Friday, May 21, 2010

I Can't Preach 35

No doubt you've heard the Sammy Hagar song, "I can't drive 55." It's one of those contemporary songs that is so well patterned after the psalms - specifically, the psalms of lament.

One foot on the brake, and one on the gas, hey!
There's too much traffic, I can't pass, no...

It's also a psalm/song about standing on principle:

Go on and write me up for 125
Post my face wanted dead or alive,
Take my license and all that jive,
I can't drive...55!

Now, this is how I often feel about preaching. In seminary we practiced preaching 30-35 minute sermons. In many Presbyterian churches, that's about the allotted time. And it's really, really hard to preach a 35 minute sermon.

Picture the scene. The apostle Paul is passing the torch to Timothy and the conversation runs something like this...

Paul: I charge you in the presence of Jesus Christ who is going to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and kingdom...
Timothy: I can tell you're serious about this...
Paul: Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season.
Timothy: Okay, I can do that. I've still got a lot to learn, though.
Paul: Here's what I want you to do. I want you to reprove, rebuke, and exhort.
Timothy: All three?
Paul: It's absolutely vital. People are at all different places before the Lord.
Timothy: Alright.
Paul: And also, you need to do this with all patience and teaching.
Timothy: What do you mean?
Paul: You can't just go in their with guns blazing. You need to show them the precious word of God and the beauty of Jesus, and show them how the Christian life flows from that. I would encourage you to use some personal illustrations, because they need to see your progress and example.
Timothy: This is a lot of work.
Paul: There's nothing more important.
Timothy: How much time do I have?
Paul: Could you keep it to about 30 minutes?
Timothy: What?
Paul: Oh, and you also need to do the work of an evangelist. This is absolutely necessary if you are to fulfill you calling. So make sure that you are speaking not only to believers but to unbelievers. You are a missionary as well as a pastor, don't you ever forget it.
Timothy: Does that buy me some more time?
Paul: Maybe five more minutes.
Timothy: Okay, I get it... you're kidding, right? Or maybe you mean to do 35 minutes each day?
Paul: No, just once a week. And did I mention you have to fend off the wolves, too?

Now, don't get me wrong. There are times when you need to drive slow, and there are times when you need to preach short. For example, you don't go speeding through a school zone where children may be playing. Likewise, when you speak to children you have to keep things pretty simple. Also, I don't commend reckless driving... or speeding around when you haven't been adequately trained and still have your learners' permit.

But, man, it's hard for me to contain a message to 35 minutes these days. I begin the week looking at a short text and think, "This week I'll keep it simple." After a few hours of study I'm back to Sammy Hagar mode. Burdened with much that I want to communicate in terms of context, explanation (teaching), application (rebuking, exhorting), illustration, some verses from another part of the Bible to bring to bear... and I haven't even begun to think about evangelism! By the end of the week, I'm more concerned about how to trim my message than about the message itself.

From the day I was converted, the role models in my life have preached sermons of 45 minutes to an hour. This has included preachers from all kinds of backgrounds--Calvary Chapel, Non-Denominational, Orthodox Presbyterian and PCA, and of course the Acts29 guys who never stop till they're done.

I can't preach 35.


Joel Pearce said...

I say put the pedal to the metal! I've heard sermons that were barely 20 minutes, but they felt like 4 hours, and in sermons that were 60+ minutes but felt like 10. Time is a strange thing. Maybe this is an argument for a weekly Sunday evening service? ;-)

Jeff said...

I think I've said this before... but one of the most memorable/biblical/encouraging sermons I've ever heard was 15 minutes long.

I routinely hit 28-32 minutes. I guess I have the spiritual gift of brevity.