“Unless he has spent the week with God and received Divine communications, it would be better not to enter the pulpit or open his mouth on Sunday at all….A ministry of growing power must be one of growing experience….Power for work like ours is only to be acquired in secret….The hearers may not know why their minister, with all his gifts, does not make a religious impression on them; but it is because he is not himself a spiritual power.”
In the Q&A section of his book Rediscovering Expository Preaching, John MacArthur answers this question in this way:
“I am convinced that biblical exposition requires at least forty minutes. Less than this just is not sufficient to probe the text deeply. If it takes fifteen to twenty minutes to give the setting, ten to fifteen minutes to draw out the principles, five to ten minutes to cross-reference them, and five to ten minutes for a conclusion, you already have about fifty minutes. Rarely does a man preaching twenty-five to thirty minutes do doctrinal exposition.” That’s only part of MacArthur’s answer and doesn’t fully reflect his opinion so I would encourage you to read the whole piece here
My own answer would be: It depends.
It depends on the passage. It depends on the congregation. It depends on the preacher.
In general, I am in agreement with MacArthur. You can’t really do justice to the expounding of Scripture in less than about 45 minutes and my own average sermon length would be between 45 and 60 minutes.
As someone involved in itinerant ministry for the last 17 years, I have come to realise how much depends on the congregation. I often find myself in a church I have never visited before and I always try and find out beforehand how long they are used to listening to preaching. My worst ever example was a minister who told me he normally tried to “spin it out” to 15 minutes but if that was too much for me not to worry! I wanted to tell him that I was still clearing my throat at 15 minutes! However, if they’re used to 15 and you give them 45, you’ve probably lost them for the last 20. In that sort of situation, I would stretch the usual and ensure that I feed them well and leave them wanting more good food.
In our soundbite, microblog generation I often get told that people can’t concentrate for more than 15-20 minutes and so preachers should accommodate them. I confess I have no time for that argument. People’s concentration span is as long as their interest in the subject they are concentrating on. They will, for example, sit and watch a TV programme or film that last 2 hours because somehow it connects with them.
The real reason behind the clamour for short sermons is, in my opinion, two-fold:
i. The desperate spiritual climate in which many of us live and which has resulted in poor spiritual appetite on the part of believers. How tragic that many Christians would rather be entertained and amused by anything rather than apply their minds and hearts to an engaging encounter with God’s Word.
ii. The poor level of preaching many Christians are exposed to and used to. I wouldn’t want 45 or 50 minutes of some of the preaching I have heard. Even 15 minutes of that is too much. The challenge for those of us who are committed to and passionate about what Piper calls expository exultation is to deliver and model Christ-centred, bible-based, preaching that teaches the mind, touches the heart and targets the will so that believers who hear that sort of preaching will never again be satisfied with the wretched 10-15 minute homily that does nothing to feed the soul.
I ought to say that in all of the above comments I have in mind preaching to congregations largely made up of believers. I am not thinking here of events that are primarily evangelistic and which expressly targets unbelievers. That’s a subject for another day and another post.
“The gospel is preached in the ears of all men; it only comes with power to some. The power that is in the gospel does not lie in the eloquence of the preacher otherwise men would be converters of souls. Nor does it lie in the preacher’s learning; otherwise it could consists of the wisdom of men. We might preach till our tongues rotted, till we should exhaust our lungs and die, but never a soul would be converted unless there were mysterious power going with it – the Holy Ghost changing the will of man. O Sirs! We might as well preach to stone walls as preach to humanity unless the Holy Ghost be with the word, to give it power to convert the soul.” Charles Spurgeon
“None will ever be a good minister of the Word of God unless he is first of all a good scholar.” (John Calvin)
“He who has ceased to learn has ceased to teach. He who no longer sows in the study will no more reap in the pulpit.” (Charles Spurgeon)
“The preacher’s life must be a life of large accumulation…..He must not be always trying to make sermons, but always seeking truth, and out of the truth which he has won the sermons will make themselves….Here is the need of broad and generous culture. Learn to study for the sake of truth, learn to think for the profit and the joy of thinking. Then your sermons shall be like the leaping of a fountain, and not like the pumping of a pump.” (Phillips Brooks)
“If I had only three years to serve the Lord, I would spend two of them studying and preparing.” (Donald Grey Barnhouse)
“A great hindrance to our ministry is the gulf between our Biblical understanding and the corresponding passions of our hearts. The glorious and horrible truths which thunder through the Bible cause only a faint echo of fear and ecstasy in our hearts. We take a megaton of truth upon our lips and speak it with an ounce of passion. Do we believe in our hearts what we espouse with our lips?”
