The funny guys over at Babylon Bee have hit on a Forsythian nerve of mine. The headline ‘Half of Congregation Dies Of Starvation As Sermon Goes 15 Minutes Over Time‘ is brilliant satire, as are almost all of their other articles; a much welcome relief to the tedium of seriousness we Protestants can so easily find ourselves caught up in.
My first thought upon reading it was to think that the people in this satirical church were dying of starvation precisely because too many sermons are woeful in their duration, content and depth; and secondly, remembering two theological giants famous for, among many other things, their preaching.
The first, John Stott, metaphorically places the nail underneath the hammer:
“Basically, it is not the length of a sermon which makes the congregation impatient for it to stop, but the tedium of a sermon in which even the preacher himself appears to be taking very little interest.”
And secondly, in the context of a favourite of mine, the theological giant that is P. T. Forsyth, I remembered his particularly penetrating and thoroughly uncompromising assessment of the situation, as the metaphorical hammer comes down and hits the nail on the head with astonishing accuracy:
“With its preaching Christianity stands or falls… The demand for short sermons on the part of Christian people is one of the most fatal influences to destroy preaching in the true sense of the word… Brevity may be the soul of wit, but the preacher is not a wit. And those who say they want little sermons because they are happy to worship God and not hear man, have not grasped the rudiments of the first idea of Christian worship…. A Christianity of short sermons is a Christianity of short fibre.”
The problem is that we think we’ve cornered the market on short-attention spans, so trapped in a lifestyle that we’ve chosen of instant news feeds, permanent social media harassment, portable offices that beep, flash and ping every few seconds – we call these things “mobile phones”, we must be so important in the cosmic scheme of things, that we choose not to think deeply about a lot of things, we demand to be entertained; and when we are called to think, we think thinking is time-wasting and unproductive! I mean, doesn’t that pillock-in-the-pulpit know how distracted I am?
Is the preacher the equivalent to the Medieval Court Jester? Singing the sermon-songs that seek attention and promise entertaining aka Robbie Williams? Who wouldn’t prefer Raunchy Robbie to Preachy Richy? What chance do I have? Let me entertain you; must I entertain you? Do you need entertaining? Why do you need entertaining? Why me? Why you? Why here? Why now? Why?
Manure! These guys, Forsyth and Stott and gazzillions of other unnamed faithful, preached at length twice on Sundays, with many people being present at both, as well as mid-week meetings that actually included exegetical study and exposition of the biblical text (admittedly the TV wasn’t so good back then), but still!
Now, may I get a little theological here? If Stott’s comment is the reason for Forsyth’s comment (even though Stott was a generation after Forsyth – stay with me), then my goodness, preach a short sermon and get it over with – put us all out of our bored and hunger fuelled misery. Forsyth also said that a bad short sermon is also a sermon that is too long.
Just preach well preachers.
Just eat well before church if you can. Even our belly-god knows when our spirit is being fed and our hearts warmed by the food that is Christ proclaimed. For we do not live on bread alone…..