Earlier this week I posted the following reflection on social media. It provoked enough responses there that I thought it might be worth sharing here as well. And if you’re not a preacher, or don’t particularly care about sermons, don’t worry, this is about more than the length of a sermon.
There’s a thing that happens occasionally in my little corner of social media. Someone, typically a pastor, makes a claim, sometimes phrased as a question, that shorter sermons are better than longer ones. Generally, others chime in to agree: “If you can’t say it in 20 minutes you’ve not done your work… you’ll loose people… you’ve made it about you…” You get the idea. And I don’t necessarily disagree. I appreciate a short sermon and working to shorten my own sermons is often a really helpful practice.
But these claims/questions get under my skin and today I think I figured out why. The way they are phrased assumes universal application. Like, shorter sermons are always better everywhere. There’s no reflection about the significance of culture or context.
Stay with me. The emphasis on sermonic length assumes a certain experience of time. For many of us western people, time is a limited commodity and what we do with time says a lot about what is important to us. Things like starting “late” or going “over time” are value-laden. But what if that’s not your experience of time? What if time is not a commodity but more of an atmosphere in which what is most important - relationships and kinship - can be prioritized? How does the claim that short is best sound to those ears?
Think about the preacher. If her or his primary role is to communicate information to the congregation, then shorter makes sense. There’s only so much information we can take in at a time. The assumption here reveals that the mind is the most important part of our humanity. But what if our anthropology is bigger than flesh encased brains? In many settings, the sermonic task includes reintegrating people with themselves - bodies, minds, and spirits - their communities, and their place. This task will often require more than 20 minutes.
And what about the congregation? If they see themselves as a voluntarily associated collection of individuals who have come for some sanctified information to help them be better Christians, than three points and a poem will do nicely. But what if the congregation is gathered to worship as a people? In plenty of churches, women and men come with an existential sense of their union in Christ as well as the suffering they’ve known in an unjust society. They are hungry for more than information. So the preacher will take her or his time, calling the people to remember who they are and who God is, showing them how God has been present in trial and pain, rooting their collective experience in the narrative of Scripture. Again, we need a few extra minutes for this.
Again, I like short sermons! I like long ones too. The rub is the assumption that what is best in one setting is best in all. Interestingly, I’ve only heard these claims made by White preachers. I’ve yet to hear a Black preacher make a similar one.
Here’s where the claim about an ideal sermon length becomes about more than sermons. We could substitute this ideal for a lot of other ideal things. Whiteness itself is rooted in a history of the ideal human body, an ideal which interprets and categorizes every other body. When white people like me make statements about ideals severed from context, we’re playing to deep and dangerous tendency. We’re betraying a view of ourselves which assumes an authority to evaluate not just our own contexts and cultures but yours too.
So yeah, preach that short sermon. I’m here for it! But maybe be curious too about why someone else preaches three times as long as you. What is it about their context which makes this a good decision? And what can their context help us see more clearly about our own?
Photo by Luis Quintero.
Earlier this week I got to interview my friend Shaun Marshall about his new book, Transition Decisions. If you missed it, you can watch the whole thing here. We spent some time applying the themes of Shaun’s book to some of the questions about leaving (or not) the white church that we’ve wrestled with here. Unsurprisingly, Shaun helpfully reframed some of these questions in a way that opens some important possibilities.
I want to send a copy of Shaun’s book to three subscribers to this newsletter. To enter, just leave your name and email address here. And if you don’t win, but the book anyway. It’s great!