Friday, March 21, 2008

Long Sermons or Short?

The Original Secession Magazine (Vol 5, 1860-61-62) took notice of a remark in the London Times, "We really wish that clergymen would remember that even a good sermon, more than three-quarters of an hour in length, is a bore from the moment that the third quarter is up." It would be hard to find many who would agree to even this criticism these days. Half-an-hour or 20 minutes is too long for many. The article by the Original Secession Magazine makes the point that 'such restrictions are directly opposed to the design of preaching—to the sanctification of the Sabbath—to the Directory for Public Worship—to the examples of the best ministers of the primitive and reformed churches'. 'The sanctification of the Sabbath requires that we "spend the whole time in the public and private exercises of God's worship, except so much as is to be taken up in the works of necessity and mercy." Unless it can be shown that the private exercises are more important than those which are public, the balance of due proportion must be kept up between them. But the testimony of the Spirit and the experience of God's saints give the preponderance to the exercises of the sanctuary."The Lord loveth the gates of Zion more than all the
dwellings of Jacob." If the worshippers know anything of the spirit of their Lord, they will do so also. If David could say that a day in the courts of the Lord was better than a thousand, we cannot understand how the shortest services should be most prized by any who profess to worship David's God'.

'Such restrictions have never been known to the Church except in an age of formal Christianity, or at a time when religious entertainment is fashionable, and multitudes enter the house of God, not to worship — not to have the head enlightened and the heart enlarged,—but merely to obtain a little intellectual excitement, in order to relieve the tedium of the Sabbath.' This is very true in our own day but I fear it is excitement of a kind other than intellectual that is sought within many so-called evangelical or otherwise churches.

The Magazine makes the points that in 'almost anything else but the service of God, hours are freely devoted without a grumble'. Worldly entertainments all demand much more than this. Reading the newspaper takes many longer than this. 'Until we see similar brevity in the time devoted to business, to recreation, to meetings for carnal pleasure, we will not believe either in the consistency or the sincerity of those who would reduce the public worship of God to the smallest possible limits. Is the message of God to men the only subject that can be crushed within the compass of a few minutes?'

Men debate for hours on politics and discuss various other topical matters. Is the message of heaven less important? 'Is the salvation of the soul, or the communion of the spirit with God in His Word, less interesting?'

The Magazine article puts its finger on the real reasons behind such objections. 'The secret of the matter lies in the fact, that the former is opposed to, while the latter is in harmony with, the depravity of human nature. Will any rational man say that one, two, or three hours may be requisite for the discussion of some philosophical principle, or the exposition of some natural law, while half-an-hour, or, at most, thirty-five minutes, is quite sufficient for expounding and applying the sublime and mysterious doctrines of grace? The idea is preposterous.
If eternity, with all the additional light of the upper sanctuary, will never exhaust the themes of the gospel, is the herald of the cross— the commissioned ambassador of Christ—to be bound down to a few fleeting moments in proclaiming the word and will of the living God?

Is it not a mockery of God and men to deal thus with the questions of life and death—with the present privileges and eternal interests of gospel hearers ? The men of the world and the votaries of pleasure will have time for the accomplishment of their special objects, so also must the Church and the gospel ministry have a due proportion of time for the service of the sanctuary. It is not becoming the house of God, nor in keeping with subjects of eternal moment, for either ministers or people to be pulling out watches, as if God were being served by the minute, and as if there was anxiety lest He should get more time than was due. All such habits have sprung from mere conventional ideas, and the want of a proper sense of that reverence which is due to the God of the sanctuary'.

The Magazine states: 'We are no advocates for protracted sermons, much less for long
prayers; but we protest against the modern restrictions which many, with self-constituted authority, would impose upon the worship of God. The want of spiritual appetite, and reluctance to make any sacrifice for the service of God, are the chief sources from which such restrictions emanate. Full of the world and its pleasures, there is little longing after the bread of life. Were gospel hearers earnest in their preparation for public worship, and found, like the Psalmist, waiting to hear what God the Lord will speak unto His people, there would be no desire to bring the sermon within the limits of half an hour, or to restrict the whole service of the Sabbath to ninety minutes, as is now done in some fashionable churches'.

These restrictions do not allow for the liberty and outpouring of the Holy Spirit. 'By such things the Spirit is grieved and quenched, while the hungering and thirsting children of God are deprived of that full provision which the Master of assemblies has made for His own house. It is alike dishonouring to God and to His commissioned servants to expect the prayerful preparation of a discourse that must be eut short, however momentous the theme, when the conventional minutes are exhausted'. 'The complaints of restless hearers in reference to the length of a sermon, are impertinencies which ought to have no place among sincere and spiritual worshippers. We cannot conceive of Christ or His Apostles being guided in their work by any such inventions or influences. With them, and with every genuine ambassador, the fleeting moments of time are forgotten while dealing with the realities of eternity'.

The sabbath services are vitally important: 'As each Sabbath comes with a special message, and may be the last to some gospel hearer, it becomes the herald of the cross to furnish that message, although he may exceed the tolerated limits of modern taste. In the time requisite, as well as in the message propounded, the minister can have no master but Christ—no dictation in the matter of duty but the guidance of the Spirit of God'.

We are speaking of the sabbath rather than midweek meetings where the nature of the day will mean that there must be some thought given to time. The general principle for all exercises of public worship, however, is well stated as follows. 'To preach or pray by the minute is little more than mechanical devotion'.

The magazine article concludes: 'In regard to long or short sermons, we must be guided by subjects and circumstances; but we repudiate all such conventional limits as are set by...fastidious hearers. The matters of the ministerial embassy are too weighty to be regulated, either in mode or measure, by the flippant dictum of popular opinion'.

The Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland website puts the whole matter rather well in the following way:
'A ten-minute sermon once a week is unlikely to convey much biblical teaching. That is why the Free Presbyterian Church teaches its congregations through sermons of 30-60 minutes' duration, twice on the Lord's Day, and usually at midweek prayer meetings. A recent survey shows that most people in the U.K. gain their knowledge of Christianity through sermons and would like to have more information provided this way. If people are to attain to a saving knowledge of Christ they must find this knowledge in the Bible...It is hardly remarkable, however, when people are not sufficiently aware that the Bible is God's Word from which the Church must derive all her teaching.'