I have just finished reading this short book I have seen advertised for some time now. I have posted a full review here but here are a couple of quotes to hopefully stimulate your interest.
“less than 30 percent of those who are ordained to the Christian ministry can preach an even mediocre sermon…of the sermons I’ve heard in the last twenty-five years, 15 percent had a discernible point…Of those 15 percent, however, less than 10 percent demonstrably based the point on the text read…Such sermons are religiously useless.”
“At a faculty meeting at Gordon-Conwell once, someone reported that a study had disclosed that one-half or ordained ministers leave the profession before retiring. Most of the faculty gasped at this, but my good colleague Doug Stuart remarked: ‘I wish the number were higher; only about one in five can preach.’ ”
Here is the second part of Steven Lawson’s answers to ‘10 Questions for Expositors’. (First part here)
6. What notes, if any, do you use?
What I carry into the pulpit is strategically important in my sermon delivery. I carry with me a multi-paged, handwritten manuscript of the sermon. The introduction is well thought-out and scripted, as I am very attached to my notes in the launching of the message. I want to start strong and so, therefore, I have given much attention in my notes to the introduction. I then have in my notes the homiletical headings (sermon outline) supplement with the explanation of the text, supporting cross-references, historical background, word studies, other supporting doctrines, personal application, illustration, transitions, and summarizations. Finally, I have given thought to the conclusion and write out a compelling ending. However, as is most often the case, I am ascending in my heart as the sermon comes to conclusion, and I am not as dependent on my notes in the end.
7. What are the greatest perils that preacher must avoid?
To be avoided at all cost are the following: lack of study, departure from Scripture, prayerlessness, unholy living, professionalism, insincerity, lukewarmness, rambling, and, finally, the greatest danger of all, being a man-pleaser rather than a God-pleaser. Many other perils could be sited.
8. How do you fight to balance preparation for preaching with other important responsibilities (eg. pastoral care, leadership responsibilities)
In maintaining balance, I must remember that preaching the Word is my greatest pastoral care. Furthermore, the pulpit is my greatest leadership responsibility. So, ultimately, these cannot be separated. What is most necessary though is that I maintain the priority of preparing to preach. Obviously, much shepherding must take place outside the pulpit and I must invest my time wisely in leadership duties such as planning, evaluation, delegation, recruitment, etc. However, I can never sacrifice being prepared to preach for these other things. For when I do, the primary means of grace becomes closed in the church.
9. What books on preaching, or exemplars of it, have you found most influential in your own preaching?
The books that have most influenced me in the area of preaching are not those books that focus upon how to preach. Rather, I have been most impacted by books that focus historically upon other men in their preaching. For example, reading Arnold Dalimore’s two volume work George Whitefield compels me to preach. Reading Ian Murray’s, Forgotten Spurgeon, puts a fire in my bones to preach. Reading Charles Spurgeon’s New Park Street sermons and his Metropolitan Tabernacle sermons grab me by the lapels and pulls me up, into the pulpit, to preach. Reading T.H.L. Parker’s Calvin’s Preaching, makes me want to preach. So, these books about the life and theology of the preacher, and the actual sermons themselves, empower me to preach.
10. What steps do you take to nurture or encourage developing or future preachers?
Developing the next generation of preachers is vitally important to the church. I want to do those things that have been meaningful to me in my development. First, I offer all of my sermons free on our web page because listening to other preachers preach, has been so influential to me—especially listening to the sermons of John MacArthur and James Montgomery Boice. Second, we also are now hosting an annual conference called The Expositors’ Conference that is aimed at equipping and empowering preachers of the Word of God. Again, this is because attending certain conferences over the years in which there has been strong biblical preaching has been so impactful to me. Third, I have been teaching in the Doctor of Ministry program at the Master’s Seminary in Los Angeles, California, as well as teaching in the Expositor’s Institute at Grace Community Church in Los Angeles with John MacArthur. Fourth, I also speak at various pastors’ conferences throughout America and around the world. I have recently preached at pastors’ conferences and Bible institutes in Russia, Germany, Wales, Ireland, New Zealand, and elsewhere. Fifth, I have written two books on expository preaching, Famine in the Land; a passionate call for expository preaching (Moody Press) and The Expository Genius of John Calvin (Reformation Trust). I have also preached through all one hundred and fifty psalms and these appear in abbreviated form in psalms; the Holman Old Testament Commentary Series (Broadman and Holman), also, my expositors sermons through Job appear in Job: Holman Old Testament Commentary Series (Broadman and Holman). Sixth, I model expository preaching in my pulpit and God seems to always have young men there, under its influence, to go off to seminary and into the ministry. In all of these ways, I have sought to help develop biblical preachers for the next generation. But at the end of the day, only God can make a preacher.
