How long should the ideal sermon be?
That may well be like asking the question, “How long is a piece of string?”
What got me thinking about this was an article in the Financial Times entitled
‘Swift is perfect at the three-minute Spotify song’.
Taylor Swift’s song Anti-Hero (with a 5 second musical introduction, three verses and a chorus) is all succinctly concluded within three minutes and 20 seconds. In the days of the seven-inch single songs needed to be under three minutes to fit on one side. Succinctness in a digital age is more about not losing people’s attention.
John Gapper, the author of the article, says that Puccini and Mozart were also masters of the three-minute song and that artists “can express a remarkable amount in a short time when they put their minds to it.”
Taylor Swift brilliantly manages to pack into her song the mini narrative of a person struggling with a spiral into desperation and depression. To tackle such a large theme in such a short song might seem like a big ask, but she pulls it off.
What has this got to do with my sermon next Sunday morning?
The congregation might be surprised by three minutes and 40 seconds when my usual sermon length is around twenty-seven minutes.
Yet most congregations know that it is possible to say nothing much in twenty-seven minutes. Some sermons can sound like yet another re-run of a dated TV sitcom or feel like a plane taking yet another circle around the airport before landing.
How do we help the listener to listen?
Know what you want to say.
The preacher needs to do the work on the biblical text and reflect on what it has to say at this time to this congregation.
Think carefully about how you are going to say it.
More often than not people will at least feel that they have heard all this before.
A fresh way of expressing familiar things can help the listener stay engaged.
When you start you sermon, get on with it.
In the song Anti-Hero Taylor Swift hooks her listeners will a brilliant one-liner that tells a whole story of a world-weary life.
“I have this thing where I get older but just never wiser.
Midnights become my afternoons.
When my depression works the graveyard shift.”
Learn how to pace the sermon
Fans of the three-point will love the fact that this song, like many pop songs, has three verses. Preaching with three points can be a good way of both injecting a sense of onward movement into a sermon and retaining a sense of evenness and proportion to the material that is presented. Some hearers like to have the reassuring presence of a road map with clear turn signals in the sermons they hear.
Value repetition that reinforces the theme
Preachers need to acquire the skill of repeating the key theme of the sermon without being repetitive.
And finally- know when to finish before people are praying for you to stop!
See you next week.