We were discussing the length of the preacher’s sermon in one of Paul’s letters. “Which rabbits are you chasing?” my friend asked rhetorically, “Are you chasing Paul’s rabbits or your own?” Often, our sermons are too long because we’re chasing the wrong rabbits.
As mentioned, actual sermons in Scripture (and in church history) vary in length (see our previous survey). We agree with Calvin and Luther: Often, we preach “too long” (Luther) and/or fail to consider “what the weakness of men could bear” (Calvin). Or, as my faithful deacon (a retired school teacher) stated, “The mind can bear no more than the rear end can endure!” We’ve all been there before.
Rather than quibble over whether to preach 60-minutes vs. 12-minutes, though, we are interested in a more pertinent issue: The minutes you allot to each point within the sermon (no matter the sermon’s length). We feel the implications of those “minute-allotments” have a direct bearing on the doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture. No preaching book I know of makes this connection. We wonder why.
To truly uphold the sufficiency of Scripture, you must “weight” your points in alignment with the biblical author’s emphases (see prior articles: here, and here). Ultimately, this comes down to assigning a specified number of minutes to each point, sub-point, sub-sub-point, etc. To allot more minutes to a minor point and less minutes to a major point “could” misconstrue the biblical author’s intent. Who grants us the authority to take such liberties? If God has spoken in Scripture—and He has—isn’t it only fair (and right) that we reflect His “breathed-out” emphases in our presentation to men?
For instance, our sermon may have three points, but the biblical author might emphasize the last point more than the others. The last point demands more minutes within the sermon than the other two. Otherwise, we implicitly deny the sufficiency of Scripture by over (or under) emphasizing points more (or less) than did the biblical author.
Again, imagine someone stood to explain a short letter you wrote about an urgent issue. In their 30-minute explanation, suppose they spent 2 minutes on the urgent issue and 28 minutes expounding your 3-word salutation? How would you feel about that? In principle, it’s no different than Joel Osteen accentuating the positive portions of a preaching-text and minimizing (or ignoring altogether) the negative injunctions. It denies the the sufficiency of Scripture in the delivery.
A Scriptural Example
Recently, we heard a pastor preach from Ephesians 4:7-16. That paragraph speaks of congregation members using their gifts in cooperation (not competition). Within that paragraph, the Apostle Paul added a parenthetical statement (4:9-10). He states Jesus “descended into the lower regions, the earth?” Commentaries tend to allot more pages to that mysterious phrase than to the Apostle’s larger point. That is, did Jesus descend into Hades to proclaim victory over wicked spirits in prison (Tertullian, Jerome); or, did He descend to Sheol to rescue those held captive by the devil before Christ’s first coming (Aquinas); or, did He descend to paradise in Sheol to release the OT saints into heaven (MacArthur); or, did He descend to earth in His incarnation (which included the grave) (Calvin, Gill)? This is a knotty issue that quickly can eat-up valuable minutes of sermon time. We wondered how the preacher would navigate those waters.
We felt he handled it well. He let the listener know that this two-verse parenthetical has been debated for centuries. He quickly shared the differing views throughout the history of interpretation. He stated which view he preferred and why. Then, he pivoted to show us how that parenthetical advanced Paul’s larger point: Christ secured the gifts; distributed them to His elect children as He saw fit; and therefore, we are to use our gifts in cooperation with one another, not competition. In a 45-minute sermon, he devoted about 5 minutes to that parenthetical. We felt he made an honest attempt to honor the great doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture in his delivery.
First, we suggest one last step in your sermon preparation: Assign “minute-allotments” to each point within your sermon based on the author’s intended emphases. Try to stay within those allotments in your delivery. Your listeners will appreciate this. More importantly, your delivery will serve to honor the foundational doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture.
Second, think through the entire length of your sermon in terms of total minutes. How many minutes should a sermon be? That depends on context. We served in a seminary town for several years. The congregation there was accustomed to 45+ minute sermons. We also have served in a more blue-collar setting. Practically (unless you’re an extremely gifted orator), if you don’t get your point across in 20-25 minutes, you’re edifying only yourself. This is not to suggest those minutes cannot be expanded over time. For instance, we’ve also served in a place where members were accustomed to 15-20 minute sermons. Gradually, over the years, their listening capacity was extended to 40-45 minutes without losing anyone along the way. Again, we stress, our goal is not to increase the audience’s listening capacity. The goal is to convey accurately the biblical author’s intent: whether it takes you 12 minutes or 2 hours.
Third, vary the length of your sermons, depending on the passage. This accomplishes two things: (1) it keeps your listeners from settling into a “routine,” which can hinder the freshness of worship and (2) it forces you to be efficient with your words and delivery. We all tend to have an exalted view of our oratorical abilities, but strength is not always in the length. Sometimes, brevity is better. Yet, honoring the sufficiency of Scripture in our delivery is best of all.