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The Worship Hour: Less Is More

Wednesday, January 21st, 2009

WorshipWorship times have always been controversial.  On the one hand, there is the crabby old guy who shows more concern for the pot roast his wife put in the oven before they left for church than the condition of his soul.  On the other hand, there are the folks, many of them worship leaders, who would be happy to camp out at church all day.  They argue that in heaven we will be worshiping for an eternity so we had better get used to it.

Given today’s busy culture, I don’t think that we can improve upon the one-hour worship service.  One hour is enough time for several hymns, two public prayers, the Lord’s Supper, the collection, and a well-organized, thoughtful sermon.  If the service is conducted well, members of the church will leave satisfied and visitors will come back wanting more.

This is the main idea of Dave Browning’s article, “The Case for the Hour-Long Church Service.”  Browning argues that “the longer you perpetuate an elongated service, the more you run the risk of alienating the very people you want to reach.”  Outsiders who visit our church services may not have the stamina for a lengthy period of worship.  But if they are truly looking for answers and the church leaders have done their job of directing the congregation in scriptural, uplifting worship, they will come back for more.

Many methods can be used to draw people to the gospel, but the worship service still ranks as the best way to introduce somebody to Christ.  What do we tell the more timid church members who feel they are not ready to conduct a personal Bible study with a friend or family member?  “Just invite them to church.”  This is reason enough for us to put some thought into the organization of our worship hour.

Then there is the primary objective: praising God.  I know some Christians who measure the success of a worship service by the amount of time that was invested into it.  Short ceremonies make weak Christians, so the thought goes.  But who says that longer worship is better?

As a general rule, shorter sermons and shorter prayers are the result of much preparation; lengthier speeches sometimes betray a poor process.  Blaise Pascal once wrote a friend, saying, “I have made this letter longer than usual, only because I have not had the time to make it shorter.”  How many sermons are long simply because the preacher did not have time to make them shorter?  I’m not talking about sermonettes.  Granted, some sermons are woefully lacking in content.  That’s a subject for another time.  It is possible to preach a sermon in a about 30 minutes that is instructive and challenging.

Jesus never argued for lengthy worship.  Take his discourse on prayer, for example: “And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words.  Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Mt. 6:7-8).  After discussing how not to pray, Jesus said, “Pray then like this,” and gave a model prayer containing only 52 words.

None of the biblical sermons, including Jesus’, matches up in length to even today’s sermons, which typically range from 20 to 40 minutes in duration.  And these were preached before we discovered Attention Deficit Disorder.

I have heard it argued that in the old days Christians didn’t worry about time: “Back in the day we put the Lord first.  The sermon may have lasted two hours.  We didn’t care!”  While it may be true that some preachers spoke for long periods of time, two hours was by no means the standard.

Ira North labored at the Madison Church of Christ in Tennessee for 32 years and during that time built it up to be the largest congregation among the churches of Christ in the world.  In 1983, a year before his death, he wrote Balance, his “tried and tested formula for church growth.”  In the chapter entitled “Time Is Treasure,” he says,

I am convinced from many years of church work and study and observation that not only can the church have an effective worship service in one hour, but you can have a more effective, soul-stirring and heart-warming one…You can excuse long, drawn out services and defend them all you want, but while you do it your crowds will dwindle away and your future will be impaired.

N.B. Hardeman, whose Tabernacle Sermons drew crowds of 10,000 and more in the 1920s, kept his sermons to 30 minutes.  He famously advised his preaching students, “If you can’t strike oil in 30 minutes, quit boring!”

The preacher is not the only person in control during the worship hour.  An orderly worship service requires teamwork between the preacher, the person making the announcements, the song leader, the men leading prayer, and those serving the Lord’s Supper and distributing the collection plates.  It doesn’t matter how much preparation the preacher puts into his sermon if the others do not share his concern for time.  For this reason, those who are leading the worship should gather for a quick pre-service meeting and prayer to ensure that they will work together to provide a time-efficient, orderly, scriptural, and uplifting worship hour that strives to please the Lord.

While there are, no doubt, some insincere individuals who are interested in nothing more than getting in and getting out as quickly as possible, at the heart of this issue for me is the salvation of lost souls.  With a brisk, joyful service the lost can be attracted to deeper study through other worship opportunities, Bible classes, and personal Bible studies.

Jesus used every opportunity to seek and save the lost.  This is one that we should not take for granted.

The Moon: We Can’t Reach It

Monday, May 12th, 2008

It’s Monday, and I’m doing what I do every Monday, fretting over what to preach next Sunday. Sunday night is my favorite night of the week. It’s the one time that I’m not stressing over my next sermon. By Monday morning it’s back to the preacher’s age-old problem of what to preach. I’ve heard it called the “tyranny of Sundays,” which is how sermon preparation can feel sometimes when you’re fresh out of ideas.

