By Daniel H. King
A source of irritation for some brethren is the preacher who tends to hold his audience in the auditorium “overtime,” that is, beyond the time scheduled for worship to end. Likewise, the preacher who commits this offense may become downright hostile at the suggestion that he has preached “overtime.” What is overtime anyway? Does such a beast actually exist, or is it merely a product of an impatient imagination? I believe the question is worth some consideration, since churches have experienced problems and preachers have lost their jobs over it at one time or other.
When Paul visited the church in Troas, Luke records a speech made by him before the congregation which lasted until midnight: “On the first day of the week we came together to break bread. Paul spoke to the people and, because he intended to leave the next day, kept on talking until midnight” (Acts 20:7; NIV). If a preacher is approached on account of excessively long sermons, he will often make reference to this text. This passage, according to the thinking of some, justifies lessons from the pulpit that last as long as suits the speaker at the time. That this is a questionable conclusion to be drawn from Acts 20:7 is an understatement. Two things are plain about the context that show this position begs the question. First, Paul was a visitor in Troas, not a regular part of the city’s scenery. He had been there previously, but only for a short while on his way to Macedonia; in fact, it was there that he received the “Macedonian call’ (Acts 16:8-11). It was, therefore, not only a special privilege to hear an apostle of Christ address the congregation, but also a treat to hear Paul at all. We have no evidence that he ever again saw the city or these people. I think that if I were afforded such an opportunity, I would probably also sit with rapt attention and for as long as necessary. One person, of course, did fall asleep in spite of all this and even fell from the window: “Seated in a window was a young man named, Eutychus, who was sinking into a deep sleep as Paul talked on and on. When he was sound asleep, he fell to the ground from the third story and was picked up dead” (Acts 20:9). Eutychus had probably worked all day long (Sunday was no day of rest for people in the Roman Empire until Christianity began to be predominant), and the speech kept him up long past his usual bed-time.
It must also be considered that Paul was leaving early the next morning for Assos. The ship would not wait for him to spend more time with the church. The text explains his prolonged speech on this basis: “. . . because he intended to leave the next day . . . .” This was a special circumstance, dictated not by the whim of the preacher but by the limited time he was to have in their city to talk with them about the gospel and its growth in the world. Therefore, if comparable circumstances dictate a similar limitation of time and opportunity, then this passage is applicable. If not, it has no place in a discussion of such things.
1 Corinthians 14:40
An assembly for the purpose of worship must be an orderly affair. The business of worshiping God is serious and cannot be looked upon as being without prescribed rules of conduct. The church of God at Corinth was guilty of a breach of order in the way certain disciples behaved and forced Paul to speak to the problem in his first letter to them. This happened in the days when men and women were gifted with miraculous spiritual talents, and, in spite of this, Paul brought to their attention the need for system in worship. Women were not free to speak up whenever they liked (1 Cor. 14:33-36), but were to be silent in public worship. Those who spoke in tongues could not act as though they had no control over the gift, but were to make their presentations in an orderly way. They were limited to two or three per session and only one could speak at a time (1 Cor. 14:27). The one who spoke in a tongue was either to pray that he could interpret his message, allow someone else present to interpret, or else keep completely silent (1 Cor. 14:13, 28). These were rules of order for worship. They make it plain that provisions for orderly service must be part of today’s worship also. Paul’s conclusion of the matter is general rather than specific, allowing for application of many points of order in the worship of a local body of Christians: “Let all things be done decently and in order” (1 Cor. 14:40).
With these things in mind, it is possible to consider the question of whether a preacher preaching “overtime” may be considered a breach of order or not. First off, it will be admitted that all preachers at one time or other have gone a few minutes “past the hour.” Most brethren have no problem with this, knowing it is virtually impossible to quit every time precisely “on time.” Other factors also enter the picture and must be considered also. For example, the song-leader may lead more songs or songs with more verses, or may even sing a few so slowly as to consume an amount of time which is out of the ordinary. This may throw the preacher’s presentation time off. Announcements may be particularly numerous, etc. Why should blame be placed upon the preacher in cases like these? Obviously it should not, but he usually gets it anyway.
On the other hand, there are preachers who try to be known for their “long-windedness,” who feel they have not preached unless they have exceeded the normal time for conclusion of worship by an hour or more. They are another case. If the brethren where such men preach have decided the preaching service ought to be open-ended, then none should complain about such. But if the church in large measure considers there to be a need for a stopping point, then such a point of order may be set just as scripturally as a starting time.
