Over at The Gospel Coalition, Jared Wilson wrote a great post on sermon illustrations. The post reminded me of Gary Millar and Phil Campbell’s book Saving Eutychus, which helped me to think more deeply about sermon illustrations—or, more accurately, for the first time.
For example, a nugget of advice on sermon illustrations that I’d never heard before: use sermon illustrations to give the listeners a mental break in the flow of the sermon. So, illustrate the obvious points as well as the hard-to-understand parts of the passage (pp. 55-56).
In fact, Saving Eutychus got me thinking about a lot of issues that I’d never given much consideration before. One assumption that the book challenges is the proportional relationship between sermon length and word faithfulness. In my circles it is assumed, to put it simplistically, that to be more faithful to God you must preach longer. About the only negative feedback I’ve heard for the book is on this point: that the authors seem to be calling for shorter sermons. So, I was curious about this and asked one of the authors, Phil Campbell, some follow up questions on this issue.
Phil indeed had heard the same critique of the book:
Marty: Do you think that most pastors should consider preaching shorter sermons?
Phil: I didn't exactly advocate for shorter sermons, but I did say to stop speaking just before people stop listening. In my case, I've found that's around the 23 minute mark. I wasn't necessarily advocating a "23 minute rule"—just that you should know your own sweet spot. So my pushback is that it's self evident that there's little point in continuing if people aren't listening. People seem to have found this to be a difficult truth.
Marty: If a pastor were to try to cut his sermon length, how would he do that? Wouldn’t he be short-changing the word?
Phil: I've spent some time analyzing where the 'length' often tends to come from. One sermon, for example, was by a well-known evangelical preacher. He spent the first 12 minutes of one sermon telling stories about his little girl. This pastor was equally lavish in other areas of illustration later on in the sermon. Rhetorically powerful, but hardly substantive.
Marty: Yes, I remember Tony Payne saying in a Briefing article (‘An editor’s guide to sermons’, Briefing #323) to not fall in love with your own thoughts and words. Treat every line as the enemy and make it give you a good reason to keep it in the sermon. (Editor’s note: This is a great reason to manuscript your sermons, as Saving Eutychus suggests.)
Phil: Finally, I don't think people have fully grasped the power of really, really getting ‘under the skin’ of the passage and expounding its essence in a way that makes the whole thing make sense. It's really like drinking the distilled shot of coffee; sure, you can add more hot water, but maybe that's just stretching out the same experience. (Then again, maybe it's just us Australians who like their coffee that way!)
Marty: So, by getting ‘under the skin’ you can get to the main point, and that main point is what you want to keep really clear in the sermon. By adding other ideas—and thus length—you muddy the waters.
Saving Eutychus is a book on my ‘re-read’ list. My friend Colleen McFadden, who with the Simeon Trust oversees training women to teach the Bible, recommends the book to all women who handle God’s word. It’s for anyone who teaches or leads people in the Scriptures.
Getting back to the issue of sermon length, it is probably healthy to unbind any mental connection between sermon length and biblical faithfulness. Besides, there are many ways the ministry of the word can increase at your church, irrespective of the length of the sermons. For example, at our church we’ve benefited greatly from running all of our new members through Six Steps to Loving Your Church, to get them thinking about the ministry of the pew. This short course has generated many substantive discussions around the word after the sermon and throughout the week. Making sure all churchgoers are equipped and can actively participate in growing the influence of the word means that Eutychus can stay awake, not just during the sermon but throughout the week.