People who have never prepared sermons on a weekly basis will probably be surprised to hear that preachers deal with writer’s block. I mean, there are sixty-six books of inspiration to choose from and a world of problems out there. The possibility of subjects is limitless. Picking sermon topics looks easy until you try it. It’s like dieting: You are excited about it until the first meal and then you’re pretty hungry by 10:00 a.m. and you tell yourself to hold on to your resolve but by the evening news you’ve eaten an entire bag of potato chips.

In Homiletics, they will tell you to plan a year’s worth of preaching ahead of time. This is something I want to try sometime, when I am able to set aside a week or two to do the necessary planning. The art of planning months of sermons ahead of time involves being creative with series. There’s no way to plan 104 individual sermons all at once, so you have to come up with themes that will dictate several good, relevant sermons. When I do this, I will probably include a series based on a book, say, Mark’s Gospel for example. I want to try to stay away from the cliche sermon series like the “I am” statements of Jesus or a study of the beatitudes. These are great studies, but if I’m going to do series, I want them to be smart, creative, and, most of all, important.

Here is where sermon selection gets sticky. How do you frame God’s Word in such a way that it speaks to our generation? Everything pertaining to life and godliness is already there, but people are not going to read the Bible on their own and apply it to life the way they should. If they were doing this, we preachers would be out of a job. Our task is to break the Word of Life into just the right portions, season it with relevance, and serve it in an environment conducive to digestion–not too much sweet stuff, but not just beets and cabbage, either.

My suggestion for learning the art of sermon selection is to watch children. Kids are masters of profundity. It doesn’t matter that they know nothing about their world and need to be taught by others. When they speak people listen.

Take, for example, a declarative statement made by my two-year-old daughter: “The moon! I can’t reach it.” What did we learn from that? Of course we can’t reach the moon. It’s 238,857 miles from earth. But when she said those words, we listened like Plato at the feet of Socrates. We wrote the saying down in a journal so we wouldn’t forget it. Called the grandparents and let them know. “The moon! It’s true! We really can’t reach it.” The secret behind my daughter’s expert delivery is basically that (1) she was sincerely fascinated with her subject; (2) she spoke the truth; and (3) she framed truth in language that had never occurred to us before.

I don’t see why we preachers can’t say something on a weekly basis that will make more of an impact than my daughter’s observations on astronomy. We have the advantage of the riches of God’s Word. With that as our resource, and with enthusiasm over our subject, loyalty to the Word, and creative analysis, illustration, and application, we should be able to captivate our hearers. That is, if my conclusions about my daughter’s rhetorical skills were right. If it all boils down to cuteness, however, she has us at a disadvantage.

The Pulpit

Tuesday, July 24th, 2007

In Moby Dick, Melville causes Ishmael to reflect on the signficance of a church’s pulpit. This comes after Ishmael visits a chapel in Nantucket and finds that the furnishings of its hallowed halls bear the marks of the whaling fleets harbored outside.

…the pulpit is ever this earth’s foremost part; all the rest comes in its rear; the pulpit leads the world. From thence it is the storm of God’s quick wrath is first descried, and the bow must bear the earliest brunt. From thence it is the God of breezes fair or foul is first invoked for favorable winds. Yes, the world’s a ship on its passage out, and not a voyage complete; and the pulpit is its prow.

Worldly-minded cynics who do not see the importance of sermons in church would do well to digest these words. The pulpit still navigates the world through the tumultuous seas of life.

More importantly, preachers should keep the significance of the pulpit before them at all times. By the looks of things, it appears that many of them do not. Why has the world changed its views on God, the natural world, sin, and morality? Many theories can be offered, and some of them are true. But the chief reason lies in pulpits that have weakened under the weight of a pluralistic society.

There was a time when the pulpit held its course against the floods that threatened to sweep us away. But then preachers began to soften their messages, and the world was swept away in the deluge.

A Preacher’s Vocabulary

Wednesday, July 18th, 2007

Have you ever wondered why a dime is minted with ridges along its edges? Maybe the design harkens back to the days when a dime could buy something, and the architects of our currency wanted to give the American people a grip on their money. After all, the sides of all the coins inferior to the dime, namely the nickel and the penny, are smooth as glass. Did one of our forefathers study the coping skills of Americans who habitually lost their money and draw a line between five and ten cents? It’s possible.

Older dimes don’t have the crisp tread of new ones. With use they are worn down until, like the penny, they start to slip through the fingers of newspaper readers and coffee drinkers everywhere.

The same is true of words. When a preacher puts a term into circulation, its initial use grabs the attention of his audience. It is planted in the listener’s mind and grows roots into the memory. The next few times it is used, its effectiveness is lessened only slightly by its familiarity. However, with time, a word can be overused to the point that it becomes worn, and with smooth edges it slips through the hearer’s consciousness.

For this reason, preachers need to work on their vocabulary. Reading is the best teacher of words. There are other ways to grow a vocabulary, but the main thing is to stay interested in they way people speak and write.

Next to Scripture, words are the preacher’s most important tool. If they are not maintained regularly, their dullness can become a handicap.