Thoughts on Long Preaching

A large Kentish family came to visit us on Sunday, both morning and evening. With them were some polite children. I offered them the use of our upper room should my sermon prove too long and heavy. In fact they were superbly behaved and remained in the meeting throughout, hopefully taking in some of the content as I examined Solomon’s speech and prayer in 1 Kings 8.

At Kedington Church, Norfolk, is a rather wonderful old pulpit. I suspect it is Jacobean and rather quaintly, it still has a peg for the parson’s or clerk’s wig. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when gentlemen wore powdered periwigs, a summer’s day in a stuffy church might persuade the wearer to divest himself of his horsehair. Next to the pulpit, further up from the wig stand, is an hourglass holder. This would have held an timer, which could be used to measure the sermon’s length- by the hour. The more puritan the parson, the longer he would likely preach; the more ritualist or lazy the incumbent, the less the emphasis on ministering the word. Puritan clergy were not unknown to preach for 2-3 hours a time. I wonder if their auditors regretted the slowness or the haste of the sand’s passing. 

I once heard Jim Wilkinson, the author of Miracle Valley and Hollybush founder. He explained that some preachers go on too long: “If you can’t strike oil in 20 minutes, stop boring!” he quipped. I seem to think he spoke for considerably longer than twenty minutes, yet his point was valid. I sometimes wonder why some preachers do not quit while they are ahead. Having preached tolerably well, they might close the meeting on a good note, even if their notes are not quite spent.

I tend to preach for 30-40 minutes. To some readers, this will sound long-winded, as though I love the sound of my own voice (nothing could be further from the truth). To others, it is rather short, a cheating of the congregation who have come some distance. I tend to liken spiritual food to physical food. No-one wants to go to the posh restaurant which charges high prices for tiny morsels of food artistically decorated on a plate with a sprig of leaf and a splash of sauce. Neither do we want to be over faced with a gigantic portion which we simply cannot eat. The question should not be whether preacher speaks too much or too little, but has God spoken? An eloquent, well-polished homily awash with literary devices and clever puns is but a hollow jibber-jabber if through it God remains silent. An honest word in due season, a heart-felt exhortation, an earnest pointing to Christ, though simple and brief, can contain more of heaven’s godliness than a hundred theological tomes.