Why Do You Preach So Long?
Why are your sermons so long and complicated? Periodically, I receive this question from well-meaning brethren. Believe me, I take these inquiries to heart! In our culture, the idea of sitting through a 50–60-minute sermon doesn't appeal to most. So, why do we insist on preaching long and complicated sermons? Before I address that question, it is necessary to start with some preliminary remarks.
I believe the preacher who preaches long boring sermons should learn how to deliver ones that have life or find another way to serve the King. In the cutting words of Charles Spurgeon:
"No [anesthetic] can ever equal some discourses in sleep-giving properties; no human being, unless gifted with infinite patience, could long endure listening to them, and nature does well to give the victim deliverance through sleep."
I have often said that if a person can sleep through my sermons, then either they've had a rough night and need the rest, or I need to give them a reason to stay awake! Yet, some men seem painfully unaware that their sermons rival the powers of anesthesia. Again, Spurgeon says:
"If some men were sentenced to hear their own sermons, it would be a righteous judgment upon them, and they would soon cry out with Cain, 'My punishment is far greater than I can bear.'"
The word of God is living and active and sharper than any double-edged sword; therefore, dull sermons do not reflect the true nature of Scripture which cuts deep. It invigorates the heart of the believer and wakes the lost sinner from the dead. The preacher must do the spadework to cultivate and soften his own heart so that he is captivated by the truths of God's word. This work requires many hours tied to his desk, studying the word and pleading with our Lord to light a fire in his heart and enliven his mind to grasp the lofty truths found there. He must not ascend to the pulpit to proclaim God-breathed word without having encountered the Holy Spirit who inspired it, ready to herald the soul-saving words of the King!
When done correctly, preparing a 50-minute expository sermon is hard work for the preacher. In my study, I should also appreciate that this type and length of discourse can be challenging for the listener. It takes discipline for the hearer to fully engage for that length of time when they are accustomed to 30 second sound bites. I have the burden to pray for the listener and give fresh insights into the word of God so that they will have reason to stay engaged. I should also pray that they realize their responsibility to remain connected during the delivery, expecting the Holy Spirit to work through the word of God.
At Grace Bible Church, our gatherings are guided by the Word of God. We sing because we are commanded to sing in Eph 5:19 and other places. We pray because we are instructed to pray in 1 Timothy 2:1-8. We publicly read Scripture because we are directed to so in 1 Tim 4:13. We also preach the word because we are commanded to do so. As such, we are convinced that the sermon is the centerpiece of the worship experience.
Over the years, I have had feedback that our sermons are too long and complicated. We have had people choose not to attend our church because of the preaching. I have personally received that feedback and have diligently worked to simplify and improve the sermon content and delivery. But I am convinced that we bring God glory when we preach His word. Can we exalt Him with a shorter sermon? Absolutely! Whether long or short, I am confident that preaching is the primary means by which He works in a church through His Spirit. Said another way, He works through preaching to grow His people in maturity.
Paul had this in mind when he exhorted Timothy in 2 Tim 3:16-17 –
All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.
In these verses, written at the end of his life, Paul wanted Timothy to understand that the God-breathed Scripture is profitable – in other words, it has infinite value for the things he listed. When the man of God gives himself to using Scripture in this way, he will be adequate, equipped to do the works which God has given him. I am convinced that God does not bless ministry which utilizes any other means. I don't expect that these things are readily apparent. They will even be seen as foolishness to the unbeliever. Some of my readers may be convinced that this approach is antiquated and will not work in our modern culture. Yet, I am convinced that now, we need to give ourselves to these things more than ever.
Now, you may say that there are other ways than preaching a sermon to deliver the truth to God's people. This may be true, yet God has chosen primarily to work through the public proclamation of His word. We see this in Paul's following statement in 2 Timothy 4:1-2 –
I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His kingdom:
Preach the word.
Be ready in season and out of season.
Reprove, rebuke, exhort with great patience and instruction.
The word translated "preach" has the idea of "herald." In those days, heralds were sent to make a public proclamation of the King's message. This word spoke of making an official announcement to the King's subjects. Therefore, Paul is telling Timothy to herald the word of God – the message of the true King. He is speaking of the public proclamation of the God-breathed Scripture. We are called to publicly proclaim, preach, or herald the Word of God. We are always ready to reprove, rebuke, exhort, and do so with great patience and instruction.
As such, the preacher must know and target his audience in his preaching. In the context of the church, the table has been primarily for believing members of the body. More specifically, the preaching has been prepared for those who make up the body of Christ at GBC. As such, the preaching's primary focus is the church's edification. When I craft a sermon, I want to please God first and foremost. But I also prepare the sermon to build up the body of Christ at GBC. I am thankful that people all over the globe can listen and be edified, but they are not my primary audience. We put sermons on the internet, but these folks don't even cross my mind during my preparations. My primary focus is to build up the body of Christ at GBC through years of faithful ministry.
In Paul's words, I labor until Christ is fully formed in you (Galatians 4:19). We should recognize that this type of labor occurs over many, many years. Therefore, I am not trying to hit a home run every time I enter the pulpit. In baseball, some hitters will try to hit the long ball at every at-bat. I am good with walks, singles, the occasional double, and a few strikeouts along the way. I am okay to play small ball. I am satisfied to use God's gifts and wait on Him for the results. I just want to move the needle every week – that will happen when both the preacher and the listener are committed to the work of the Spirit through His word.
Other ministries may shine brighter; they may be flashier. They may have a great orator who can wow you with his words every time he speaks. I join Paul in saying (Philippians 1:18) – I rejoice when Christ is proclaimed. May God give more men in our day to herald His word! I pray that God would raise up more men like Spurgeon to preach His word.
My prayer is that men would rise and powerfully preach God's word to stir the hearts of His people. Throughout time, God has always had His men who have preached the word. Men like Noah, who was a preacher of righteousness. From Ezra and the prophets to Paul and the other apostles. From preachers like Augustine and Chrysostom in the 300s to Luther and Calvin in the 1500s to the Puritans. John Newton in the late 18th century. To JC Ryle and Charles Spurgeon in the 19th century. To Martyn Lloyd Jones, John MacArthur, RC Sproul, and others in the 20th and 21st centuries. As for me, I am content to use the gifts which Christ has given me to preach His word and watch His saints grow. In Colossians 1:28-29, Paul captures the goal of this type of ministry –
Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this, I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me.
By God's grace, I trust we will continue to see the results as we work faithfully. As we preach the hard truths of God's word, I pray that it will produce soft hearts.
My word be which goes forth from My mouth; It will not return to Me empty, without accomplishing what I desire, And without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it (Isaiah 55:11).
I genuinely believe this to be true. I have staked my life and ministry on it.