Here’s the first part of Dr Steven Lawson’s answers to Unashamed Workman’s famous 10 Questions for Expositors. Steven Lawson is the Senior Pastor of Christ Fellowship Baptist Church in Mobile, Alabama and President of New Reformation Ministries. The focus of Dr Lawson’s ministry is the verse-by-verse exposition of God’s Word and, from this, he has authored fourteen books. He was one of the speakers at the first Expositors Conference in Edinburgh in 2009 and recordings of his messages are available here. The second part of the interview will be posted tomorrow.
1. Where do you place the importance of preaching in the grand scheme of church life? I place the preaching of the Word of God in the very center place in the life of the church. To be sure, the Scripture certainly assigns the pulpit this primary role. Preaching is what was primary in the public ministry of Jesus Christ (Mark 1:14-15, 38-39). Contained in the Great Commission is the primacy of preaching, specifically, preaching repentance (Luke 24:47) and teaching all that Christ taught (Matthew 28:20). When the church was birthed on the day of Pentecost, it was the result of the preaching of Peter (Acts 2:14-40). Further, preaching and teaching the Word immediately became the primary ministry in the first church in Jerusalem (Acts 2:42). “The apostles’ teaching” is listed first for a reason. In addition, the missionary journeys of the apostle Paul reveal that preaching was central in his extended ministry (Acts 13-19). Moreover, the pastoral epistles assign preaching the place of first importance (1 Timothy 4:13), and it was Paul’s dying charge to Timothy (2 Timothy 4:2). Finally, ministering the Word is what Christ assigned to the pastors of the seven churches of Asia Minor (Revelation 2-3). They were messengers of the divine revelation entrusted to them to those congregations. From all these passages, it is clear that the primary responsibility of the church is to minister this Word, for it is “the pillar and support of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15).
2. In a paragraph, how did you discover your gifts in preaching? There were various areas that came together in my life that enabled me to discover my God-given gift to preach. This occurred in my life while I was in college and in the days that immediately followed. First, I suddenly experienced an insatiable desire to study the Word of God. I began to read my Bible day and night, day after day. While I was not given to extensive study while I was in college (I simply wanted to play football), I nevertheless began to devour the Scripture. This was so unlike me—it was God at work within me. Second, I felt a strong compulsion to stand on my feet before a group of people and speak the Word of God to them. Various doors were opened to me to do this, and the more I did it, the more I loved it. It soon became that this was all I thought about. I had to do this. Third, people began to be converted under my ministry of the Word. Others became excited and enthusiastic for Christ. Each person who responded favourably to my preaching became a confirmation of God’s giftedness. Fourth, people began to indicate to me that they recognized that God had gifted me to do this. Finally, God began to open more doors for me to minister His Word. It seemed that God was in this. All these together spoke with one voice that God had gifted me to preach.
3. How long (on average) does it take you to prepare a sermon? The length of time that it requires me to prepare a sermon differs with each passage of Scripture. When I first began my pastoral ministry, it required more than twenty hours of cumulative study for each message. I have now been preaching three to four times a week for almost the last thirty years, and the amount of time that is required is less. The reason for this is because all of my study from previous years carries forward to the preparation of each sermon. I can now pull together an expository sermon in eight to ten hours of study. However, some messages will still require a greater investment of time. Sometimes, it may require less. But the truth is, it requires an entire lifetime of study to prepare each sermon. Also, there is the factor of becoming more familiar with my books, which shortens the time to access the information that I need.
4. Is it important to you that a sermon contain one major theme or idea? If so, how do you crystallise it? It is essential that each sermon have one central theme that runs throughout the entirety of the message. From the introduction, through the main body of the sermon, and to the end of the conclusion, there should be one dominant, driving thrust. There should be one laser beam of thought that penetrates through the sermon. This is determined by the authorial intent of the biblical writer. What did he intend to communicate to the original audience? That should be the big idea of the sermon. An isolated verse out of a larger context may be used to communicate what that one verse says, but it must always be tied back to the larger section.
5. What is the most important aspect of a preacher’s style and what should he avoid? I believe that passion is the most important component of a preacher’s delivery. If you have to say something, you will find a way to get it across. Included in the virtue of passion are attributes such features as fervency, earnestness, sincerity, and a deep conviction of the truthfulness of this text of Scripture and what he is saying. Thomas Chalmers called it being “blood-earnest.” There must be an inner fire within the preacher—a fire in his bones—that must come out as he preaches the Word. Therefore, apathy and insincerity should be avoided like the plague.