A man got up to leave early from a church service and the pastor asked him where he was going.
Joe: “To get a haircut.”
Pastor: “Why didn’t you get one before services?”
Joe: “I didn’t need one then!”
Joe was later heard to remark that his pastor was just like Pharaoh—he would not let the people go. 🙂
To avoid this humorous but all-to-real perception by many, we live in a day of increasingly shorter and shorter sermons being preached. While I am all for avoiding careless long-windedness, I think we are losing the primacy of preaching in the narrowing time slot we are attempting to squeeze it. The most common reason I hear to validate this shift is the “shorter attention span of people nowadays.” For all of my preacher friends grappling with this issue, I would like to push back a bit on that sentiment with some counter-cultural thoughts that are not so counter-cultural. According to Business Insider, the average feature film hasn’t gotten any shorter in length. In fact, they’ve actually grown longer. The latest Star Wars installment appeared to do okay at over 2 hours-two hours that kept almost everyone in their seats. The entire time. I recently read, “The issue isn’t length. It’s engagement. Your sermons don’t necessarily have to be shorter. They do need to be engaging.” The average believer who begs for “shorter sermons” is likely asking, without knowing it, for more engaging sermons.
A few opening disclaimers: this post is not written for the dynamic evangelist or itinerate teacher; it is written from and for the pastor who preaches 2-3 times per week on average to the same growing group of people year after year. It is also not dealing with the spiritual disciplines but the practical nuts and bolts after those necessary prerequisites are met. Thirdly, this post yields to the truth that trying to “hit the long ball” in every sermon is rarely wise when more often than not, it is a series of unremarkable, succincter “singles” that add up to feeding the flock. As one author wisely asserted, “I don’t remember 99% of the meals I’ve eaten, but they’ve kept me alive. God uses faithful, forgettable sermons to beautify his bride.”
While we average preachers can never compete with Hollywood, here are practical ways to go deeper and longer in an engaging way with your preaching:
Collaborate with the worship leader/team/choir to prepare the audience through the opening worship song selections.
Whether you realize it or not, there is a tension between how a studied/prayed up preacher and a sincere congregation view a sermon. The best analogy I have heard compares the preacher to a train at full speed and the congregation as a commuter trying to jump on from a complete standstill. I know it sounds simple, but the most effective means to slowing down the train and speeding up the commuter is through carefully-selected worship songs. (This means that you have to plan your preaching calendar ahead of time and work through an online collaborative resource like Planning Center Online.) I have found that the preacher and the pewster singing several cohesive hymns/songs together gets us on the same page before I get up to preach. In many ways for the savvy pastor, the opening worship should be the lion’s share of your sermon’s introduction-thus saving time in your sermon for more of the body.
Here’s a typical flow for our services that is working very well for us: (Notice the 78:44 time stamp total at the bottom on an extra full day. At North Life, we aim for 75 minute long services as long as the preacher cooperates.)
Save all of the perfunctory aspects of the service until after the message.
Nothing wastes the extra-alertness and focus in your audience more than a service front-loaded with announcements, offerings, and empty banter. The only items that should precede the sermon are those necessary to prepare hearts and minds for the sermon. In my humble opinion, this includes 4-5 congregational songs, prayer, and possibly a video or special. That’s it! When it comes to getting the congregation up to speed spiritually, less is usually more. May I be careful to add that the other necessary things like announcements, baby dedications, new members, and offering are important but need to happen AFTER that prime sixty or so opening minutes where you have the best, most complete attention of your audience.
The preacher, if at all possible with other staffing, should not speak in the service before reading his sermon text.
I hope it is not true in your church, but far too many services involve the one preaching doing most of the auxiliary talking, praying, and segues. A variety of voices tends to add energy whereas a singular voice tends to detract. Consider the following example: the worship leader should do the opening prayer, not someone else that is not a part of leading worship-this will break the efficient flow of the opening sets of worship. You, as the senior leader, may be tempted to say, “But I want to be a part of what is said and sung in the non-preaching segments of the service.” To that concern I would respond that you can be an integral part, but only beforehand (meet with/follow up with your staff and lay leaders) and then during the service as an active participant (listen, sing, pray under the leadership of another). If the congregation hears the preacher’s voice too early in the service, it will, by default, begin to tune out earlier in the preaching time. It is also healthy and rejuvenating for the congregation to see the lead pastor on “complete voice rest” while not only out of town on a regular, intentional basis but also through in-house and guest preachers. Especially the allowance of younger, emerging preachers in your midst will allow the message of Christ to actually outlive you-talk about a “longer sermon”! It is counter intuitive, but less speaking on other fronts actually amplifies and expands your opportunity to preach when it is your God-given responsibility.
