Help! I preach too long and I can’t get up!

Okay, this is a dangerous post because you never know how well people know you, therefore react to what you say.  Well, here goes… (not that organized, just some thoughts)

I preach mostly around 55 minutes, sometimes as much as 62 minutes and sometimes in the upper 40 minute range.  I’ve always been on the longer side of preaching, just not quite where I’m at right now.  When I first came to UBC I’d hoped to “warm up” to preaching longer, knowing that it is a BIG adjustment for the people.  I really didn’t do that and that bothers me because of WHAT I preach.

I’m a rabid expository preacher (expository preaching being that the meaning of the text IS the meaning of the message preached).  I want people to hear, be challenged and changed.  I don’t care about comfort, but I do care about shepherding.  See, there’s nothing comfortable about hearing the Scriptures taught week after week.  Its nature is to divide our intentions and conquer our hearts, turning us God-ward in a gospel-oriented, Christo-centric way.  This means we’re faced week after week with our shortfalls and His sufficiency.

That’s a hard message to hear for 35 minutes, much less 55 minutes.  So, what precipitated this post, you may wonder?  People have joked with me all along the way about the length of sermons, and series for that matter.  Most understand and have adjusted (even our poor extended session folks).  Some are willing to see its effects because they love hearing the Word preached.  Some don’t get it at all and won’t.  I’ve written this because it’s the biggest joke, biggest gripe, and biggest encouragement I hear about my preaching (along with the “depth” issue).  How can something cause such varied reactions among God’s people?  Well, my contention is that people are different, but God’s Word (revealing God’s character) is consistent and unchanging.

Here’s what I know…  I actually have a plan to work on my sermon preparation in such a way that will help the messages be more clear and concise.  While it may not sound like much, I believe that 45 minutes is about right for where UBC is right now.  That’s a decent target, and I don’t mean it as arbitrary as it sounds, but it’s a target.  I can’t remember if it was Churchill or not, but a famous dignitary was asked to speak at an event and when he inquired about how long he had to give his address he informed them if they needed him for 2 hours, he could speak now, if they needed 30 minutes it would be a week.  I know I’ve not gotten the reference just right, but you get the idea.  It takes work with the language we have to get ideas / truth across.

Here’s the bigger issue.  No matter if 10 minutes are “cut” or not, the fact that God’s Word is proclaimed does not change.  Therefore, how it hits the human heart will continue regardless.  I frankly don’t have time for extended personal stories and forced illustrations (although I do believe a well chosen illustration is quite effective – working on this too).  It is the Word of God that is effective and powerful to change lives, not my personal story (2 Peter 1:16-21 helped me understand this).

I do not suppose at all that UBC is the only place for the Word being proclaimed.  I pray for our area churches regularly and meet with their pastors.  I’m convinced there are several Bible-saturated, Christ-centered churches in our area and we should want that.  We should also want our churches to boldly declare the Word of Truth in such a way that our members (not speaking of visitors or unchurched at this point) gather BECAUSE of the Word preached primarily.  My fear is that many people gather in the church for lesser reasons.  Yes, I have no problem saying any reason in gathering with the body that is NOT to corporately hear the Word of the Lord proclaimed is LESSER.  Read Nehemiah 8 & 9 or anything in the Pastoral Epistles (1,2 Timothy, Titus) if you question that.  Too often, churches don’t help.  We so often see churches appeal to these lesser appetites is if they are primary, then when we try to convince the people of the centrality of God’s Word, our “message” gets lost.

So, what I’m left with is a strong desire to make our worship gatherings increasingly effective and to shepherd / pastor the body as we continue to adjust our corporate life together to what the Scriptures prescribe.  I DO want you to pray for me as I seek to improve my sermon preparation and delivery.  I also want you to pray for one another in the reception of God’s Word.  If God’s Word is not primary in our midst, we have no hope of being pleasing to the Lord at His coming.  No, that doesn’t mean long sermons, but sometimes our response to long sermons exposes our truest ambition in the church.

8 thoughts on “Help! I preach too long and I can’t get up!

  1. Phew…bringing the heat brother.

    I want to begin by thanking you for placing such a high priority on making the message of the text the message of your sermon. It is not an easy task and I think this is most easily shown by the myriad of sermons that are preached ever Sunday around the world that do not fit this model.

    In response to your post, I would just like to ask, “How we can help?” How can we as the body faithfully come alongside your preparation for the preaching of the Word? I know you mentioned prayer, but what are some practical things our congregation can do to give you more time to prepare?

    Can we cook meals for your family? Mow the lawn? Babysit your girls? “Take care” of the “cat situation” that I’m sure causes much unrighteous anger that leads to more time in confession and less in preparation? We could take turns driving you to work so you can use e-Sword on your iPhone in the passenger seat during the commute. We could stick bouncers in front of your table at Panera. I’ll volunteer if it includes one of those earpiece thingies and cool sunglasses.

    I joke, but in all seriousness, help us support you in this. For the better preaching of the Word. For the greater health of the Body. For the increased glory of Lord.

    -Cole Penick
    jpenick@uark.edu

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    • Really, besides continuing to get the right staff leadership in place and prayer, it’s just going to be disciplined adjustments I make. Certainly not having financial constraints so we could have some key staff in place might help, but we have enough resources to move folks into key positions for periods of time that will help the body overall (including me and the time I spend wearing other “hats”).

      Probably the greatest help is people becoming impassioned listeners and training their children to listen. People take their kids to an 1.5 hour movie all the time, and while that’s entertainment, the expectation that some parents have that their kids just “can’t” do something (like sit under longer preaching) is a choice parents have to make. We have families in our pews that are regularly pleasantly surprised at how well their kids do.

