The Hurried Messenger
Whatever church I’ve been in and no matter what the content of the sermon I always find myself on the receiving end of “Clock Watcher” criticism. Early on when I preached one of my first sermons there was an elderly man who I remember being extremely tall for his age. He wore a huge wrist watch and sat at the end of a central pew. Honesty I can’t remember how far into the sermon I was or even if the audience seemed particularly engaged (I was far more concerned with getting my notes right). But I do remember the man lifting one of his exceptionally long arms into the air and pointing to the wrist watch on the other end. It has been nearly 12 years since this happened but I remember it as clear as if it was last Sunday. Probably because something akin to it has happened many Sundays since.
“Clock Watchers” have different strategies for trying to communicate that they think the length of time you’re preaching has become an inconvenience to them. Some are abrupt and brutally straightforward while others try to pass it off as a joke, “We paying you by the word-count now, preacher?” Some even go so far as to cite some non-existent “professional” study that shows modern man has only a fifteen minute attention span and if the preacher really wants to get everyone to connect with the message then he should keep it to fifteen minutes.
Perhaps most of these are well-intended. As I think of some of the personalities behind “clock watcher” criticism, I can’t help but think many of them are well-intended. But something within me never quite feels okay with the entire notion of arbitrarily timing the sermon. Could it be that I am proud and filled with self-importance – thinking that people came to hear me speak so it shouldn’t matter how long it takes? Certainly, I can be inflated and my ego damaged all-to-easily. But that doesn’t explain it all away and there’s far more to this unsettled feeling than imagining people should be crawling over themselves to hear a moderately skilled speaker preach each week. I get that I’m no Billy Graham or John Piper (who preaches nearly an hour many semons).
Let me ask a question that has crossed my mind while considering clock watching. It’s a simple question: “What’s the hurry?”
Jesus says, “Every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old (Mat. 13:52).” What might initially appear as a mysterious statement is simply an affirmation of the value in proclaiming the Word well. Essentially, the preacher is a miner. He digs deep, chisels away, and excavates the gold and jewels to put out on display. In this way a disciplined preacher goes to the text and begins his work after praying for the Spirit’s help. He breaks it down and examines the language, meaning, and application of any given passage. Then he puts it all together into a sermon to be delivered to his congregation; a people that need to experience two things: old treasure (reminding of what we hold dear) and new treasure (fresh insight and modern application of God’s Word). This work takes detailed and disciplined use of time through the week (which answers a good bit of the question, “What does the preacher do all week?”) but it also takes time to present the treasures. And if the congregation is full of treasure seekers then why so “blah” when it comes to the presentation of what should be a much-anticipated message?
Have we forgotten that the kingdom of Heaven is like a man digging in a field? While digging he finds a buried treasure. He then goes and, in his JOY, sells all he has to purchase the field and obtain the much-desired treasure (Matthew 13:44). Perhaps a message isn’t the most entertaining. Perhaps a sermon might not be as equally applicable to any one person in particular. Still, if it’s about the kingdom of God and the Christian is seeking first that kingdom, shouldn’t we be willing to increase our attention span for such important and interesting matters?
Why rush a miner? You might risk damaging the gold or jewels. You might not see the multi-facets of the diamonds. You might not become discerning enough to value gold over fool’s gold. As a matter of fact, we don’t rush things that are important or interesting to us. We don’t rush an 18-hole round. We don’t rush grilling a 30 dollar prime cut of meat. We don’t rush time with our spouse or children. We don’t rush the ending of a terrific movie. We rob ourselves of God’s intended pleasure in life when we rush any of these things.
May I step out and make a risky statement? Perhaps the problem is not in the preacher’s inconveniencing folks from their more important things in life. Perhaps the problem is more within the Clock-Watcher.
There are several ways we weaken our desire for the things of God – the things what will truly satisfy. One is mental, spiritual, and emotional “fast-food” diets. We consume “positive messages” on the radio or quick blips of “spiritual” insights from conversations. Anything requiring thought and mediation or anything healthy and sound becomes like eating broccoli over a bacon-cheeseburger. The nutrition of the Word of God is less appealing because we’ve predisposed our temples to what is cheap and convenient.
Another problem might be that we place too much value on treasures that may be idols (if we based idolatry on how much time-currency we grant to any given thing). “We’ve got to catch that game, gotta get to lunch, gotta get to the fields, etc”. As long as something is more important than hearing from God’s Word then the miner, scribe, and chef (that is, the preacher) will get rushed – even when there’s not a word mentioned about the length of the sermon.
I concede that we live in a different day and age. I concede that I probably am boring sometimes. I concede that I don’t want to hear myself ramble on and on. But I do not concede that there can be anything more important, more life-giving, more soul-nourishing that sitting under the proclamation of God’s Word (however long it needs to go). At times, a congregant may need to check himself if he’s falling asleep – after all, we don’t want folks falling out of windows and dying (Acts 20:9)! Nature may call. Someone might even have a legitimate ox in the ditch. But if the kingdom of Heaven is the treasure we seek, the Word is our food (Mat. 4:4), and the testimony and commands of the Lord bring delight (Ps. 112:1) then maybe Clock-Watchers would do far greater good asking why they aren’t loving the sermons. What kind of changes should they desire in order for them to love hearing bible preaching more? In other words, we should be far more concerned about squeezing every sermon for it’s value rather than how many ticks have been taken off the clock. After all, we are children of eternity not children inconvenienced with time.