Will the 10 minute homily be the new normal?

There has been much discussion about the ways the pandemic lockdown has affected our approach to doing and being church.

We’ve been forced to move our programs online and close any non-essential ministries that can’t be conducted remotely.  Like other areas of our lives, we’ve engaged with members of our congregation via Zoom or FaceTime or some other platform. We pivoted quickly and found ways to provide pastoral care, coaching, team leadership and Bible teaching all online or by phone. Sure, we’ve grown heartily sick of looking at faces in boxes on our computer screens, but we did it because we had to.

And yet, while we’ve longed for things to get back to normal, we also keep telling each other that there will be a new normal, that in some ways things will be very different in a post-COVID-19 world.

I’ve been in a number of conversations recently about what things will spring back to normal and what will be irreversibly changed by our experience of quarantine. One of the common responses I’m hearing is that a lot of church people have enjoyed just having a 10-15 minute sermon on Sundays. Their pastors have recognised that it’s challenging to listen to a typical sermon of 20-40 minutes online and they’ve shortened their presentations accordingly. Now some of their parishioners are saying they like it!

Of course, the 10 minute homily is standard fare for Catholic congregations. In fact, one thing Protestants notice when they attend Catholic services is the brevity of the teaching. There are historical and ecclesial reasons for this.

The Catholic homily is only meant to be an application of the readings for the day. The readings for each day are thematically connected, and the church provides a variety of different resources that assist Catholics to delve into those readings. There are also more in-depth study materials available to Catholics in a variety of different formats for in-depth delving into scripture.

But the reasons aren’t simply pedagogical. Whereas everything in a Protestant service builds up to the sermon, in a Catholic Church everything builds up to the Eucharist.

The Mass isn’t ever going to be a place for lengthy, exposition of Scripture.

However, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Protestant church has found itself having to provide all those supporting learning materials online too. And in those churches that have chosen not to livestream services, but meet online via Zoom, there have been times for group discussion and reflection on the talk built into the meeting.

I’m also hearing parents say how delighted they are to see their children actually listening to the sermon because it’s short enough to hold their attention.

For these reasons, the idea of a brief Protestant homily has suddenly not only become possible, but for many churchgoers, a desirable option.

Of course, the current shape of the Protestant sermon has its roots in Reformation ecclesiology and later revivalist traditions. In many evangelical and pentecostal churches it is still seen as the primary tool for Bible teaching, gospeling and motivational proclamation.

Even though they know it is not true, many preachers appear to operate with the unstated fantasy that congregations come to the pulpit with few other options for learning the faith, relying on the preacher to explain the Scriptures to them.

 

But modern day congregations have access to myriad sources of information about doctrine, biblical interpretation, and plenty of encouragement for their faith from websites, podcasts, books and short courses. As Doug Pagitt says in Preaching Reimagined, this should compel us to reconsider our ideas about preaching. He writes,

“In truth the idea that a person needs to be specifically educated to understand the things of God is little more than Western conceit… There was a time when churches believed that a pastor should be the sole speaker for God because he was among the few who could read, as though the only important knowledge of God is the kind that comes from reading.”

Perhaps COVID-19 will be the unwanted and unpleasant catalyst that will force Protestant churches to reshape our methods of teaching, as well as our liturgies, to align more with what we know about the ways people like to learn. The pandemic might have got us started in providing our churches with more online resources, readings, reflections, and experience-based learning options, as well as coaching and small groups, and that in turn could very well mean the standard Sunday sermon might be reshaped permanently.

I think the homily can only work if the necessary supporting learning materials are made available to congregations, and accessed by them.

But the new normal might involve shorter, sharper sermons, more to the point and more uplifting.

 

Indeed, the presence of shorter sermons would be more child-friendly and would eliminate the need for separate families services.  It might even start getting more families to come back to church.

I know preachers themselves often prefer to preach longer. They’ll point out that Matt Chandler speaks for an hour and everyone loves it. But not everybody can do what Matt Chandler does.

Perhaps the future will be a time when the standard Sunday sermon is 10 minutes long, supported by multiple other learning tools and resources, and every so often we get a guest preacher, or head along to a preaching conference, to hear that rare preacher who can be engaging and interesting in an hour-long talk.

