By Don Potts
Today it is no uncommon thing to hear a congregation sing, “Take time to be holy, the world rushes on,” then to hear them urge the preacher to cut every corn possible to shorten his sermon in order for the congregation to be out and gone by twelve o’clock. clock: Take your time and hurry up, “consistency thou art a jewel!.” May I ask what all the rush is about? I hear brethren talking about how to pass the Lord’s supper around in less time, and how we can sing two songs instead of three or four and perhaps two verses of the invitation song rather than all four verses. At the same time, “long winded” preachers are rejected in favor of “short and sweet” preachers. But why? `
Much is being said about a current “preacher shortage,”pshaw! I know that we have many loyal, dedicated brethren and congregations, but in many cases we have a preacher shortage all right, a shortage of preachers that will preach what will preach what we want, like we want, and, in the length of time we want. For example, I recall driving three hundred miles, in a round trip, to talk to one congregation about working with them. The sermon preached was one that would have been received in any sound congregation, but they concluded immediately that I was not the man for the job. You ask why? – I preached entirely too long! It has been said that a preacher cannot hold the attention of an audience over twenty five or thirty minutes. If this is true of an audience, one or two things seems to be true, the preacher needs to spend more time with the book and less time socializing, or else, there is something wrong with the spirituality of the congregation, and I will let them tell me which it is.
But someone says, “consolidation” is a sign of a well prepared preacher. But consolidation does not assure either an informative lesson or a short one. For example, Archibald McLean in his book, Alexander Campbell . . . as a Preacher says, “At home Mr. Campbell spoke from an hour to an hour and~a half. Abroad and on special occasions he spoke twice as long. He often spoke two or three times a day. The length of his sermons was in harmony with f he customs of the time, and barely met the expectations and wishes of the people”` `(page 30). Didn’t Campbell and preachers of that day and time know about consolidation? Who would have the audacity to say that Campbell was an ill-prepared speaker? It might be well for those who associate short sermons with intellectualism to read some of the sermons of pioneer preachers like Benjamin Franklin whose sermons fill at least twenty to twenty five pages of solid print. Those sermons are in every respect consolidated and illuminating, and in no respect, to my thinking, do they fall short of the mark.
Again, what is all the rush about? T.W. Brents once said, ” . . . If you will let your preachers know that you cannot endure sound doctrine, he may learn to feed you on fables, and tickle your itching ears with nice little half hour speeches exactly suited to your taste. Preachers are not so dull as to be unable to learn that half-hour discourses are much more easily prepared and delivered than discourses of an hour or more in length. There is not a field hand in all the country that does not know that a half hour’s work is more easily done than an hour’s work. There is another advantage, too, in half-hour sermons. When a preacher has to preach to the same congregation for a number of years, if he cuts up what he knows into small sermons, having only one or two thoughts in each, the balance in nice filling, he will be able to make his stock go much further than if he prunes out all surplus drapery and puts in discourses of an hour or more, filled with solid shot throughout. Oh, but he who makes short discourses learns to consolidate his thoughts and say more in less time. Such has not been our observation. These half-hour speeches are made up of flowers designed to tickle the itching ear, and, as a rule, have nothing solid in them. The man who has something to say is the one who consolidates. He knows he can discuss no important subject thoroughly in half an hour, and if he wishes to teach the people he selects subjects that have something in them worth preaching, and he has no use for surplus words, or redundant verbiage just to fill up, or embellish his sermons. We have no objection to elegance or style, but we are more concerned about what is said than about elegance of expression. We would rather have sound doctrine plainly and forcibly expressed, than to have the ears tickled with a straw” (Gospel Sermons by T.W. Brents, pg. 206, 207).
Again I ask, “Why all the cry for shorter sermons, shorter services?” Is it because we love to hear the gospel expounded more, or because we today are more spiritual than they were in the days of Campbell and Brents? Is it because we want to get out so we might rush across town to share the good news with some lost and perishing soul? Is it because there are more important tasks that must be attended to on the Lord’s day? Or, is it that we have forgotten that the first day of the week is indeed the Lord’s day (Rev. 1:10)? I repeat, the Lord’s day, not the Lord’s hour! Rather than planning the services in such a manner that brethren can be about their business, it is high time that they start planning them in such a manner as to be about the Father’s business. This day belongs to the Lord, and if so, it is not ours, like the rest of the days of the week. Unlike the Sabbath of the Old Testament, it is not a day of rest, it is a day for the work and service of the Lord, a day of worship and mutual edification. Instead of firing and brow beating godly preachers for preaching too long, the church would do well to plan the services and make it a day of edification and indoctrination of the church, a day of preaching and worshiping (Acts 2:42). If then, there is time left after such worship and service, rather than spending it in the field or in the shop or plant, why not use that precious time reading the Bible, visiting and ministering to the sick, “warning the unruly,” “comforting the feeble,” “supporting the weak,” or “teaching a lost soul about Christ”?
A woman of my acquaintance retorted, “Well it’s always been a custom among churches of Christ that the services let out at twelve.” Of course, such is no more true than to say the early church started it’s services at ten. But the thought that came to my mind was, if it is only the custom of brethren, its time we change our custom and give the first day of the week back to the Lord. In short, let’s stop saying, “Take your time and hurry up.”
Truth Magazine XXI: 1, pp. 9-10
January 6, 1977