In the switch to online worship during the coronavirus pandemic, congregations are trimming services down to as little as 30 to 40 minutes, with recorded videos, streamlined videoconference gatherings or in-person services abridged to mitigate virus spread.
Sermons have been one place to condense in the name of efficiency.
“I don’t have time to spin out a narrative that might engage the attention of the screen-viewer but won’t ultimately get them closer to the core message,” said Phil Kniss, senior pastor at Park View Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg, Va. “Staying engaged with what is happening on a screen has a shorter time limit than staying engaged with a group of people gathered together.”
Going from 20 to 40 minutes of preaching to sometimes less than 10 can be a big change, especially for Anabaptists. Michael Danner, Mennonite Church USA associate executive director for church vitality and engagement, said that’s because they are known for an emphasis on singing and preaching.
“I’ve never seen a [Mennonite] church where a standard for a sermon was 10 minutes prior to COVID,” said Danner, who has been recording significantly shorter sermons these days at Belmont Mennonite Church in Elkhart, Ind., where he attends and has preached a few times.
Noting that MC USA racial-ethnic and more charismatic congregations tend to have longer worship services, he said the “anglo” churches that make up a bulk of the denomination usually average an hour to an hour and 15 minutes for Sunday worship. His congregation has switched to 10-minute sermons.
“No one’s ever complained that a sermon was too short or too clear,” he said. “I’ve preached for 20 years, and doing a shorter video-based sermon forces you to be more focused and clear.”
Prepare to edit
That’s a sentiment shared by seminary faculty who focus on preaching.
“The 20-minute mark is the kind of sermon that I know and enjoy, but I can bear witness to the reality that great sermons can be preached in 10 minutes or less,” said Allan Rudy-Froese, associate professor of Christian proclamation at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Ind.
He has listened to more than 300 such shorter sermons by students in class settings, which gives everyone a chance to gain experience and offers time for group debriefing.
“There is much to be learned from preaching the eight- to 10-minute sermon,” Rudy-Froese said. “It helps the preacher to edit, among other things.
“One of the things many preachers know is that it takes more time in preparation to preach a shorter sermon than a longer one. Editing takes time. You have to throw out your best bits.”
Lynn Jost of Fresno (Calif.) Pacific Biblical Seminary said common wisdom suggests it takes an hour of preparation for a minute of preaching, “but most experienced speakers suggest it takes longer preparation to speak well in condensed time — the crafting, the choice of what to cut, the development of the logic.”
Jost is Old Testament program director at the Mennonite Brethren seminary and director of its Center for Anabaptist Studies. In his American MB culture, he believes 15 to 18 minutes is the ideal sermon length.
“Keep them wanting more. Stop before satiation,” he said.
“. . . The greatest sermon of all time, the Sermon on the Mount, was about 20 minutes.”
Teaching or proclaiming
Many experts agree that sermon purpose is a key indicator of sermon length. If a sermon exists to be a teaching opportunity, it will likely stretch beyond a half hour.
“Sometimes it’s hard when you’re a pastor with all this stuff in your head.” Danner said. “It’s hard to leave the best stuff on the cutting room floor.
“All the pastors I know who see preaching as primarily teaching tend to go 35 to 40 minutes.”
However, if preaching is intended to be about sharing the gospel and pushing people to action, sermons can skew shorter.
“We can say all kinds of things about God, Jesus and even how to live in the world, but if we miss preaching the good news we have missed the mark,” Rudy-Froese said. “I think that longer sermons are often based on the central idea that preaching is really a teaching time. I disagree with this.
“While the sermon should indeed teach, the sermon is not primarily a teaching tool. Preaching is about the gospel. It should be more like a happening or an event that draws us closer to God in Christ. I think we can do better teaching in Sunday school, Bible studies or in other kinds of teaching spaces.”
Teaching sermons grow long when they try to do too much.
“The kind of sermon I grew up with was often the three-point sermon, which is often more about information and teaching,” Rudy-Froese said. “It was a head-game that had little to do with meeting God and hearing the gospel.
“I notice when I am listening to a sermon longer than 20 minutes that the preacher is trying to do two or three things. This is too much for our ears and hearts to take in.”
Get to the point
The trend for shorter sermons didn’t start with COVID-19. Danner has noticed that the popularity of TED talks over the last five years has impacted how long people preach. The maximum time limit is 18 minutes, and some speakers are asked to get everything into three, five or nine minutes.
Marty Troyer, pastor of Houston Mennonite Church, made the switch to shorter sermons for online worship. He feels something is lost among the distractions of home worship and lack of interaction with an audience, “but given the circumstances, what you gain with a shorter sermon outweighs what you lose.”
He is more aware of the need to keep people’s attention and stay on point. Troyer trims down his pandemic messages by cutting out longer stories and specifics of biblical context and history.
Hearing multiple voices
“It seems clear to me that the first thing that needs to be cut is the lengthy first-person introduction of a metaphor or contemporary connection that has become customary in 40-minute sermons,” Jost said of his MB context. “We don’t need a 20-minute monologue about the pastor’s family, his athletic achievements or his hunting and fishing. Note the male pronouns.”
He expressed excitement for the possibility of practices that have emerged during the pandemic opening opportunities for new participants and multiple voices in worship.
“Isn’t it more engaging to hear two to three speakers introduce the reading of Scripture briefly, two to three minutes each, with a brief homily of 10 minutes or less?” he asked. “This is suggested by Stuart Murray’s The Power of All: Building a Multi-Voiced Church and was reportedly the practice of Russian Mennonites as a training ground for new preachers.”