When I took my first church my Grandma gave me some great advice. She said, “The mind will only hold what the seat can withstand, so preach until noon and let those poor souls go eat!” This is the same Grandmother who prays for an hour everyday, reads Scripture quite religiously, never misses a church function and can recite about 300 Scripture verses off the top of her head. I love my Grandmother.
So when I started preaching, I followed her advice. I found that on any given Sunday I did not have that much to say. I wrote manuscripts that were about 5 pages long and when I recorded my sermons, I found they were almost exactly 22 minutes long.
I am not sure what changed or why but somehow my manuscripts began inching up slowly by slowly so one week I was 5 and a half pages leading to a 25 minute long sermon. Then there was a 30 minute one here and there and suddenly a 40 minute one. I don’t know if I thought I had more to say or if I just started being lazy or if I ran out of the time needed to do the difficult task of cutting superfluity out.
When I moved I decided to cut back down to five page manuscripts and 22 minute long sermons. A lot of it had to do with shorter services. My prior church had an hour and fifteen minute long services. My current church’s services last only an hour. Another reason was that I also decided to spend at least five minutes at the end having the congregation do something creative (see my last post). But the big reason was that as my sermons increased in length, they decreased in quality. I was rambling more and telling more stories and scattershotting more metaphors. So the last few months I have been working hard at focusing on one point and one story or one metaphor.
It might surprise you (or it might not) to know that this one commitment has caused the most painstaking labor of any other preaching practice. In any given week I have read one book, 2 or 3 news or magazine articles and 4 or 5 blogs. I have had conversations with 10 people. I have sat for hours in my office, or my car, or on my bed just thinking. On top of that, at heart I am a communicator who gets all kind of thrills and chills while sharing data and telling stories.
So when I get up for my 22 minutes of glory every Sunday, it is very easy to stretch that into 25 minutes and then to 30 and then to 40. Pretty soon we are getting out at 1, long after my poor Grandma’s seat has given out.
So now I time my sermons when I practice them and then I delete, delete, delete. Often times I feel entirely stuck. I don’t know what there is possibly left to cut out. Then I go for a run and suddenly realize the whole 6 pages are superfluous. Then I delete half of the manuscript and rework the rest. I practice it again and find that now it is 25 minutes and still too long. Then I go for another run and come back the next day, deleting more stories and data.
This week I deleted an entire church history out of my sermon. It is stuff I badly want my congregation to know, but not something they needed to know on Trinity Sunday, except that my understanding of the Trinity is deeply influenced by the Eastern Orthodox tradition. Last week I deleted four or five metaphors after I realized the first one did just fine. I did the same thing a week before that. After all, you really just need one good story or one good metaphor to sell an idea.
It is a lot of work, but like the other commitments, this one seems to have helped so far. The sermons are not just shorter, they are more coherent and easier to follow and my grandma’s back side is always left wanting more, not less.
In closing, a university chaplain friend of mine once told me that the chaplain of another university told every guest preacher that they only had 20 minutes to preach. This was a university that regularly hosted big names like Shane Claiborne, N.T. Wright, Tim Keller, Leonard Sweet and others. Some would protest and say, “But I am fill in the blank!” And the chaplain would say, “but we are the college.” The chaplain concluded that the greats of our present time preached the best sermons they had ever preached because they were forced to actually say something and to say it succinctly and intelligently and let the students out after 20 minutes.
I only hope my sermons gain the same reward.