One thing to which it’s been hard to adjust in our move South is the length of sermons down here. Oh my goodness! Perhaps it is the same mindset that brought us slavery, but Dixie preachers don’t just preach; they seem to feel they have the right to hold you hostage. Don’t get me wrong. The preaching is generally of high quality. But—and maybe it’s a cultural thing—apparently, quality is not enough; there must be quantity, and lots of it, like a host who regales his guests with a very fine meal, but then just keeps bringing out more and more dishes until the poor souls are ready to burst like ticks, or food addicts at a shopping mall.
Even for the best preachers, twenty minutes is an optimal length for a sermon, given the modern attention span and bladder. At thirty minutes, you feel as though you’ve gotten the point, thank you, and you would like to leave. At forty, you feel a creeping resentment, as though you were being forced to look through your grandmother’s scrapbook or a home video of your neighbors’ Disney cruise. A palpable hostility fills the room. You start scoping out the nearest exit, wondering if the Catholics didn’t have it better after all with all that standing, sitting and kneeling. Quakerism looks more and more alluring. After fifty minutes, you begin to give up hope, like survivors on a life raft who watch the last plane fly out of sight. After sitting so long, you start thinking about blood clots, and even if you are not inclined by nature to be violent, you might fantasize about head-butting the elderly person in front of you, just to see what would happen—anything to stop this homiletical juggernaut. At the sixty-minute mark you wonder if you really like God all that much (or vice versa) and you resolve to explore secular humanism. But still preachers press on against all reason, against all humanity, even as congregants are arriving for the next service and pounding on the doors like Huns at the gates of Rome.
Here’s a helpful rule to follow: Less is more. A good sermon should leave you wanting more, not less. If you can’t say it in twenty minutes, preachers, you’re either endlessly repeating yourself or you don’t really know what your point is after all. I can’t tell you how many sermons I’ve sat through over the past year that I thought were truly amazing after twenty minutes, but they cloyed after thirty, irritated after forty, infuriated after fifty, with the unfortunate result that you leave church feeling angry and agitated, or wishing you hadn’t gone to church at all. So I’ve begun to fight back, simply in self-defense, by just getting up and leaving when I feel I’ve had enough, usually at the point when the preacher has begun to repeat himself with still another remarkable illustration.