Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Via SermonCentral.com

The Perfect Length for a Sermon

Date Published:

When it comes to determining the perfect sermon length, we need to know the limitations of the medium.
A denominational executive recently chided pastors in his tribe for inflicting “spiritual starvation” on their flocks. The crime? Brief sermons.
After skimming a sermon on a pastor’s blog, the denom leader wrote: “It could not have been more than eight minutes long, if that! This is, sadly, not some exception. It is in keeping with a disturbing trend: shorter and shorter sermons. We cannot expect our congregations to remain healthy and put them on a preaching starvation diet.”
This misguided executive has been duped by the myth of “more is better.” I’m afraid he’s assuming his longed-for long sermons achieve far more than they really do.

The Goal & Not

We need to be clear about the goal of a sermon or message time. To me, it’s to help draw people into a closer relationship with the Lord — to help them know, love and follow him.
And we need to be clear about what is NOT the goal. The sermon’s goal should not be ...
  • To dispense information. We’re drowning in information. We no longer need an information middleman. We need a transformation guide.
  • To showcase the speaker’s oratory skills. It’s not about the messenger.
  • To prove to the congregation that the preacher studied all week.
  • To deify or over-exalt the sermon. Yes, God is holy. God’s Word is holy. But a human’s sermon is, well, human. God can work through it. But that’s God doing the supernatural stuff, on his terms.

Sermon Limits

When it comes to determining the perfect sermon length, we need to know the limitations of the medium:
Lecture method. Of all the forms of communication and inspiration, the lecture method is among the least fruitful. Research shows that people remember just 10 percent or less of what they hear in a lecture or sermon. Most of those well-prepared words are quickly lost. Forever. The longer the sermon, the more that’s forgotten.
Finite attention spans. Everyone knows that children’s attention spans are short. But adults’ ability to concentrate on a speaker’s words is similarly short — about seven minutes. They’re just better at masking it. (Pastor, even though I’m looking at you and maybe even nodding, I’m actually daydreaming about what I’m going to do after church.)
Passive form. Most preachers still employ a passive, spectator approach to the sermon time. They do all the talking. And because the people sit without the opportunity to interact or process what they’re hearing, they fail to engage in a meaningful way. Some may be entertained, but rarely moved.
Human wiring. People consume, learn and apply communication in different ways. Some process predominantly through their eyes. Others internalize primarily through action. And some process chiefly through their ears. The latter are the auditory learners. They do better with sermons. The problem is, they’re in the minority. (I suspect many, if not most, preachers are auditory learners — who often assume, dangerously, everyone learns as they do.)

The Ideal Length

First, the length of the sermon is not the point. The point is ... the point. However long or short it takes to make a lasting point.
Using a variety of supporting ideas, scriptures, stories, visuals, experiences and interaction, an effective message might take 20 or 30 minutes. Or it may take five minutes.
No two messages are identical. So, why do preachers attempt to manufacture lectures that fill the identical time allotment, week after week? Why not allow other elements of a worship service to expand and shrink? I think some preachers believe those of us in the pews will feel cheated if the sermon runs 10 minutes short. Trust me on this: If we sense God moving us within a five-minute message, we won’t complain.

Starvation Diet?

Our society and our congregations may be suffering from some spiritual starvation. But it’s not because our preachers are not long-winded enough.
The denominational executive concluded his remarks about sermons with a suggestion that any preacher who delivers even an occasional short sermon should be removed from ministry.
Be careful, sir. One who is guilty of your condemnations was in fact quite effective with the short-form message. That was 2000 years ago. People are still talking about his brief, punchy stories and lessons.
He could have turned every opportunity into a 30-minute lecture. He certainly had plenty he could have shared. But he knew his audience. And his goal.
He didn’t buy the “more is better” myth:
I have many more things to say to you, but they are too much for you now. – John 16:12

Thom Schultz
Thom is the chairman of Group Publishing, and president of the Lifetree Cafe national network.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

From Sermon Central

5 Ways to Shorten Your Sermon

It's important to think about what to include in your sermon, but it's probably just as important to carefully decide what to exclude. Learn how (and where) to trim your sermon down with these tips from Peter Mead.
When you’re preaching, the clock is ticking. In one setting, you may have 20 minutes; in another, you may have 45. The reality is, though, that messages expand to fill the time available fairly easily. So it is important to think carefully about what to include. Perhaps more importantly, what to exclude. Where can time be trimmed?


