(From the Archives)
Kirsh Kandiah asks for advice for new preachers. My response – never go over 7 minutes.
Now I admit that I regularly preach for more than 7 minutes and in certain contexts can preach for many times that length, but often those longer sermons are based on a 7 minute core.
Context is important. The typical 7 minute sermon would be shared in the context of liturgical worship, principally a service of Holy Communion. Although the liturgy should be seen as a whole it can be divided into two parts, that of Word and Sacrament. The 7 minute sermon fits into that first part of the service.
The central act of the Word part of the service is the reading of the Gospel. By the way we stand and turn towards the Gospel reader we affirm that Christ’s words and actions hold a privileged position within the wider revelation of Holy Scripture. The Gospel reading is accompanied by up to three other readings, from the Hebrew Scriptures, from the Psalms and from the New Testament. Preceding the reading of Scripture we start with a welcome, reflection, penance and join together in an ancient hymn of praise – the Gloria. A short prayer – the Collect – brings together the themes for the day. Following the Gospel are frequently family notices of the Church – such as the announcement of coming weddings, the sermon, and then the expression of our corporate faith in the words of the Nicene or other Creed. Finally we join together in intercession for the world, the church and other people.
The 7 minute sermon fits perfectly in this context, which typically will last from 30 to 45 minutes with hymns and singing.
When preaching I often follow a simple pattern.
Joke or Poem (depending on season) that relates to the topic (ideally referenced elsewhere in the sermon)
Children’s activity reflecting the core message.
Reminder of the aspect of the readings to be reflected on including historical / theological context.
Principle Message or Application
Invitation to response through Holy Communion.
The 7 minute sermon itself is the last 3 points of that structure. I write it out in full, ideally carefully crafting each sentence, paying attention to rhythm and cadence to resonate with the nature of the worship. For me preaching is an act of worship, an offering in itself, which exists principally to give glory to God. But my words are of less importance than those of the Scriptures themselves and those of the liturgy of the church.
In total we may be looking at 15 or 20 minutes. But take that form out of its context as part of the Liturgy of the Word and it would need to be far longer.
When I preach in such a context ideally I would want to introduce the parts covered in the liturgy into the sermon itself: the basics of the Christian Gospel – repent and be forgiven, the readings themselves, the foundations of the apostolic faith as expressed in the creeds, and prayer for ourselves and others. There is then the question of how we respond to the Word if we are not going to continue to worship God through the offering of bread and wine. A less formal setting also tends to lead to a slower delivery and a more conversational style. That 700 word 7 minute sermon can easily become 30 or 40 minutes - with prayer and ministry following even longer.
On a number of occasions I have taken a 7 minute sermon prepared for a liturgical setting and preached it over 30 minutes in a non-liturgical setting; same core content with a different delivery. My advice for new preachers is to learn to start with that core 7 minute message.
My own preference for a shorter sermon within a wider context for the word is clear; it can help avoid preaching becoming individual performance, the Word is shared rather than delivered. There is however one area where I feel a longer sermon is highly appropriate, and that is in the area of detailed expository preaching. From a classical Anglican perspective this fits perfectly with an evening service, followed by discussion with the preacher over a pint.