it’s definitely not). Many use this as a rationale for preaching shorter sermons, but then still preach without significant precision. But on top of that, the communication reality is that if you want to really communicate, and have something to say, and you place things in super tight, there is little breathing room for the listener. Every phrase is essential, and even the best expositors tend to lose people when this happens. As an audience member contemplates the implications of one simplified and highly structured statement, they may (and probably will) miss the next one, and then begin to be lost in the argumentation. All this is not necessarily so, but it’s an issue, and one of the struggles that all communicators face when they try to go deep in a short period of time. Now, to be fair, I will agree that some preachers are better preachers when they preach shorter sermons. But, as a general rule, sermons with some breathing room usually make better sermons.

All that needs to be said in a sermon can be said in 15-20 minutes.

I’ve seen this here and there, and actually heard another pastor say this (unbelievable).

Thankfully, I have never heard this from my congregation. Smart Boston Metroers know a foolish statement when they see one, and that one is just flat out incorrect. But it gets me to something I want to say. There may be some passages that preach that fast, 15 minutes max, but they are rare. Most don’t. Not if you want to get beyond the surface. Not if you want more than milk. Someone noted that handling a complicated text like Romans 9:14-29 would easily require an hour to adequately explain the numerous challenges found in that text. Working through the implications of Mark 8:34-9:1, taking up your cross and following Christ, took a little over 30, and there was a giant pile on the cutting room floor. Some passages, like the prodigal son’s, really require 40 plus if a pastor wants to deal with the whole passage well (and remember, many passages, while thick and dense, like the prodigal son’s, really shouldn’t be split, because it tells a coherent message).

The cultural issue I ran into
It’s just hard to sit through long sermons. You lose me after 20 minutes.
The heart of this objection is, I can’t pay attention for more than that.

This is one that drove me to madness for awhile (because I didn't get the root issue. Culture). One I haven’t heard as much of lately), 

While a a pastor, I (and hopefully every other pastor) want to communicate so that people understand what I’m saying, and grasp the wonders of God’s word, and believe that therefore, pastors should be constantly working to improve (I know I have improved as a communicator, and I have taken steps to improve my preaching, and make it easier to follow), I didn't understand that at the heart, the problem is cultural expectations of the church. 

At this point, my personal belief is that this really comes down to the internal clock. For most people, there is an internal clock that goes off after point X. Whatever X is. If you are expecting the sermon to be 20 minutes, and it goes more, you get antsy. My brother pointed out that at his church, people are used to 50 or so minutes from the pastor (whom I grew up under), and an hour and a half to an hour and forty five minute service. If it gets to two hours, they begin to rustle a bit. At some point, I realized that the internal clock of my congregation needed to reset before this issue would end. For many years (as best I can tell), my church had a steady diet of 20 minute (ish) sermons. For the most part, First Baptist had been basically standard, mainline, short, leave me alone stuff. There, the average is between 14-17 with 20-22 at the long end… and after that, the bell went off. I have come to believe that this is more a cultural issue than an attention issue. It’s what we were used to, not an inability to pay attention. 

Disagree? Consider this. What left me (and still leaves me) scratching my head is that many of the same people who might complain about the length of the sermon can easily sit through a two to three hour movie (and not even have to get up to use the restroom). Many of them regularly sat through long lectures at the university at one time (Most college students sit and listen to 2 hour lectures, even high school students sit through 45 minute plus lectures). Many can spend hours learning about subjects that’s interesting to them. Furthermore, many people in their 20’s -60’s go to continuing education (for professional or personal reasons) events that include lengthy lectures. I know that there is a point where the law of diminishing returns kicks in, but it’s much longer than the 20 minute mark. We can watch movies and football games for 2 or more hours like it’s nothing, why can’t we listen to the preaching of God’s Word?

Here's the answer, at least part of it. Most Americans (and certainly we over-scheduled, exhausted Boston Metroers) have had an idol of time inserted into our lives. Furthermore, I truly believe that many Americans have had a terrible theology of preaching fed to them. 