Sometimes, a message needs a longer introduction than hard and fast rules allow. The problem doesn’t come from a long introduction, though, but from an introduction that feels long. If you need to go long, give a sense of relevance and a hint of Bible so that the fussy won’t get worked up. (Sometimes, just reading the first verse of a passage switches off the introduction monitors in the congregation!) However, often the introduction can be trimmed to avoid making the message play catch up.


The problem with good illustrations is that you know them well, and listeners will resonate. When they do, you sense it, and before you know it, the illustration has grown. Beware of expanding illustrations.

Historical And Literary Context 

Some preachers never include either, and their preaching suffers significantly. However, choose to include what is pertinent and helpful. Don’t give an extended background to the entire Roman occupation when you need to press on with the message. Enough to make sense of the passage is usually enough.


The end of a message can often be far punchier if it is tightened up. See if time can be saved by nailing a specific conclusion, rather than waffling to halt.

Post Sermon

It is easy to add five minutes to the end of a meeting by having a full song and a longer prayer than necessary. Why not let the sermon soak and leave people pensive rather than switching off with a closing volley of church ammo?
If you rein in the message at every place possible, you’ll probably finish on time. If, by some miracle, you finish five minutes early, absolutely nobody will mind at all! All of this, of course, has to be balanced with achieving your aims. The goal of preaching is not the early finish; it's the transformed life. 
How do you edit/shorten your sermons? Please share your secrets with us.

Peter Mead
Peter Mead is involved in church leadership at an independent Bible church in the UK. He serves as director of Cor Deo—an innovative mentored ministry training program—and has a wider ministry preaching and training preachers. He also blogs often atBiblicalPreaching.net.

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

From SermonCentral.com

How to Plan a Preaching Calendar

Date Published:
There's too much at stake to wing it week to week. Here are four practical suggestions to help structure your months ahead.
How we plan our preaching calendar atRevolution is one of the most common questions I get from other pastors.
Plan ahead.
I am stunned by how little planning goes into some churches. You would think that pastors don’t care what is happening in their churches. I am a planner, so this is easier for me and actually more comforting when it is done. For example, the other day I talked to a pastor who said, “It’s Thursday, and all I have is a title.” That’s like saying, “All I need is a chip and a chair.” We need better odds than that when it comes to preaching. Now before you get on my case, God does speak at the end of the week; God does change what we are to say while we are walking up to the stage. It has happened to me, and it is exciting and scary all at the same time, but this cannot be our normal practice.
At Revolution, we have decided that the best way for us to reach our mission and target is to preach through books of the Bible. This does not mean we are against topical preaching; we just like doing it this way.
We split series up into two categories: attractional and missional. Attractional will be more topical, dealing with felt needs, but based on a book of the Bible. Some examples are the Song of Solomon and the Sermon on the World. The other category is missional, which tends to be more formation, doctrine, theology. Some examples are Jonah and Hebrews.
We also try to alternate between Old and New Testament books of the Bible. What we are trying to do is to make sure we are giving our church a healthy balance not only of books of the Bible but also styles and feel. One other thing that we preach on every year is marriage, dating, and relationships. For our target and culture, we feel this makes sense.
What about length?
We haven’t bought into doing a three- to six-week series only. Hebrews took 18 weeks, and Nehemiah will take 22 weeks. For the Sermon on the Mount, we decided to break it up into four smaller series to create more on-ramps for our church and guests this fall. The length of the series is not that big of a deal as long as the speaker is up for it. Long series are draining. We try to stay away from doing long series back to back as that is draining on me, our team, and our church. After the serious feel of Hebrews, we did a video teaching series with Dave Ramsey, which felt completely different.
How far out do we plan?
We look about twelve months ahead when it comes to thinking through topics. This is where so many pastors do themselves a disservice. The other day I was reading a leadership book, and the author was quoting and pointing to the book of Nehemiah all over the place. Without knowing that I wanted to preach through this book, I would have missed a ton of great information. Could I have remembered it and gone back to it? Sure, but that is risky.
My point is to plan ahead in some way. By planning ahead, we are able to do a lot more creatively as opposed to going week to week.
Are we flexible?
Yes. Just because we are planning something does not mean it is written in stone and unchangeable. Over the summer, we were actually planning to preach through Habakkuk but decided about four weeks out to do the life of Elijah instead, which proved to be the right move. Before making the change, though, our creative team let me know we had not gone far enough into the creative process for that series. It is important to not waste your team’s time.
For our creative process, we look six to eight weeks out as we think through atmosphere, visuals, video clips, dramas, cover songs. As we get closer, Paul takes us through a process of honing in on what we will use and how it will flow.
How long would this take? Not very long. In fact, if you sat down right now and made a list of topics you would like to teach on in the next six to twelve months, you would be well on your way.
When I started preaching through books of the Bible, I picked James to start out with because it was my favorite book of the Bible. Not very spiritual, I know, but it worked, and I started to get used to it.
The point is to plan ahead. Way too much is at stake to go week to week.
Now I’ve told you how we do it; how do you plan your series? How do you decide what to preach on?

