If I’d had more time…

Pulpit

… I would have made it shorter.

The quip is variously attributed to Blaise Pascal, Mark Twain, and TS Eliot–all of whom had something to say about economy of expression. It’s true in writing, where too often quantity is a substitute for quality (“get rid of all the unnecessary words you tend to use,” to paraphrase William Zinsser’s advice in the classic, On Writing Well). I’m thinking it’s good counsel for preaching, too.

I grew up in the tradition of expository preaching, which moves through the text methodically–and slowly. A 30-minute sermon was short; those running to 40 or 50 minutes were more common. But more recently, I found myself preaching in a liturgical service, where the homily runs closer to 15-20 minutes.

At first, I thought this would be impossible. Doesn’t a preacher need at least 40 minutes to set up common ground, establish context, develop 3 points, and then draw practical, so what? applications?

Of course. At least, insofar as that is one established, acceptable way of preaching. But also, not always. What if you, say, were content to make just one point, but to do that with intensity? Or how about raising a couple of penetrating questions? Is it enough just to light a fuse?

The TED talks got me thinking that a shorter sermon could work: people pouring their hearts out on a topic/idea/possibility for 18 minutes in ways that absolutely moved their listeners. Powerful, poignant, pointed–all good traits of meaningful sermons, too.

So now I’m trying to preach shorter–which I’m learning to do. It just takes more time.

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