Include your sermon outline with blanks for the congregation to complete in the bulletin.
Any honest preacher will admit that very few things encourage their ministry more than seeing a listener taking copious notes. What we don’t realize it that more of our audience would do so…if we would give them a little more help. I believe that the sermon outline being in the bulletin provides several benefits: 1) It helps the sermon content to be understood and applied with greater clarity. As the adage declares, “Thoughts tend to disentangle themselves when they pass through our lips and fingertips.” 2) It helps the audience to get a feel for the overall development of the sermon and how to “pace” their attention as they look ahead. One reason longer sermons tend to lose an audience is not because of the length but the gnawing doubt that “it will ever end.” Be sure to preach sermon outlines that give equal time to each primary point. 3) It empowers the audience to hold the preacher accountable on the flow and balance of the sermon. Instead of feeling passive, they now sense a level of partnership and alignment to help move the sermon forward with their attention. (If you can tap into this latent potential in every room that hears your preaching, it is huge and you can often “feed off of your audience” in a way that borders on supernatural!)
Use slides with each main point on your auditorium screens.
This may seem obvious, but far too many preachers have still not realized the significance of the eye-gate that can add to the listening ceiling of their flock. I recently came across this statistic: the human brain processes one hundred bits of text data per second on a printed page and one million bits per second of pictorial data on a screen. That means a picture is actually worth not one thousand but one million words! Wow! Just as the early churches used stained glass, the modern church and its preachers should take advantage of screens. While I don’t put every sub-point up on the screen, I do project every major one and…supplemental illustrations and powerful quotes. If you were to interview our church members about the snapshots they have in their mind from last Sunday’s sermon, the majority would probably have a thought or application God burned in their heart that is connected to an image that we projected.
Use an illustrative “relief” for approximately every five minutes of didactic content.
Effective leaders in any arena understand the “stretch and release” principle-a season of intense tasks or topics must be followed by a period of regrouping, not another stretching one. This same principle is true in the pastoral dialogue of discipleship or monologue of preaching. While supplemental material in a sermon can serve as an illustrative window to process and apply a biblical truth, it can also serve as a moment of “catching our breath” and then reengaging with renewed vigor toward the sacred text. (Make sure that this relief content is not just unnecessarily adding to the length of the sermon intrinsically; it should only add supplementally.) In retrospect, some of the most transformative statements I have ever been impacted by in the sermons of others came on the heels of a lighthearted story or joke. To ignore this intrinsic need of the audience to have strategic reliefs leaves you with two options: 1) Preach yourself into a “hostage situation.” 2) Preach shorter to avoid over-stretching your audience beyond one heavy segment. Remember, “the mind can only comprehend what the seat can endure.” The human body is able to sit longer than you have probably been led to believe, but…not without relief.
Instead of using the diminishing attention span of our overstimulated culture as a ministerial excuse, may we learn to become better conservationists of the energy of our dear church people. Shorter is not automatically better and longer is not necessarily outdated. The most effective preachers have been and always be those “who know their audience.” This audience, by the way, that begins first with God who has much to say to His people through you. The most hope-giving principle to our preaching is that the length and depth of our preaching depends less upon who we preach to and more upon the wise stewardship of who they listen to. “Preach the whole counsel of God,” but do it strategically in your context with the Spirit’s help in implementing the above initiatives. We don’t need soundbites; we need sermons! We don’t men who preach to clocks; we need men who fully preach Christ! We don’t need exhortation ultimately determined by only temporal tolerance levels; we need it to be shaped by the urgency of imminent eternity racing at every soul being preached at and every soul doing the preaching!
The Apostle Paul who was not immune from putting people to sleep with his preaching (Ac. 20:9) admonishes Timothy and us today on not just the how but the why, “I charge thee therefore before God, and the Lord Jesus Christ, who shall judge the quick and the dead at his appearing and his kingdom; Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; And they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables. But watch thou in all things, endure afflictions, do the work of an evangelist, make full proof of thy ministry” (1 Ti. 4:1-5).
What other techniques or philosophy has helped your preaching sustain the attention of your audience for longer periods of time and deeper subject matter?