 

 

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The views expressed are my own and do not necessarily represent the official views of Morling College or its affiliates and partners.

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18 thoughts on “Will the 10 minute homily be the new normal?

  1. Interestingly, because I’ve been recording sermons from a single shot camera view, I’ve aimed for 10 minutes, knowing that this even stretches what data says about attention, etc. What’s funny is that the more immersed in “church-culture” the more resistant people have been to this change. So, while it’s nice to hear people say, “we wish your messages were longer” (you like me… you really like me); I feel we are choosing self interest over others. If preaching doesn’t match with the surrounding culture’s needs and modes of being, then we are simply just doing it for our own self-gratification.

  2. What I’m seeing, Mike–like anything–that this time represents we are not “one size fits all.” The church has and should forever be changed by the global quarantine.

    Why would we ever assume that either a 10 minute sermon OR a 40 minute sermon is the answer?!

    What if we varied the delivery and allowed options for people? Maybe the early morning homily is longer, geared toward and for folks that desire a longer message? Maybe the later morning homily is more concise? Always an online option. And so on…

    I liken the “one size fits all” sermon style to going to the doctor, telling the doc your symptoms and the doc giving you a diagnosis without ever asking any additional questions or reading your file!

    The beauty of humanity IS that we are all different, unique and we vary greatly in what affects us and how we are effected.

    The best thing the church can glean from this time of lockdown is; the more diversified the church is with Her ways of reaching/feeding people, connecting and teaching people, the more people She will reach.

    Mostly, lets pray fervently that we do not squander what we’ve learned and all the creative ways we have been the Church during this unprecedented time.

    1. Well, yes, but to some degree a church has to have a “one size” approach to their whole congregation. What I’m suggesting is a mix of adult learning options, both online and face-to-face, with a short talk for when we all gather together with children on a Sunday.

      1. I hear that!

  3. I worked the last 9 years of my ministry in a Lutheran school as their pastor/chaplain. We had whole school chapel (900 students plus staff) 3 times a week. Chapel was 10 minutes long inc a song. Students were a wide mix of Christian denominations and non-Christians. You had about 7 minutes to get across a message, and that often included video clips, drama, powerpoint etc. You had no choice but to be concise, engaging and relevant. I have often argued that pastors in congregations would do well to spend 6 months in a school like this and they would soon learn how to meaningfully preach short and engaging sermons. I think we all need to look beyond ourselves and our knowledge, and be as engaging and relevant to our audience as we can while proclaiming the gospel. The nature of our audience needs to shape our style and length of message, while not diluting the content.

    1. I experienced university chapel where the speakers had 10 minutes and still were not engaging, relevant, or concise. It is not taught in evangelical seminaries.

  4. Hi Mike, it is so good to hear these ideas being talked about. Let’s keep brainstorming!

    1. I think teaching & knowledge are over-rated in our more doctrinal Protestant traditions. Obedience, justice and the kingdom of God are often under-rated. What is the point of “deeper” doctrinal teaching if we aren’t obeying what we already have been taught – like forgiveness, loving enemies, caring for the poor, being sensitive in conversation with non-believers, etc?

    2. Let’s not call it a sermon any more. Let’s just say we’ll have a time together where we do all the things necessary to build up the body in living and working for the kingdom to come. Let’s have a “magazine” type service, more like a print magazine or a TV tonight show where many different and disparate elements are combined. Not just 10 minute teaching, but encouragement, stories, testimonies, reports from the ministry teams, learning about culture, discussion. (Did you know that people learn better from their peers, even if they are not expert, than from the experts? Something to think about!)

    3. People learn best of all via self discovery. Instead of teaching doctrine, we need to teach people how to learn doctrine themselves (Jeremiah 31:34). Then they will be more likely to remember, and be more interested when a teacher gives them extra knowledge on a topic they have already learnt about themselves.

    4. People will listen to stories much more easily than to doctrinal exposition. Jesus knew that. And if I can mention you, Mike, in such illustrious company, that has always been a reason why your talks were more listenable than most.

    All this isn’t rocket science – it is good neuroscience and psychology as well as good theology. If I may be self-promoting, I have a detailed explanation of all this and more in Sermons- not how we learn best?.

  5. But if Sunday morning sermon is all someone has until next time they turn up, if there are people not excited enough to access these many resources that are available ….

