The result of that training was that over the next forty years, I was never rushed. I almost never had to cut down anything to include it in the service. Got a baptism? Someone wants to do a solo? Annual Conference report? No problem. One Easter, I was receiving a confirmation class and we were to have communion. One parent said, “Oh, no, we’ll be here forever!” I said, “Watch me.” We did the whole service, skimping on nothing. It was glorious. As the liturgist and I recessed down the aisle at the end, I asked him what time it was. Without looking at a clock or feeling in any way pressured, we had got it all done in 58 minutes.
Along the way, I discovered a couple of things about preaching. Anybody can talk for 35-40 minutes. But to explain something really complicated, whether a doctrine or a Biblical crux or a deep psychological state, you have to FOCUS. Talking all around the subject, adding more stuff, doesn’t actually get to the heart of things. It also means people lose their way among the glittering pebbles you are heaping up, and lose the shape of the message. I wanted to take my listeners deeper; to do that, I had to sharpen my pencil and say it better, not just say it longer.
Nor do I have much sympathy for those who bleat that we have to let the Spirit be in charge. I’ve always wondered why the Spirit always tells them to keep going, never that they’ve done enough. You’d think sometimes it would go the other way, you know? And I remember Paul telling the Corinthians (1 Cor. 14:32), “the spirits of prophets are under the control of the prophets.” Even gripped in the Spirit’s ecstasy, he expected people to take turns and do things in an orderly fashion. In the more routine sort of Spirit-led activity – the writing and delivery of sermons – this is even more important. If you can’t get it said in the time allowed, and you want to beat it to death one more time, then you are Out. Of. Control. Besides not actually doing a better job, you are demonstrating your lack of skill and obedience.
Now, I have more than one arrow in my quiver. I can do the three-minute children’s lesson, the fifteen-minute full-dress sermon, or the forty-five minute lecture or Bible study. Each is good for different things. But especially when you consider the liturgy as a whole, the hypertrophy of the sermon means that other important things get squeezed. It may come as a shock, or an affront, to some clergy, but people come to church for more than to hear the preacher talk. I was doing a Sunday morning service at a weekend at Scout camp. We sang two or three songs, we prayed for everybody’s needs, we read Scripture, I preached the Word . . . and as we were leaving, a ten-year-old boy said in amazement, “that only took about fifteen minutes.” I looked at him and said, “But we did everything we were supposed to. You know, it doesn’t have to hurt, Clark.”