Ministerial Myth III: Many Words Are Better
A friend drove me from a summer conference to a small town church where I was invited to be the after covered-dish-supper speaker (not after dinner) honoring that year’s high school graduates. My friend and I thought it went so well that we celebrated with a beer before returning to the conference (where by the way, I also went long when giving lectures).
I did not at all heed the words, which still rankle, of the old lady who visited the PCUS church I first served: “No souls saved after 20 minutes.” Nor did I think about my ruling elder father’s comment from time to time after sermons he heard: “I thought he missed several opportunities to bring that one in for a landing.” (He never said this about me to me, but I would not be surprised if he said it about me to others.) Nor did I think about poor Eutychus who fell asleep and out of the window when the service went long and late.
I know there are men who can hold and edify a congregation for 45 minutes or an hour. I have experienced sermons when I looked down at my watch and could hardly believe how much time had passed since the sermon began. But most of us cannot do it. We are more likely to bore and weary congregations and lose what opportunity we have to edify.
I think that, beyond fascination with our own words, there are several things at work. One is that we think we need more words to develop or make a point clear. What may be the case is that we have not for ourselves developed or clarified what we want to say. The result of our many words may be that the point is lost on our hearers. Choosing the right words, speaking them concisely, and delivering them well will likely convey greater blessing to the people.
Another thing that can lead us to preach long is that we associate many words with that which is spiritual. We have read Lloyd-Jones on “the unction” and his comment about paying no attention when he was told to watch the red light signaling the radio broadcast was concluding. We think that more words are more likely get through to the souls of our hearers and search their consciences. My comment (to myself as well as to others), to borrow form Senator Bensten’s riposte to Dan Quayle, is, “I heard Lloyd-Jones. Lloyd-Jones was not a friend of mine. But I know enough to know you’re no Lloyd-Jones.” The people squirming under our preaching may not have their hearts pricked but their bottoms numbed.
Another factor applies to us especially if we are assistants or associates who get our “chance” to preach. This is our “opportunity” to speak, and we want to make the best of it. We may want to show the congregation how well we can preach. Sometimes we make the mistake of biting off more than we can preach when we choose our text. Or, we may even think we need to straighten out things the senior minister has said, or to say things he has failed to say. We have no business correcting or supplementing (complement yes) the senior minster’s preaching, and we are likely to make the congregation want more of our preaching, if we preach shorter, effectively delivered sermons. (We should guard against the same temptation when we are one of two or more speakers in the same service, as, for instance, an installation or wedding, and most especially funerals.)
We also need to think about our prayers. They are not times for dispensing information or preaching mini-sermons. Again, when we are assistants or associates who offer the first prayer or the main prayer of the service (in those increasingly fewer places where such prayers are included), we may, often without conscious awareness, view the prayer as an opportunity for us to “do something” in or make our unique contribution to the service. Adoration, thanksgiving, confession, intercession, and petition are the proper contents of prayers. Thomas Cramner shows us in the Book of Common Prayer that prayers can be relatively brief (in the case of collects very brief) and yet spiritually substantial.
The point is that when we preach and pray will do well to focus on God and to speak for and to him and on our people to speak for and to them. Both purposes will be best served for the vast majority of us by an economy of words. As in fiscal matters, inflation is usually an enemy.
I think often of a joke told by Ford Williams, an old friend and fellow campus minister: The young new minister was invited by a church member to speak at a community dinner. He, as I (back in the day) and so many young ministers are, was quite taken with himself and went on and on. The member who had invited him kept trying to get his attention to signal the young man to conclude – to no avail. In utter frustration the man eventually took off his shoe and hurled it at the speaker. He missed the young man, but hit an old lady sitting at the opposite end of the table, knocking her from her chair. The young man continued to speak, while the older man rushed to the woman and, leaning over her, began to apologize profusely. She, however, whispered in her fog, “Hit me again. I can still hear him.”
Don’t make people wish hammers to hit themselves over the head were dispensed with the bulletins.