Driscoll recounts at various points certain lessons he learned for preaching that I found helpful.
He says that early on in the history of Mars Hill he gave theology lectures as sermons. While he was very interested in theology, he came to realize that his sermons needed to touch down on the ground right were the people were living. He realized that his sermons needed to speak into the world of sin and darkness of the people in Seattle. Around this time, he also started preaching through books of the Bible. He found this to be a helpful way to get off his theological hobby horses, explain what a text meant in general and then apply it specifically to his people.
Driscoll also says that somewhere along the line he stopped caring how long his sermons were. He would sometimes preach for over an hour, and he still does and does so unapologetically since for many people this is the only Bible they get in a given week. People routinely have the time and patience for an hour or longer in other venues. People who complain about long sermons are either complaining because the preacher is bad or because they don’t think the Word of God is as important as football or movies or concerts or stand up comedians.
And speaking of comedians, Driscoll noticed that there are very few men in the world today who can hold the attention of large audiences apart from certain musical artists and comedians. So, even while Driscoll quit worrying about how long he was going, he also started taking homiletics courses from the likes of Chris Rock. And along the way, he started preaching straight through books of the Bible.
A couple of things that really resonated with what Driscoll relates here: First, I think it’s a pretty sorry state for the church to be in when people complain if the pastor preaches for much longer than a half an hour. If God invites us to His house for dinner once a week and has a word for us, I daresay we ought to listen even if its running over into lunch time.
But there are several angles to this discussion:
First, there are some in the Reformed tradition who believe that Christians are large brains with arms and legs attached for some reason. Sanctification is largely the uploading of theological data on Sunday mornings in a lengthy theological discourse that might as well be delivered as a series of ones and zeros. The worship service in these churches is a hymn sandwhich with a big, whopping piece of theological minutiea in the middle. Favorite forms of this sermonic bloat are readings from the nether regions of Francis Turretin (Lord bless him) and diagrams of the glories of supralapsarianism. These services are marked with furrowed brows, solemn tones, morbid introspection, and an occasional Holy Ghost grunt between the “we affirm the latters…” and “we deny the formers…”
Obviously if preachers are begging for twenty more minutes of slogging through five syllable words while beating the drums of damnation and hellfire, then I’d much rather the twenty minute version. Make it five minutes for that matter and be done with it.
But related to all of this is the fact that the sermon is not the only way that God ministers His grace to His people. Hymns and Psalms, Scripture readings, prayers, creeds, fellowship, and the sacraments are also significant parts of worship that God promises to bless and fill with His presence and Spirit. People were made with bodies and passions and minds and senses, and God intends to remake this fallen and broken humanity in its entirety. This means that singing and hearing music is part of the ministry of the Spirit. Eating bread and drinking wine in faith is part of the ministry of the Spirit. Hearing the Scriptures read is God’s Word to His people as empowered by the Spirit.
Sermons don’t need to be long as though that’s the only way God speaks to His people. That’s sort of like a husband insisting that his wife kiss him for twenty minutes every time. That may make for a great marriage or it might make for lots of babies, but it’s not necessary because that’s not the only way a husband and wife express love for one another. Talking, meals together, taking walks while holding hands, gifts, poems, and countless words and expressions display loyalty, love, and care. And God does the same thing with His people.
At the same time, a husband and wife that still like long, passionate kissing are probably still in love after all those dirty diapers and frenzied moments of childer-chaos. It’s probably a sign of a healthy marriage. And my point is that a congregation that is hungry for God’s Word, hungry for the Word read and explained and applied, hungry to grow in Christ, and doesn’t mind the preacher going on for another fifteen or twenty minutes is probably a healthy congregation.
But secondly, there are some who are concerned that church services just not go too long. An hour long service is long enough, and an hour and a half, is extreme. And two hours is just downright unreasonable.
But I just don’t get this. We’ll go to the movies and watch a freaking long piece of garbage and pay twenty bucks for them to let us in. And we call that having a good time. Or we’ll go to a concert and pay fifty or eighty or a hundred bucks to get into a stadium filled with screaming teenage girls for two hours. Or we’ll watch a game on television for several hours and call that relaxing and fun, but if the people of God are invited to get together, to sing, to fellowship, to hear God’s word to them, everybody’s all of sudden watching their clocks? Do you really have something better to do? Do you really have something more important than God? Then maybe you should just leave. Maybe you shouldn’t bother with the whole church thing.
Again, I appeal to the marriage analogy: what healthy marriage has a husband or wife a few minutes into making love glancing at the clock and hoping it will all be over in a few minutes? Love isn’t like that. But worship is a love song between Jesus and His bride. There ought to be other occasions like Sunday School and Bible studies for in depth study of the Word, but the Word preached comes at the people of God in a unique and powerful way. And the people of God should be hungry for that kind of food. And pastors should work hard to prepare a filling feast. Jesus is the Good Shepherd and He feeds His sheep in many other ways, but in so far as preachers are called to preach, they shouldn’t shy away from the task.
Of course some worry about the kids. Adults can sit through a two hour service, but what about the kids? And some answer this objection by carting the little people off to special rooms where they can worship God in their own little way. But somehow that just seems wrong. When I eat dinner with my family at home, I don’t send the two year old to her bedroom to eat her dinner so my wife and I can have some peace and quiet. And somehow I suspect that Jesus wouldn’t do that either. In fact he probably hates the fact that so many churches do that to the little children of the kingdom.
But does that mean that sermons just need to be short and sweet and keep the services moving along so we can get in and out like a television sitcom? And what about the crying babies?
I would suggest at least three things here: First, if the pastors and elders are committed to having children in worship then that means that they must speak to them during the course of the service and invite their full participation in the service. This means that they should learn to shout their “Amens” and sing their parts of the liturgy. We should look for ways to include them in the choirs and helping in various capacities that are suited to their abilities. They should know that they have a full place at the table of Jesus, and they are quite welcome to partake of His meal. And parents need reminding and teaching on this. Secondly, It also means that we should be full of grace for their immaturity. If they fall asleep, that’s OK. If they need snacks, that’s OK. If they need to draw pictures, that’s just grand. We obviously want to be teaching them to follow along as much as they are able, but we also remember their frames. We also bear with their squirms and giggles and squawks. And parents need to be reminded that their children do not have to leave all their childishness at the door when they come to meet with Jesus. Jesus doesn’t despise them for being little. Jesus loves them, and He is glad they are there with us. And when the kids need instructing and discipline in the middle of the service, we should carry it out gladly and cheerfully, not with an embarrassed fury at the four year old for pulling his sister’s hair. Of course they need teaching and correcting: they’re kids. But that’s nothing to be ashamed of, and it’s certainly not a good reason to try to make church as short as possible. Lastly, pastors should work at preaching well. This means being conversational, straight forwardly explaining the Bible, and without being showy or sentimental, telling stories and jokes that make the points the text makes. The best preaching is always able to explain what a particular text means within the immediate context, show the congregation how it fits within the broader redemptive-historical context — pointing to Jesus, and finally what it means for people who live in 2011 in America (or wherever).
Of course there’s no magic or holy minimum or maximum with regard to time, and I’m not saying pastors should lay burdens on their people that are too heavy to bear. I’ll I’m saying is that we should be growing hungry congregations, saints who are hungry for the word of God and pastors should be eager to serve up a gospel feast from the Word.
You can find the previous posts in this series here, here, here, and here.
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