One of my favorite movies, adapted from the book by Norman McLean, is “A River Runs Through It,” the story of a preacher’s two sons growing up in Montana. A student of scripture will recognize this story as a deft retelling of Jesus’ parable “The Prodigal Son.” A parent will be moved by the poignant portrayal of a father’s love for a reckless son. A brother or sister will identify with the mixed emotions of sibling passion and rivalry. And any preacher will take note of the scene in which one of the boys, being home schooled by his father, has been assigned to write an essay. When he finishes the essay, he brings it to his father, who is working on his Sunday sermon. Taking a red pen, his father makes several editorial marks on the paper and hands it back to his son, saying, “Half as long.” Disappointed, the boy goes back to the drawing board, revises his essay, and returns it to his father who reads it, marks it, and says, “Again, half as long.” Once more, the frustrated boy edits his work, returns it to his father, who at last studies his son’s clean, concise composition, looks up, and pronounces it: “good.”
I cannot help but take note of this advice, for never once in forty years of preaching have I ever had a single congregant complain that a sermon was too short! Indeed, over the years, as the collective attention span of the average American has twittered to half as long (or less!), so have my sermons gotten progressively shorter—half as long today as even ten years ago. A clean, concise sermon is, no doubt, easier on the listener. But it presents quite the challenge to the preacher to convey twenty minutes worth of wisdom in only ten.
Mark Twain wrote, “I once heard a preacher who was powerful good. I decided when they passed the plate I was going to give him all the money I had with me. But he kept at it too long. Ten minutes later, I decided to keep the bills and just give him the loose change. Another ten minutes passed and I was darned if I’d give him anything at all. Then when he finally stopped and the plate round, I was so exhausted, I took out $2 and kept it.”
Perhaps it has been said that “sermonettes make for Christianettes,” but I have found that “half as long” goes twice as far.