The following tip, counsel, admonition, or whatever you want to call it, is primarily intended for liturgical preachers—that is to say, for those priests and pastors who preach God’s Word within the context of a canonical eucharistic liturgy. Whether pastors of evangelical or mainstream Protestant congregations will find it helpful I do not know.
1) Don’t preach longer than ten minutes.
Bottomline: you are probably not good enough to preach longer than ten minutes. This is a hard truth. None of us want to think of ourselves as mediocre or poor preachers. We have a zeal in our hearts to bring our parishioners into a deeper relationship with the Father and the Son in the Spirit, and we know that the preaching of the gospel is essential to this mission. Unfortunately, we only have one shot a week at our people, and even then we will only be preaching to a portion of the membership. Given the critical importance of the Sunday morning homily, it’s natural that we would pack it with as much evangelical, theological, moral, and ascetical content as possible. Besides, deep down we really are convinced that we are good enough preachers to actually pull it off. Wrong!
Since my retirement from parish ministry, I have now heard enough homilies to know different. Most of us are not very good preachers and some of us are horrid. You may be, and hopefully are, a wonderful pastor, catechist, spiritual guide, counselor, and parish administrator. I’m sure you love Jesus and have a burning concern for the salvation of your parishioners. But when it comes to the proclamation of the gospel, well … your homilies leave much to be desired (and that, quite frankly, is putting it mildly). Sorry. I’m simply speaking the honest-to-God truth. Don’t kill the messenger. I am one of you, and you need to hear this truth that your parishioners dare not share with you.
After ten minutes my brain shuts down. And it’s just not me. Just glance around at all the glazed faces. But you do not see them. I understand. I didn’t seem them either. And so with great earnestness you keep on preaching … and preaching … on … and on … and on some more. Once you hit the fifteen-minute mark, we are either in agony or coma. At the twenty-minute mark we are in hell.
I did not know this truth when I was a boy priest. Fresh out of seminary, I figured my congregation needed my twenty-five to thirty-minute sermons. Whenever anyone kindly tried to hint that I needed to trim them a bit, I would recite the maxim of the great Anglican preacher John Stott: “Sermonettes make Christianettes.” Stott could get away with this maxim because he was a great preacher. No matter how long he preached, I’m sure he was able to keep his congregation in rapt attention. But I was no John Stott. Heck, I was only a Christianette myself. Still am.
Not only does the excessively long sermon put us to sleep, but it also makes it more difficult for us to attend to the rest of the liturgy. I never knew how difficult this was until I started listening to sermons instead of giving them. Please know that I really and truly do want to hear the Word of God from your lips; but by the conclusion of your long sermon, you have crushed that good intention into nothingness. Now my mind is either a thousand miles away, perhaps never to return, or worse, it is filled with all sorts of angry thoughts about the homiletical abuse to which I have just been subjected. I then have to spend the next twenty minutes trying to forgive you and get myself right with the Lord.
I like to think that I became a better preacher as the years rolled by. For the sake of my parishioners, I sure hope so. I do know that over the years my homilies became shorter and folks stopped complaining about their length. That at least was a gain. At the very least it meant that my homilies had ceased to be an obstacle to their sanctification. Lord, have mercy.
Some of you may, if you continue to work hard on your sermons, become genuinely good preachers. When you reach that point, you may lengthen your homilies to fifteen minutes. A handful of you will become great preachers. To you the twenty-minute homily hath been granted. And if you are St John Chrysostom, you can preach as long as you want. But even great preachers need to stop talking. God has yet other, even more important work to do on Sunday morning. It’s called Eucharist.