At a certain point, we got to this point that we just wanted a clean one hour service, and a “don’t bother me” sermon where we say “Let’s get together and feel alright”. The combination becomes lethal for a church long term, because God should have primacy in our lives and schedules, and furthermore, a sermon is not just a talk, or a lesson, nor is it a political speech, or an exhortation to social activism, it is not just a chance to yell at a congregation to shape up and be moral, and it certainly is not a time to just give a dity of "Let’s get together and feel alright. Instead, a sermon is an encounter with the word of God, facilitated by the preacher. It’s God taking a preacher who has soaked in his word, and through the preacher, speaking to the congregation. It’s the high point of the service - God is speaking through His word[i]. My conclusion is that to say, 20 min max is an incredibly bad idea. If the sermon is the apex of the service, the high point that everything leads to (which is how most of our services our structured), it’s not something to be endured, and gotten past, it should be the big family meal of the week (I’m thinking of the big Italian dinner at Nana’s here). At the end of the day, this whole discussion all boils down to the Word of God and the exposition of His word having a preeminent part in the worship service. If the Word of God is our rule of 'faith' and 'practice' then we believers should allow the scriptures to speak into our lives in a significant way.


First, the preaching mandate was in some ways, the dying gasp of the fight, I just didn't know it. Many of my people had started to grow hungry. Plus, those that were coming in had no interest in short sermonettes. While I blew it (majorly), in not dealing with things properly in June, by the time the meeting with the pastoral relations committee happened, the issue resolved as an almost non-issue.

But second, what flips the script? What changes the direction? What have to create a desire for more? Ironically, the same medicine and food that we often kick against in our go, go, go, don’t bother me culture. Preaching! We have to have our expectations changed by a steady diet of preaching  (and that has slowly happened here at First Baptist- or so it seems to me as the pastor- now I have people say, “I wanted more”, or comment-  “how long till we get to an hour sermon- soon I pray”). Kids don’t crave steak over milk and cookies. But if they understand that they want to grow big and strong, they can be encouraged to eat the healthy stuff. The gospel preached, brings change. To you pastors who might read this, if you want to see change, hold up the gospel, show the wonder of Christ’s work, get people to see that God is speaking his word through scripture , that it must be primarily if we are to fulfill our chief end of glorify God, or see the kingdom break out of the doors and into our community. To church leaders, including mine, same thing. If you want to see the church change and grow and thrive, hold up the gospel. You hold up the gospel alongside the pastor. Show the wonder of Christ’s work, get your people to see that God is speaking his word through scripture. Be at it constantly, because this must be primarily if we are to fulfill our chief end of glorify God, or see the kingdom break out of the doors and into our community

Third, with all this said, my encouragement to other pastors looking back is, be wise… wiser than I was. Save yourself and your people some pain. Understand your dynamics. Be more explicit about what you will be doing, and bring your leaders along with you. Get consensus, something I didn't do and should have, and as you move, go methodically. Start where they are and carefully build up and lengthen out, over 2-3 years if need be, because if your congregation is getting lost, and fidgeting, or expecting things to end, when they aren't, you’re not communicating anyways.

[i] I know that came from someone, or from someone’s, but I have no idea who said it now.


  1. Well stated Pastor Jon. The excuses are many and vain if the Word is preached prayerfully, honestly, winsomely and with the proper research and study. Sounds like you've come through the fires in that regard and being refined accordingly. I don't even buy much of the "old folks" excuses. Seems to me that 100 or so years ago, congregants could sit for an hour or more on a wooden pew in a drafty or hot building and want more. Certainly the exile returnees in Nehemiah's day stood in rapt wonder by the Water Gate as the law was read for a good 5+ hours! Anyway, you made some great points and we need to start getting out of our individualistic "what's in it for me" comfort shells and start listening with open hearts to the Truth. Keep preaching it brother!

  2. Quick thought. While I don't have a policy up, please no anonymouse comments. General blog rule to live by.