      Essentially, it’s adjustments on everyone’s part. I’m torn in this, because I want to make these adjustments but am skeptical that a 10-12 minute adjustment in sermon length is really the issue with many that have an issue with length. I believe that faithful exposition (which does take at least 40-45 min) simply divides and causes great discomfort for our consumer / me-driven church culture that we’ve allowed to exist far too long. It’s the getting “there” that I want to shepherd better in this regard. Make sense?

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  2. My family and I visited your church for several months last year and found the people to be friendly, the Bible Fellowship classes to be welcoming and full of rich discussion and teaching, but I must confess that it was the preaching that finally led us to go elsewhere. Long, meaty expository preaching is wonderful, but in my opinion it is unfair to expect young children to sit quietly and absorb anything at all from messages that are on the level of seminary classes. Your average congregant is going to have a difficult enough time with a three-year sermon series on the book of John. Seven- and eight-year-old children (at least mine) just can’t sit still that long.

    Just some very well intentioned food for thought … I think you are a great teacher and have a deep, deep love for the Word. Just remember, the mind cannot absorb what the seat cannot endure.

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  3. Makes sense. We have found that many of our families have been shocked at how well their kids have done (and do) in the services, but it is folks like you that I’m thinking of. The series length is not a big deal, I don’t think. Our people have responded tremendously to our Scripture intensive approach in Bible Fellowships and the sermon series. I know you may think it’s like a Seminary class, but it isn’t. One conviction I have (and I’m willing to spend a lifetime in pastoral ministry to see it through) is that, while we should be clear and simple, we have dumbed down preaching and teaching in the church so much that our expectations are slight. If you were to read the messages that faithful ministers like Spurgeon, Lloyd-Jones preached (and often to common folk, not that well educated), you’d realize how little we require of our preachers.

    I don’t know how much difference 10-15 minutes makes in the long run (to backsides or kids), but hopefully it keeps families like yours interested long enough to engage with the body.

    I hope and pray that you guys are joyfully serving in a fellowship where Christ and His Word are most clearly exalted. Thanks for the comment.

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  4. “The secret of a good sermon is to have a good beginning and a good ending, then having the two as close together as possible.”
    ~ George Burns (he is not God, but he played God in a movie!)

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  5. i will join you in prayer as you seek to make some changes. i love your teaching, and it seems to me that in maintaining soundness in your teaching while being sensitive to the church is very Christ-like.

    “do not neglect the gift you have…practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress. keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. persist in this, for by doing so you will save both yourself and your hearers.” — 1 Timothy 4:14-16

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  6. My family recently moved to Fayetteville, and we have attended UBC on numerous occasions. I am not the average church attendee in that I have many years of seminary-like education. I have read most of the authors that are frequently referenced in the sermons. Having said this, I am usually not able to completely follow along with the frequent esoteric references. I could not agree more that any message must be squarely anchored in the Word; however, I do not agree that it must be delivered only one way. The beautiful and amazing thing about God’s Word is that it is accessible to everyone! Every passage need not be dissected and cross-referenced with the Septuagint (how many people understand the true significance of this?).
    I am certainly no professional pastor, but I would think that scripture can be delivered in multiple formats and remain true to the Word. If I could travel back in time, I am sure that I could listen to Churchill for hours no matter what his topic. I guess I feel that the message and content can be marred by an unwillingness to deliver it in a way that is palatable to its audience. I feel that delving into the intracacies of each passage would make a great Bible study. Everything has its place. I do not think an 8 or 10 year old should/could be expected to endure 45-60 minutes of this kind of sermon. They can sit through an hour long movie because they are engaged at a level they can understand. I really do appreciate the dedication to the Word, but I am afraid that the “dedication” may be obstructing it being heard. I am sending this because my wife and I would really like to be a part of the UBC family, but we are struggling with this aspect of UBC.

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  7. Thanks for commenting! I appreciate your honest remarks in response to the post on preaching. I really have no reason to be defensive, so I really don’t want to come across that way. I would like to just clarify a few things, though.

    I’m sure that I make esoteric references and that is much that I refer to when saying I want to simplify speech. I want the gospel clear more than anything. At the same time, there are words that must be defined (like “propitiation”) and the people have to learn how to listen. I believe UBC is doing a great job in being actively patient – meaning, they are adjusting to the preaching and increasingly loving to learn.

    You’re right, God’s Word is accessible. And, while I’ve never cross-referenced the Septuagint that I recall (while at UBC), there are a few words that need some original language clarification. Again, it’s important to be clearly spoken in this.

    I’m not sure what the “formats” are that you’re referring to when it comes to the delivery of Scripture. One of the marks of UBC is our passion for expository preaching. That means that our default is to go through the Scriptures without anything fancy or clever, so that the meaning of the text is the meaning of the message preached. Certainly different preachers have different styles, but rarely do preachers alter their styles of preaching regularly. I believe in the foolishness of preaching.

    I understand about children sitting through services. We are working on something we had before called Kids on Mission which meets during the service, but it only goes up through 1st grade. We want to help families during the service, so pick up a “bag” for the kids as they come in. We have found the kids do a great job overall.

    I do hope you give the church a chance. I understand the struggles. I would say that even if time of preaching alters and the language simplified, it’s still gonna be 40-45 minutes of pretty intense stuff. We’re pretty unapologetic about that and believe that many are ready and anxious for the scriptures being sung, read, prayed and preached boldly. I know you may feel like my “dedication” is too rigid, but the truth is I am simply who God’s made me to be and called me to be as a pastor-teacher. I only want to get better at it so His Word is clear. Obviously, preaching is central. Make sure you’re sold on that before you join any church. In our western church culture many will choose a church on anything but the preaching. It is not secondary, it is core.

    Blessings,
    Mike

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