Lincoln and Short Sermons




I have no doubt that Spielberg’s movie “Lincoln” is headed toward several Academy Award nominations. Though it definitely earned its rating for the battle scenes and language, it was an engaging movie.

One detail that was played up significantly in the movie was Lincoln’s preference for short speeches. Of course, his most famous speech was The Gettysburg Address. It was only ten sentences in length and will be forever remembered as one of the greatest speeches given by a U.S. president.

One of the more obscure facts about the event is who spoke before Lincoln. It was Edward Everett, a well-known politician. He delivered a formal speech that lasted some two hours. Meanwhile, Lincoln’s address was spoken in about two minutes.

On that day of dedicating a portion of the field to the slain soldiers at Gettysburg, Lincoln said,

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

One of the lines attributed to Lincoln that was included in the movie gives insight into his thoughts about public speaking. If you’ve seen the movie, then you’ll remember Lincoln joking as he repeated the words of a preacher:

“I could write shorter sermons but when I get started I’m too lazy to stop.”

It can be a painfully true statement.

The sermons in which I have been lax on preparation are also the ones in which I tend to ramble more aimlessly. Throughout history, I imagine that it has been debated as to whether or not a speaker should deliver all he or she knows on a subject or leave the audience “waiting for more.” I am doubtful that the debate will end any time soon. In the realm of preaching, even our own culture spans the spectrum. Some of the well-known preachers of our day regularly speak for an hour during worship. Others limit their time to the sub-30 minute mark. So which is right? Likely, both.

A sermon is a sacred trust. The church trusts you to deliver the sense of the eternal Word of God into their lives. Taking into account Lincoln’s wisdom from his illustration, here are a few of my thoughts on sermon preparation and delivery; the first two being long and the rest being short.

  1. All sermon material should be biblically defined. Although this should go without saying, it must be said. Preach what is revealed in the text of scripture about who God is, what God has done, how God is the hero, how God rescues the dying, and who God makes us to be. If you get to the end of your preparation and there is little of God and much of man, then my advice is start over. The primary reason for the Scriptures existence is to reveal God to us. Our sermons should be an extension of that purpose.
  2. Sermon delivery should be missiologically informed. You must know your context. A few years ago, I attended a church planting conference for pastors. The vast majority of those in the room were white planters working in the suburbs. One of the speakers was a black pastor working in the inner city. He delivered a stirring message with hip-hop language that most of us did not understand. I remember being awed by it and amazed at how cool he was. But, I have no recollection about what he said. Why? He was speaking another language. Or at least dialect. Know your audience and speak in a way that it is easy for them to grasp the biblically defined truth.
  3. It takes twice as much discipline to deliver significant content in half the time. If I simply rely on extemporaneous thought, then I (and many of us) will ramble a bit. Or a lot. Or most of the time. Sermon preparation requires discipline of mind and soul to learn, apply, and communicate only what is needful for the hour.
  4. It takes twice as much discipline to deliver significant content in twice the time. If I rely on battering down my audience’s defenses with an onslaught of words, then I’ve relied on the wrong thing. There is no inherent evil with using points, illustrations, word meanings, sub-points, metaphors, and lengthy arguments. But if you plan on preaching at length, then have plenty of content to communicate.

Sermons with lazy preparation behind them regularly have an exhausted audience in front of them. For the sake of your church and the good of your ministry, study earnestly under the Spirit’s direction.



Comments

Posted on by Philip Nation in Church, Preaching

4 Responses to Lincoln and Short Sermons

  1. Marty Duren

    If I may add, “Stop preaching when you are done.” Sometimes, for whatever reason, it just is not happening. Greater force and louder noise does not change a jumble into “Fourscore and seven years ago…”

    Other times, regular study time simply did not produce a 40-45 minute sermon. It only produced 25-30 minutes.

    I found stopping when I was done to be appreciated by people. Then, on those rare instances when I went long, they stayed in there with me. God’s Spirit can cut a sermon off just as surely and productively as adding length.

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  3. Philip Nation

    Marty – good thought. I don’t know which is worse: being the preacher and realizing at the end of a sermon that I should have stopped about halfway through… or being the listener and wishing the preacher had stopped halfway through.

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