"As Long as Time Permits"

Written by Drew on June 16th, 2006

In his first Apology, written around A.D. 150, Justin Martyr recorded the following description of a typical Christian worship service.

And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given… (chapter 67).

Much could be said regarding this valuable excerpt. The implications, for example, of the mention of “Sunday” as the day of worship are important, considering the objections raised by those who want to extend the Lord’s Supper to other days of the week. Furthermore, Justin’s ancient testimony sounds astonishingly similar to a description of a typical worship service in the churches of Christ. All of these are important points that probably deserve more attention than the subject I have chosen for this post. But for some reason I am hung up on the phrase “as long as time permits.”

Evidently, the early Christians were as time-conscious as we are today. Granted, their services may have lasted two or three hours in contrast to our one-hour services. But the point is, they had a set time for worship and tried to stay within their self-imposed limits.

As a preacher, I’m torn between meeting two needs: worship that is “decent and in order”(1 Cor. 14:40) and worship that fixes on God and Him alone (Jn. 4:24). Worshipping decently and in order means setting certain limits to regulate the services. Setting God as the sole aim of our praise means resisting temptations to “get it over with.” Christians must strive for a balance between these two important needs, for this is what our God desires.

I realize that Paul once preached until midnight (Acts 20:7-12). I am also ignorant of the time when those proceedings began, and in addition there is the fact that the church at Troas only had the apostle for seven days; perhaps they wanted to make the most of his visit and strayed from their usual form.

Fifty years ago, it was not unusual for a preacher to go on for one, maybe two, hours. But even then, the common sermon lasted about thirty minutes. N.B. Hardeman, who was commonly referred to as the “Prince of Preachers,” preached during the first half of the twentieth century, that time period when we hear tales of epic sermons lasting all day. One piece of advice he would give to his preaching students was, “If you can’t strike oil in twenty minutes, quit boring!” Guy N. Woods, another respected preacher from an earlier generation, usually preached for 25-30 minutes. So the two-hour sermon may have been the exception, not the rule.

At the same time, Christian worshippers should not get anxious when worship lasts more than an hour. What does that say about our attitude toward God? Why do we come to church anyway? If the worship is being led effectively, and if God is being praised, what’s the hurry?

Besides, the preacher is not always at fault for lengthy worship services. Five minutes are usually alloted for announcements, fifteen minutes are given to the song leader, it takes about ten minutes to partake of the Lord’s Supper, and five minutes are given for prayer. If the worship services are supposed to last an hour, that leaves only 25 minutes for the preacher! Now that being said, how many times has the song leader been berated for going over his time limit? When do we ever criticize a man for leading a prayer that is too long? And dare we cut some announcements to make accommodations for time?

Brethren, sometimes we are concerned about the wrong things. Let’s strive for a balance between regulated worship and reverent worship. Everything else will fall into place.

“As time permits….” I wonder, did they hang a sundial on the back wall of the auditorium?


10 Comments so far ↓

  1. Jason J. says:

    Nice Drew! Good points.

  2. James Jones says:

    Good observations. Of all Sundays, be careful on ‘potluck’ Sundays!!! Seriously, I am thankful that there are many brethren that are focused on their quality of worship and not on the time. BTW, I met brother Dixon at June Bug this weekend. He seemed like a really neat man!

  3. J-Train says:

    Is this a plea to stop making fun of your long, Teddy Ruxpin like sermons? Well, sir, it’s not going to work. It’s like I always say, the longest sermon the Holy Spirit felt compelled to record (sermon on the mount) takes me about fifteen minutes to read. If you feel you have more important information that the Holy Spirit, than you can go ahead and preach longer! Just kidding, you know I like your sermons, even when they are 45 minutes or longer. As soon as our song leaders come up with blogs, I’ll bash them too. Look out Tim!!


  4. Kevin Rhodes says:

    If Drew was inspired, he probably could say it in less time. Unfortunately, Drew and I are working from a handicap. On one Sunday recently, both my sermons were longer than 45 minutes. Worship Sunday morning lasted almost an hour and a half. It was very good that most of the comments were, “I didn’t realize it was that long.” Of course, there was a minor rush on the restrooms immediately afterwards.

  5. J-Train says:

    It could be, Kevin, that you have nicer and more polite members than Drew has…I say this being a member of Drew’s church. Who knows, maybe you can fill 45 minutes well, but again, the Holy Spirit decided not to. Maybe it was divine that He knew our culture can’t sit still for more than 15 minutes. Which brings up an interesting point. Members back then weren’t trained by TV and popular entertainment like our culture has been. Our tolerance as a culture for long speeches has declined as we become more and more a multimedia society. So blame it on CBS and their addictive CSIs, not our reverence for worship service! (There is a liberal slant for you, it’s someone else’s fault for my behavior!!!)

    -Joel (new member of the left wing)

  6. Benjamin J. Williams says:

    We had Bible camp last week, and I always like to point out that our kids have two hours of Bible class in the morning, one in that afternoon, and an evening worship period that lasts about 45 minutes. Despite being outside playing all day and being up late at night, our campers survive almost 4 hours of Bible class and sermons a day for five days. What excuse do adults have during my 30-45 minute sermon on Sunday morning?!?!

    Good article. More brethren should long to hear the gospel “as time permits”.

  7. Richard says:

    Awww, come on Drew, you never know when “someone might have a roast in the oven” and have to get home to it. 🙂

    Sorry Joel, I don’t really buy in to the conditioning by the media. Stand outside the movie theater and see how few people have to make a bathroom run even after a half gallon of coke and a bucket of popcorn. I know their bladder size doesn’t fluctuate from elephant size on Friday night to mouse size on Sunday morning.

    I find that people generally do what they want to do. (I think someone famous said that.)


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  9. The Berean Examiner says:

    As Drew said, “that leaves only 25 minutes for the preacher!”. How does that compare to the other churches? How does that compare to the class time in school?

    Thank you for your input on this.

  10. Josh says:

    “As Drew said, “that leaves only 25 minutes for the preacher!”. How does that compare to the other churches? How does that compare to the class time in school?”

    Classes at school last long, but most of it is just baby sitting and time wasting. The same tends to be the case with long sermons–they are usually given by speakers who either (1) are rambling on giving their opinions rather than Scripture, or (2) college-professor types who attempt to speak as authorities rather than as scribes (in otherwords, they feign themselves to be the Son of God, Mat 7:29). Jesus is the only authority, and all we be but scribes. Every man who gets up to speak needs to think about this Scripture and not get up and give his opinions and pontifications, but the word of God, and his sermon will end up shorter: Matthew 13:52, “Then said he unto them, Therefore every scribe which is instructed unto the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is an householder, which bringeth forth out of his treasure things new and old.” When a man forgets he is but a scribe, he forgets when to stop speaking.

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