Thursday, June 17, 2021

Louder Than Words

“Words, words, words,” says Hamlet.

He’s not enthused. And rightly so. Sometimes there are just too many words.

The Bible says, “God is in heaven, and you are on earth. Therefore, let your words be few.” It’s talking about prayer, of course, but the point carries more generally: even the smartest of us is pretty limited in knowledge. The Lord can use as many words as he wants, and every one of them will be right; but when we human beings talk too much, we make mistakes. Sometimes, we even roll right into sin.

So we’re encouraged to be careful, talk only about what we know, use our words precisely, and not to multiply them without due attention to what we’re really doing. After all, teachers receive a more serious condemnation if they do a bad job.

A sobering thought for me. I’ve made my life’s work out of words. In truth, nowadays I wish I’d used fewer words, but used them better. I wish I’d spent more time listening to people’s questions and less time telling them what I think.

Multiplying Words

And out of that, I’ve also been thinking about the balance between talking and listening in our standard sermon format.

As a rule, the speaker tends to talk a lot.

If we’re honest, we’ve all noticed this. We just don’t want to say it, for fear of being thought “unspiritual”, or of preferring other more frivolous activities — or maybe just because things have only ever been one way, and we’re afraid to upset the status quo. We also may just be used to the forty-minute monologue. But we secretly sense it’s not doing us a lot of good.

In most cases, the speaker neither listens to nor responds to his audience. Not even for five minutes at the end. He just speaks, and speaks, and speaks, and speaks. And let’s admit it … the audience drifts. You drift. I drift. What we get out of the average message is almost always about five minutes worth of real, quality content … if we take away anything at all.

If I’m honest, I have to say that for many sermons, a half hour after they were over I couldn’t tell you much about what was said. Maybe not anything sometimes.

So many words for so little effect.

The Sermon Par Excellence

Tom once asked me if I knew just how long The Sermon on the Mount was. I found out, and I thought the answer was interesting: you can read the entire thing comfortably in a little over 12 minutes.

Yep, that’s right. What is very possibly the greatest sermon ever preached was about 12 minutes. That’s all.

I’m not saying no sermon should ever be longer than that. I’m just saying that it’s possible to put the most amazing amount of rich content into a relatively small space, if you choose your words wisely. And if you don’t, going longer won’t fix that.

And really, think about it: Isn’t saying messages ought to be 45 minutes long a bit like saying all dinners ought to weigh 10.3 ounces or everyone ought to wear size 9 shoes?


Doesn’t what’s in there have anything to do with it?

Not Less, Just Better

Now, I am not saying that we should shorten sermons in order to please the immature, or to cater to visitors to our services, or so we can get to Sunday dinner and the football game sooner. In point of fact, I actually do think we should give more time to edification. But I think that it’s what we DO with that time that needs to change.

What might we do differently? Let’s say we had an important spiritual truth, or set of truths, to convey. If the Lord could be profound in around 12 minutes, could a less able speaker be happy with 15 or 20?

How about conversational teaching? How about smaller audiences, with opportunity for feedback and exchange? Or how about a blended format, with a main message plus discussion groups to come up with questions or applications?

Hey, maybe we should even incorporate some kind of a check-back the next week to see what people have done with what they learned. That would be different!

I’m not saying that’s the new must-do pattern. I’m just asking if the windy, 40 minute, once-a-week oratorical deliverance is the best we can do. Is it the most effective format?


What’s really missing here?

It’s something actually required by the word of God: examination.

What we do now is to give every speaker an open platform and a long period of time to talk without any danger of being inspected in light of the word of God or of being called to account for anything said. Meanwhile, the audience drowses in semi-attention, and receives the pronouncements from the pulpit on a hit-or-miss and take-it-or-leave it kind of basis. Things don’t get precisely applied or even clearly understood before the whole meeting is done. And the audience wanders out with a vague sense of having been spiritually talked-at, but little more.

Now, it’s easy to say that’s the audience’s fault. But what are they to do with a format that has no place for questions, comments or cross-examination in it? And what about those people who are not articulate enough to explain what they did not understand? There are a lot. What about the young or the untaught; how is their understanding to be corrected, if we’ve given an errant speaker an unqualified monopoly on being heard and believed? What then? And how are ordinary believers to distinguish between a teaching authorized by the elders, and one simply sponsored by the self-confidence of an invited preacher?

Why would we prevent people from interacting with a gifted speaker, while also giving false teachers a blank cheque?

That’s what unmoderated, unexamined sermonizing does.

And this is how almost every evangelical church does its primary meeting every week.

On Auto Pilot

We do it because preachers and Bible teachers have grown up with it, and because we have been trained to think of it as the inevitable normal. We do it this week, because it’s what we did last week, what we did the week before, and the week before that … and probably what our parents and their parents did as well.

It’s also exactly what “pastors” have been trained to do, what they think of as their main public job, and what they need to keep doing in order to justify their existence. How else do they know how to teach? And how else can they continue to convince people that they’re essential and worth their salaries?

If messages were shorter, and discussion and processing became more important, the whole profile of a “pastor” would change — they’d have to become less like lecturers and more like … well … “shepherds”.

Which is, after all, the real meaning of the word “pastor”.

But maybe we should change our old patterns. Maybe it’s time to rethink the amount of time we spend with one guy talking and a bunch of people passively sitting. Maybe it’s time we prepare ourselves against the day, which the scripture promises will come, when the world will be full of false teachers who use the sermon format to “tickle the ears” of the immature and to spread theological poison.

I mean, we have been warned that that is how this will play out, no? So the sooner we get to engaging believers in examining doctrine instead of just listening to orators, the better we’re all going to survive that.

Rethinking the Sermon

So the lingering questions in my mind are as follows:

  • Would greater accountability hurt or help the quality of our speaking?
  • Is a passive audience or an active, questioning one a better pattern?
  • Is it better to make many points in 45 minutes, or a smaller number that are better understood by way of being fully processed?
  • Is there any reason (beyond habit) that we subject everybody to long lectures every week?
  • Why do we not give time for questions and answers, for debate and discussion, for collective examination and application of the content of our teaching?

And finally:

  • Are the people of God learning as much, and as deeply, as we would hope?

Talking to Myself

And now I’m thinking that the buck really stops with me. (Well, with me and with the elders, really.)

I’m thinking I need to talk a bit less and listen a bit more. Sure, it’s self-protective to avoid being questioned rather than being made to explain better or being pressed for practical applications. But wouldn’t all that make me a much better teacher? Wouldn’t that be a much bigger help to the congregation?

Hmm … I can already feel my sermonizing getting shorter. Shorter, and more carefully researched. Shorter and better thought-out. Shorter, and more accurate. Shorter and, I hope, more sincere. Less about oratory, and more about shepherding through interaction. Less about many words, and more about what people are actually hearing.

The challenge for me, and for all who speak and preach, is this: do we care about people really learning from us, or do we only care about having a long opportunity to speak?

To change things always looks like a risk. It is a risk, actually — a risk, and generally, more work than we’re used to doing. But I guess we have to weigh that off against the risk of not changing. And whether or not we’re willing to change will say a lot about what we think is really at stake. And about how much we actually value teaching the word of God.

And on that point, I think actions will speak louder than words.

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