As far as I can remember, I have only ever been criticised once for preaching too short a sermon. And that was the occasion, many years ago, when I actually forgot one third of my message (I had foolishly tried to memorise the whole lot, and I’ve never repeated that particular form of idiocy).
It’s generally a silent tussle between the preacher and his congregation. He wants them to have more, whereas they would quite happy with a little less.
Some congregations can get their own way. Apparently, if you find yourself in the same church service as Her Majesty the Queen, the sermon you hear is guaranteed to be no more than 12 minutes, because that’s the royal order. (Mind you, I don’t blame her too much, given the amount of sanctimonious nonsense she probably has to endure).
The problem of preachers going on and on (or seeming to do so – their hearers must take some responsibility for their own boredom thresholds) is not a new one. The apostle Paul once preached for so long that one of his hearers fell into a deep sleep, fell to the ground and…well, if you don’t know the story already, you can read it in Acts 20.
I once heard a story dating back to the time when sermons were measured by the hour-glass rather than the clock. The minister, seeing that his hour-glass was nearly empty, turned it over. As he did so, he said to his long-suffering congregation, “Brethren, this is a deeply interesting subject. Let us have another glass!”
But the challenge seems much greater for us, in this day of information overload, short attention spans, and so on.
Many churches wisely have a large clock behind the congregation where it is quite obvious to the preacher. Some don’t. The one where Rev. Sam has been invited to speak did not. As time when on, Brother Sam finally commented that he had forgotten his watch and asked, “Does anyone have the time?”
“There’s a calendar right behind you,” piped a voice.
‘Don’t preach to long. I should say, if you are in earnest and interesting, that, whatever you are preaching about, you should preach about forty minutes. Some sermons remind me of the sailor who was told to pull a rope on board; he pulled, and pulled, until he was tired, and then declared that he believed “the end of this’ere rope is cut off.”‘ (Spurgeon)
These days, forty minutes would seem too long to many congregations. Until the skills of speaking and listening both improve, we might respond to the preacher’s question, “What should I preach about?” with the reply, “About 30 minutes.”
Of course, there is a huge difference between how long a sermon is, and how long it seems. There is good sense in the statement (reported by Stott in I believe in preaching) that every sermon should ‘seem like twenty minutes’, even if it is longer.
All preachers should keep in mind the maxim: ‘The mind cannot retain what the seat cannot endure.’