The funny guys at Babyon 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 embroiled in; relieved only by the annual church Barn Dance (this comment is also satire….or is it)?
My first thought upon reading the title was remembering two theological giants famous for, among many other things, their preaching. The first, John Stott, metaphorically places the nail underneath the fast approaching 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 in the context of a particular favourite theologian 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:
“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 there 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.”
We think we’ve got the right to a cultural short-attention span, so trapped in a lifestyle we’ve chosen of instant news feeds and social media harassment, we must be so important that we often confuse thinking with entertainment; and when we are called to think, we think thinking is for losers and time-wasters – doesn’t that pulpit-person know how distracted/busy I am? Is the preacher the new (congregational) Court Jester? Singing the sermon-songs that seek attention and entertainment, a Medieval second-rate knock off version of Robbie Williams’ ‘Let me entertain you’ prances into my mind. Who wouldn’t prefer 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?
This is but one sinister aspect of some contemporary church situations. My happy experience, however, is that many people are in fact hungry, even desperate, for good content in preaching. I think this is the case because the dynamic of ‘Scripture-Holy Spirit-Preacher-Congregation-Context’ is a powerful thing. Not “content” as mere information, but content that moves a person from information, through knowledge, to the telos of preaching, the knowledge of God that brings about the biblical wisdom to live as “human beings fully alive,” what the Greeks meant by phronesis; moving towards biblical wisdom prevents what Anthony Thiselton calls a “flat landscape” of biblical reading and interpretation. Flat landscapes have a beauty and majesty to them, but no-one calls the Alps a flat landscape – it would be obstinate (and wrong) to do so! The Bible is a multi-landscaped vision that needs careful, faithful and exciting interpretation; in short, Job and Ecclesiastes need reading alongside Proverbs; the promise of joy and peace must be read alongside the “other promise” of certain suffering (see 1 Thessalonians 3:2-4 “We told you that you would suffer!”). The Bible is not flat mountains, cold fire or dry water – it is so much more gloriously contradictory than that, a “glorious contradiction” that demands a hermeneutics of wisdom.
These guys, Forsyth, Stott and gazillions of other unnamed faithful, preached at length twice on a Sunday with many people being present at both, as well as mid-week meetings that actually included exegetic study and exposition of the text (admittedly the TV wasn’t so good and social media wasn’t so addictive (or invented), but still)!!! These guys were good.
Now, may I push the theology further? 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 a sermon that is already too long! Preach it brother! I do admit (confess?) to struggling to contain my sermon time. I average 25-30 minutes, and I have a very kind congregation who have tolerated my lapses into post-35 minute sermons with incredible fortitude and patience. How the Anglicans keep within an 8-10 minute framework at best, I will never know – a modern day miracle! Still, it is a skill and a craft that is constantly being honed, not so much as a thing to be mastered, but a thing which itself masters, and I am a pupil!
And finally … (to satirically use a well known rhetorical/wake up device beloved by preachers), now’s the time to smell the chicken….food for the stomach is, and must be, servant to food for the soul.
…..which is, I think, deeply ironic . . . and biblical! Amen.
This is a re-post from a couple of years ago, and slightly amended.