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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.