I thought I’d take time to reflect on that crucial element of Christian worship: the sermon.
In a sermon recently I recalled that we were taught in the seminary that there should be one hour’s preparation for every minute of preaching. Boy, did that get some some responses! Everything from: “Wow, I didn’t realize that!” to “Sure glad you spend a lot of your time doing other things, Pastor!” There is something central about the sermon in Lutheran worship. It is often the focal point. Most pastors, myself included, put more into “sermonizing” than they do Baptism or the Lord’s Supper—even though most pastors, myself included, acknowledge the Sacraments are more important. Ironic, isn’t it?
Last year, the Pew Research Center did a study. They analyzed 49,719 sermons delivered in April and May which were posted online by 6,431 churches. I’m not sure Good Shepherd was included in this; but if so, we skewed the average. According to the study, the median length of the sermon was 37 minutes. Roman Catholic and Anglican/Episcopalian sermons were the shortest (14 minutes); which makes sense, those denominations accentuate the sacraments. The sermons of mainline Protestant congregations averaged 39 minutes, except for historically Black Protestant churches, which were the longest, at 54 minutes. [Strangely enough, Pew found that although sermons at Black churches lasted longer, the sermons had roughly the same number of words, suggesting that they allowed more time for musical interludes, dramatic repetition, and responses from listeners.]
I went back over the podcasts for my sermons to check their length. My sermons average 13-15 minutes (fittingly enough, as I try to adapt to the attention span of TV audiences between commercials). I try to frame each sermon as a story, which is why I’m reluctant to provide some sort of sermon outline in the bulletin. My hope is to create a certain flow, a narrative that has a beginning and end I don’t want to spoil; rather than produce a lecture people feel compelled to take notes of for some future exam.
The thing is, I consider preaching a privilege. To be afforded the opportunity to share something I’ve discovered studying the Word of God for a quarter of an hour without interruption is something I truly cherish. But every time I go up there, there’s still this primal fear of being boring, of not engaging the people before me. I will always remember me as the little kid going to church, when the true “good news” was that there wasn’t going to be a sermon…even though I loved the preachers (more often than not they were my father or my grandfather)—a good reason to spend even more than an hour for each minute.
Lately, I’ve been sending a rough draft to Sara, who then creates those insightful “Sermons Beyond Sunday.” Many weeks I am amazed; she seems to get more out of my sermon than I put in. And I love it; because that’s really what I pray happens to everyone who hears—or reads—what I come up with. For me, however, it’s too late. My “Sermon Beyond Sunday” is having to come up with the next one!