  6. That’s fascinating about the different focus between Catholic & Protestant services.
    I’m personally fine with longer sermons. But really, how long a sermon is really doesn’t matter.
    5 to 10mins can last an age if the speaker isn’t engaging, organized, or precise about their point.
    Going along with this is an idea Mike put in a previous post, about having 1 sermon a month & then discussion.
    In my personal experience with both lectures & group discussion, I think I retain more from a group discussion.
    Or a lecture combined with group participation.

  7. Wow Mike, you’re brave. My life experience has taught me that the biggest hindrance to change are egos. Try telling a Minister to shorten his sermon or that getting a few hundred people into an auditorium to lecture them is old school! Or to utilise other ministers resources. I’m running for cover now!

    1. I’ve had a mixed response on my socials about it. To be clear, I’m not *telling* ministers exactly how many minutes they should preach (one was infuriated that I was “mandating” the length of his sermons, as if I could). I’m simply asking the question, based on the feedback I’ve heard, as to whether people will want to go back to 40 minute monologues when they’ve quite enjoyed 10-15 minute talks with opportunity for reflection and discussion.

    2. There is one ego behind the pulpit, that is true. I struggle with it every day. But just as true is that looking back at me are many many more. May God continue to shape His church so that it better reflects His glory…

    3. Mike S- So, when you talk about “ego” and telling a minister to shorten “his” sermon, are you insinuating that men have larger egos than ladies? 😉 And, are you saying lady ministers would be more flexible with and not find their identity in the length of their sermon? 😉
      Or, are you one of those people that believes only guys can/should preach?
      Just looking for clarification. 😉

      1. Do you think there’s something worth reflecting on in the fact this is one of your most commented on posts? Sounds like you got some pretty heated responses in your other platforms too? I’ve only had a quick look through your other posts in this forum and this article already scored almost twice the responses of the others I’ve seen? I’d be keen to hear your thoughts.

        I loved your statement from your post about the table sermons “For a start, any teaching that occurs at a table church should happen in the context of myriad ongoing gospel conversations within the congregation throughout the week. Teachers should not only teach at the church meeting, but be involved in relationships where conversations about the gospel are central all week long.”

        I was quite stirred up by your “the Shaping of things to come” and “keep Christianity weird” – I gave this to a colleague who found God and loves Him but can’t cope with church culture and he found the book releived this uncomfortable tension for him and opened his mind to church possibly being different to what he was seeing. He followed me to the car after work with a long list of questions once he’d read the book. He’s never done that before. That was a blessing to be part of that. Thank you.

        You talk in your books about consumerism in the church context. What do we need to be careful of in this conversation in that regard? A 10 minute sermon because people prefer it sounds like bending to consumerist mentality? You did say “I think the homily can only work if the necessary supporting learning materials are made available to congregations, and accessed by them.” But is there more?

        By divine chance, the Protestant service’s focus on the sermon as opposed to the Eucharist in Catholicism was one of the main topics of conversation with my boys this morning (16 and 15 years old) and God seems to have brought me to this post tonight for a reason.

        Thanks Mike.

        1. That wasn’t meant to be a reply to Shannon. It was supposed to be a new comment. Sorry.

  8. So… what actually is the purpose of the sermon, and of the gathering? Shouldn’t that kind of determine what and how it happens?
    Mike, it’s nice of you to raise the topic, but I can’t help feel that there is a perspective missing: what would ‘work’ or be best for the people who attend services, and more importantly, those who don’t attend as far as achieving the purpose of the sermon? (Note, not what do they prefer/enjoy more out of the two options: 10-15 minutes v 20-40 minutes.)
    For me, a lot of the time it can feel like the format for the sermon is more about tradition (and may be filling a need for the preacher), than about teaching and discipling. Because if it was about the latter, then there are plenty of more effective ways of doing that.

  9. I remember a while back watching the Daily Show (When it was still Jon Stewart), “Why don’t we do sermons like this?”

    It’s become common form to communicate with an opening monolog, guests to chat with, photos and short videos, a musical guest. Makes sense to me.

  10. This is why evangelicals like me often wind up joining liturgical churches. We can understand the homily and get some applicability. Long sermons rarely benefit most people sitting in the pews.

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