Why you Preach too Long (And how to correct it)

People’s ears are bleeding, their rears are numb, and yet you are up there holding forth, holding forth, and losing your congregation. Why? What has gone wrong? Oh, I’ve been there. Here is a common mistake expository preachers make. You are treating too much material. Your text is too long. I am thankful for what I learned from Charles W. Koller back in 1997. It took me a while to believe it and practice it, but here is how I learned to apply Koller’s book, How to Preach without Notes, to the problem of the interminable sermon.

The Problem
I can illustrate this fairly easily from a recent preaching assignment. I was starting with Luke 11:1-13 as my text. My intent was to divide the text into two portions: verses 1-4 and verses 5-13. My points would have been “Train yourselves to Pray,” and “Trust the One to whom you are Praying.” The idea for this was from a recent devotion I had given to a group of pastors. At that time, I had less than ten minutes to speak and so I gave some general guidance from the passage and it was really a fairly topical talk. But when I started to actually exegete these verses for a sermon, I had four pages of hand-written notes on verses 1-4 pretty quickly. Now, if I wanted to be stubborn, I would just go ahead and stick with my original concept and preach the message as I first conceived it. But it would mean preaching a 45-minute sermon. I have heard some good 45 minute sermons, but I don’t think there is necessarily any virtue in preaching that long. Larry Wynn said, “Nobody ever despised a short sermon.”

What Koller says
Here is a sad secret if you’ve never read Koller’s book: he doesn’t really teach you how to preach without notes. He teaches you how to simplify your sermon prep to a half sheet of paper and not be a slave to notes. Koller’s book is not faddish or gimmicky. It is about 300 pages long, so I am giving a very, very abbreviated summary here. Fundamentally he teaches:
·         Find the main point of the Scripture passage and summarize it in a single sentence. This is the sermon idea.
·         Choose a key word to describe what the sermon will emphasize. For example, for Luke 11:1-4 my sermon idea and key word ended up being: “Jesus responded to the disciples’ request ‘teach us to pray’ and in so doing shows us that we need to train ourselves in prayer. He gave us four critical truths about what prayer is here.” “Truths” is the key word. It is a better key word than “things” which preachers use too often.
·         The points (and sub-points) from the sermon will be parallel statements that follow the text of Scripture, match the sermon idea, and align with the key word. For example here are my points:

o   Prayer is Communion with our Heavenly Father, v.2
o   Prayer is Surrender to, Cooperation with and Participation in the Kingdom Purposes of God, v.2a
o   Prayer is Petition for God’s Benevolent Care, v.3
o   Prayer is a Critical Behavioral Check-up, v.4.

Notice that using parallel statements eliminates any need to alliterate the points of the message which can lead to forcing language or an idea on the text that isn’t really there. 

How to Adjust your Material to make a less lengthy Sermon
In my original sermon idea, I would have talked about two realities that help us improve our prayer commitment. My points would have been:

·         Train yourselves to pray (vv.1-4)
·         Trust the One to Whom you are praying (vv.5-13)

But I discovered that when I prepared the first point there was adequate material there for a sermon. Here is where Koller’s approach helps. With this discovery I have found:

·         I can make my first point the sermon idea.
·         My sub-points become the main points of the sermon (with their own sub-points).
·         The second point could be developed similarly in another message.

My adjusted sermon looks like this in skeleton form:

How to Grow as a Person of Prayer (Luke 11:1-4)
Jesus taught the disciples to train themselves to pray.
1. Prayer is Communion with our Heavenly Father, v.2
2. Prayer is Surrender to, Cooperation with and Participation in the Kingdom Purposes of God, v.2a
3. Prayer is Petition for God’s Benevolent Care, v.3
4. Prayer is a Critical Behavioral Check-up, v.4.

On many occasions I have turned to this approach and found that what I was dealing with was really more than one sermon. As I have learned to make this adjustment, the best part is I don’t end up unnecessarily exasperating the congregation. Hope it helps!