Some of our preaching brethren have too little care for the time limitations of others. Because they are fully supported by the church and are able on weekdays to do their shopping, spend time with their families, take care of business affairs, etc., they think others are also thus free. Some do not take the extra time it requires to prepare lessons that are lively and interesting. The result is that people tend to watch the clock and to pay particular notice when the time is gone. They will also complain. Why shouldn’t they? A little courtesy on both counts is called for on the part of the speaker and should be forthcoming.
When has a man really preached “overtime”? By that I mean, when has he breached the rules of orderly worship by continuing beyond the time when he should have stopped? Consider the following suggestions:
1. When he preaches overtime because of poor preparation. Two things are necessary for any speaker which are particularly worthy of mention here. They are: (a) Careful preparation and (b) Self-discipline. Before a man enters the pulpit he has some general idea of how much time he will have to speak. After some experience with preaching he discovers about how much time it will take to deliver a given amount of material. If he goes into the pulpit with notes that will take him two hours to deliver when he knows he only has forty-five minutes to speak, he is poorly prepared – unless he plans to take up another lesson where he has left off. If he gets into the pulpit and “cannot control himself,” he is no more privileged than the tonguespeakers of Paul’s day. He must learn to exercise some discipline as a speaker.
2. When he starts to repeat himself. One of the complaints I have heard many times from brethren who have felt themselves put-upon by a speaker who goes overtime is the fact that they say the same things over and over. One seldom hears laments about the other kind of preaching, i. e. the kind that is filled with biblical teaching, illustration, and indications of careful preparation and deep study. Repetition is the “mother of learning,” it is true, but saying the same thing repeatedly simply for the sake of filling the time can be aggravating to listeners. When a man takes an hour and a half.to deliver a half-hour lesson – if it were devoid of all the repetitions – then brethren may understandably voice their displeasure.
3. When he has not forewarned his audience, or made some arrangement for extra time. Have you ever had a visitor come over and stay interminably? You keep hoping they will go home, but they don’t. You drop hints but they seem not to notice. The hour is growing ever more late, but they keep staying. Finally, you grow discouraged and interject some discourtesy, like: “I think I will go to bed so you can go home!” If you had before planned to make it an all night visit, then you would not taken it as rude for them to stay so late. They overstayed their welcome because prior arrangements had not been made. On occasion when I have had to deal with some subject that took more time than usual, and especially during meetings when there would not be opportunity to complete the discussion at another time, I simply told the audience it would take a little extra time. Since they had not been held over up until then it was easier for them to adjust to it, and because they had been given warning it was not a shock and they had made adjustments accordingly. This is a matter of simple courtesy.
4. When he habitually does so. Most Christians show surprising patience with speakers. They are usually patient with our many mistakes while we are learning, overlooking the foibles of our inexperience. But they do expect us to grow (as with any other Christian; Heb. 5:12), and learn from our years of practice. If brethren hire a preacher with the understanding that he cannot preach a sermon shorter than two hours, then he is not preaching “overtime.” If, on the other hand, he is hired by a church that customarily ends its worship period at a certain time and there has been no policy change in the interum, and he is persistent in holding the audience in the meeting-house beyond the regular stopping time – then, he is preaching overtime. If he has been talked to about it and he refuses to exercise some self-discipline (Gal. 5:23; 2 Pet. 1:6; 1 Cor. 9:25), then it may be necessary for the elders to take control of the situation. Such an obdurate attitude on his part may well signal a case of hard-headedness and a self-willed and arrogant nature. That would need to be corrected.
“Let your moderation be known unto all men” (Phil. 4:5). This is sound advice for everyone, preachers included. Preaching brethren need to consider the problems of people with small children who get restless and tired when forced to sit still for long periods ‘of time. They need to consider the old and sick who may not be able to endure a long sitting spell; and they need to appreciate the limitations of differing attention spans. Listeners should be patient and understanding of the particular problems of those who present the gospel message and not be overly sensitive about a few extra minutes spent in study and meditation. In short, everyone ought to heed the admonition of Philippians 2:4, “not looking each of you to his own things, but each of you also to the things of others.”
A physician knows that the right medicine, when administered in the proper dosage, will be beneficial to health. In the wrong dosage it may kill the patient. A good thing can be overdone. As preachers we ought not (albeit unwittingly) kill the spirituality of the church by trying to spoon out a larger dose than most can handle at one time.
Guardian of Truth XXVII: 2, pp. 45-47
January 20, 1983