As most you probably know (since my readership consists of me and my Mom. I LOVE YOU MOM!), I recently ended a three-month sabbatical. I am truly blessed to be part of a church family that respects the spiritual discipline and blessing of rest.
Though the time was not “restful” in the way we hoped (we adopted four kids; more on that soon), it did give me some great time to think about “ministry,” etc. Since one of the things I love to do is preach, I spent quite a bit of time thinking about preaching. I’m not saying I’m great at preaching, just that I love to do it. That’s not always a great combination, is it? Someone who loves doing something they’re no good at can be quite a sight. Do you see the lengths I’ll go to just to make a Seinfeld reference? It’s really quite sad. But I digress.
I remember a comment one professor made while I was at seminary. I can’t remember which professor it was, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t my actual preaching professor. Anyway, speaking of sermons, they said: “Longer is not always deeper,” meaning that longer sermons are not always the deepest sermons. This has been something I’ve thought a lot about over the years because, since I tend to swim in “reformed” streams, I’m surrounded by people who love long sermons. If a sermon is short, it is automatically perceived to be shallow. If a sermon is short, it is automatically considered to be irreverent to the text.
Not only do I love preaching, I love poetry. I don’t necessarily mean I love sonnets or that I prefer it when things rhyme. I mean, who’s got the time? Even though so many of us preachers do have a thing for alliteration. To clarify: Billy Collins and William Carlos Williams are some of my favorite poets. I believe the essence of poetry is saying the most possible with the least number of words possible.
One of my favorite movie moments happens in Pixar‘s Up. Pixar says more about a genuine love story in four minutes than most major-league movies do in an hour-and-a-half. Don’t believe me? Watch now:
I want my sermons to be like this. I’m not as good at interweaving stories and illustrations into my sermons as I’d like to be, but I am trying to learn to say the most possible with the least number of words possible. Believe it or not, it’s actually more difficult to preach a shorter sermon. Anyone can preach a long sermon. You have time to develop points. You have the luxury of providing filler. But the Christian life is not about filler. It’s about cutting the filler out.
And yet, anyone can preach a short sermon too. Just look at most mega-churches. The short, pithy sermon is par for the course. Sometimes these sermons will include the Gospel. Sometimes they won’t. But they will rarely exceed the seventh-grade level of comprehension. This is not what I’m talking about.
I want my sermons to tell God’s story the way This American Life tells our story or the way Radiolab tells the story of everyday discovery. Easily digestible but provocative segments. Again, I’m not saying I’ve arrived at my goal. I’m not even saying I understand completely how to do this. But what I am saying is that many of us need to re-examine the notion that longer sermons are somehow “better” and that others of us have no attention span. Both are lies.
What if every preacher struggled to find his own voice in his own community? What if we stopped paying attention to the way the celebrities do it? What if we stopped measuring success by buildings, butts and budgets? What if we all tried to regain the subversive beauty of the Gospel? What if we all hungered for more encounters with Jesus rather than the transfer of information?