New church: small sermon, long sermon

The new church is still in the conceptualization phase, and so I’m taking the time to consider what unquestioned habits in everyday church life were developed when communication, city life and transportation were very much different than they are today. Habits which, however loved, make less sense in a church getting started.

The conspicuous and central Protestant sermon is one of these. It made sense in a education- and resource-poor (and frankly, entertainment-poor) age, but if I held forth for twenty minutes or more every Sunday, I expect to be regularly challenged (perhaps mentally, and in an unspoken way) by people who would Google for facts during my oratory. Another option is to take the high-flown or superstar route, but that so often leads to a lack of substance. For those who can manage extraordinary weekly preaching with integrity, at what opportunity cost? (It’s worth remembering that colonial preachers exchanged far more than ministers today, and I’m sure time management for preparing sermons was a part of the calculus.)

At the same time I thought about that fossil: the pastor’s printed book of sermons. I can hardly think of a printed genre that goes staler, and I hope its age is past. But it did make me think of the future. It might make sense for a minister to preach briefly — tightly, eloquently, perhaps around a single point — to the “live congregation” and have it spelled out later in another way. Not print necessarily, but perhaps a podcast or video, or forgoing these perhaps a live event more in common with an interview or discussion than fighting with hymns and prayers for attention.

By Scott Wells

Scott Wells, 46, is a Universalist Christian minister doing Universalist theology and church administration hacks in Washington, D.C.


  1. Here’s my idea of a good time:

    advance readings and/or study questions

    and on Sunday:
    20 min. sermon + relevant Twitter feed projected beside preacher + online sermon text with hyperlinks and some kind of online forum (e.g., comments)

    and afterwards, preacher follows up on online comments

    This is something I’d like to try because I think it would reach everyone: old-fashioned people who want the sermon, multi-tasking multimedia people, interactive online people, people who can’t be at church that day but who could participate via online text and Twitter feed (and maybe streamed video/audio.

    Sigh. But it’s just my dream, and probably wouldn’t work for everyone.

  2. Why say something in twenty minutes that could be said in ten? WIth the remaining ten for silence and spoken contributions of the congregation?

    Most people I know are completely turned off by long sermons, no matter how well-constructed and meaningful.

    I guess it is a question of knowing your audience. The 21st Century audience is arguably very different in the way it reads, listens – and reflects. Plus, if you look into writing on attention spans and receptive listening skills, the incidence of difficulty in these areas is far more common in the population – not just ‘special needs’.

    I would personally keep them short with supporting visuals (though not powerpoint!) where appropriate.

  3. We are trying to figure out how to make our worship–sermons in particular–live on after they are given. I keep saying “podcast” but, of course, we don’t know how and inertia is very, very strong.

    As for sermon length, I preach for 10-12 minutes most Sundays. This gives me the flexibility to introduce and contextualize readings (the favorite part of the service for some folks), make space for the Children’s Focus, and generaly give us flexibility as the service goes on.

  4. Ouch! Long sermons and a book of them too! But my church is in an area where there’s no good phone coverage, so no googling in the sermons there yet! :) But you make some interesting points I’m thinking about…

  5. FWIW, Linguistfriend doesn’t need Google to fact check a sermon, particularly since ministers are known for playing fast and loose with word origins. We’ve only seen you preach once and he didn’t do it then, but he’s caught other ministers in mistakes plenty of times. Sometimes he tells them, sometimes he doesn’t

    Anyway, the interesting thing to me is that Google doesn’t make it so somebody can fact check the sermon, it just makes it possible for the listener who didn’t used to run the Harvard Linguistics Library to do it. (Not that I’m particularly interested in doing it.)

  6. I would love being part of a congregation in which people actually interacted during “sermons” or (especially!) the lay-led presentations. In a previous congregation, I was often frustrated at the level of pure nonsense presented without any opportunity for immediate discussion, because simply by virtue of having “the pulpit” to speak from, a person has a certain amount of authority. I frequently heard people citing “facts” that were pure fiction, and there was no way to refute them without making a scene (something I was, at the time, simply incapable of doing).

    One of the reasons I was attracted to the UUCA was that it isn’t an anti-intellectual organization. Having urban legends and worse presented as gospel truth 2 and 3 Sunday mornings out of 4 started causing me to re-think that opinion.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.