Time is an issue that divides many of us in the land of church. On one side comfortably the folks for whom there is always enough time for a thought-provoking, content-driven, lecture or sermon. On the other end of this issue sit, slightly uncomfortably, those who are restless and find the concept of sitting in one place, to hear one speaker, a necessary evil. The latter group would really prefer to receive this information with the aid of visuals, for there to be a more inter-active format, to turn the experience from being “preached at” to being in “conversation with”. And when it comes to sermons in church these two groups are poles apart.
I think both sides have important points to make. In a fast moving culture like ours people now receive their information in chunks, they expect to participate in dialogue and they like to see as well as hear. On the other hand some idea take some fleshing out, that the content of the ideas require more attention and more engagement than a 10 minute limitation. These folks also find using a lot visuals more distracting than enhancing. Moreover, this side worry that if our culture gives in too much to the need to be constantly entertained and stimulated we will miss out on more rigorous theories and explanations that require more thought and less bells and whistles.
I go to hear many public speakers, obviously this includes preachers in church. What I have discovered about myself is that time itself is never an issue. I have heard 45 minute sermons that left me deeply moved, I felt engaged throughout. I think people have a way of forgetting that the quality of delivery often has more to do with our reactions to a sermon than the length of the time we listen. I have heard sermons that were 45 minutes long that felt like 7, they were so dazzling and stimulating. I have also heard sermons that were 10 minutes long that felt like an hour, they were so plodding and desperately devoid of life.
Some topics are so interesting that they can be addressed in a rather dry way and still be interesting. But more often than not we need to engage the speaker and to do so require some work on the speaker’s part to reach us. For me this is the crucial issue, how much consideration has the speaker given to the “other” in preparing this address. When I preach I know there are people listening who will be with me for as long as I want to talk. I also know there are listeners who require stimulating ideas and insights to stay with me. And I know there are those who need humour, colourful stories, personal reflections, to connect to my sermon. And so when I craft the text I do so in a way that tries to reach these various audiences.
Not every speaker is gifted with the ability to entertain as well as stimulate with ideas. I lack the ability to emote and connect with my audience on an emotional level. We all have limitations. So we compensate for these limitations in the consideration for our audiences, if we are not gifted with humour or emotional connection we need to use our passion for what we are saying. If that too is a bridge too far than the only other option is to keep your remarks short. If I want to speak for more than 15 minutes, and I frequently do, I need to wrap my words with some engaging stories, humour and personal connections if I hope to keep people’s attention. I do this not because I am “watering down” my sermon or “catering to the lowest common denominator” or “giving in” to the culture but because I am being considerate of my audiences and their needs and differing listening skills. I am not so arrogant as to assume everyone is like me or listens as I listen. I want my sermon to be heard. I am not as concerned with whether people agree or like my sermon but I am very concerned that every have the opportunity to hear what I am saying.
Consideration in how one craft’s one’s public remarks, like in most things, is the key.