Josh Reich
Josh Reich is the lead pastor of Revolution Church in Tucson, AZ, which is trying to live out the rhythms of Jesus. The church's dream is to "help people find their way back to God."

Monday, January 07, 2013

From Sermon Central

3 Mistakes Pastors Make with Commentaries

Commentaries are resources for preachers, not sources for sermons. Watch out for these three pitfalls when using commentaries in your sermon prep and delivery.
Commentaries are resources for preachers, not sources for sermons. They are tools that help us in the passage study phase of our preparation. They are not a sermon bank of material waiting to be pilfered and preached.
If you read the introductory preface to a commentary (which would be unusual behaviour, I suspect!), you will see that the commentary or series is targeted toward a specific audience. Perhaps it is aimed at non-Greek trained lay people, or at seminarians, pastors, and Bible teachers with some Greek, or whatever. In reality, these categories are so broad that I would prefer to view them not as targeted communication, but as descriptions of a range within which the writer offers his or her explanation.
Preaching is different. When you preach your goal is not just explanation to a broad audience, but targeted transformation in a specific audience. You can be much more specific in knowing whom your listeners are and what they need to hear — not only by way of explanation, but also with an emphasis on application.
Here are three more related comments on preaching and commentaries:

1. Watch Out For Atomization. 

The vast majority of commentaries are highly atomistic. While a good commentator will be aware of the discourse level unity of the passage, it is hard to find commentaries that are overtly aware of the macro level flow within a book. It seems to me that often the commentator is so engrossed in the phrase-by-phrase explanation, that a stretch and coffee break before proceeding with the writing can lead to a sense of atomization in the end product.  The preacher is not offering a book in which the listener can go back and review the section introduction or re-read complex sentences. The preacher is offering an aural exposure to both explanation and application of a text. Different.

2. Only Quote A Commentary If The Quote Is Exceptionally Valuable.  

You don’t need to prove that you read commentaries (or checked in with Calvin, or whomever). You don’t need to feel inadequate to be the preacher (though we all are) — they invited you to preach, not Doug Moo or Tom Schreiner. Study and prepare to the point that you can effectively explain and apply the text. Only quote a sentence or two from a commentary if it really is uniquely pithy, arresting, compelling and gripping, not to mention helpful!

3. Don’t Feel Obligated To Cite Your Sources.  

If you do quote, no need to cite sources every time. Preaching is not an academic essay. Sometimes the reference to an unknown name can be unhelpful, sometimes (depending on the name), downright distracting or humourous! If the author makes a difference, cite them (i.e., Churchill), but if not, just say “one writer put it like this …” (anyone who cares can always ask you afterward).

Peter Mead
Peter Mead is involved in church leadership at an independent Bible church in the UK. He serves as director of Cor Deo—an innovative mentored ministry training program—and has a wider ministry preaching and training preachers. He also blogs often atBiblicalPreaching.net.