The Preacher's Toolbox: Smart Brevity: Saying More by Saying Less
Preachers, just because there is a placeholder carved out right there in the liturgy which says SERMON, that does not give us license to blather.
Your sermons are probably too long... and mine are, too. Lengthiness does not equal godliness.
This is my big takeaway from the new book Smart Brevity, by Jim VandeHei, Mike Allen, and Roy Schwartz, who are the co-creators of Axios. The book is by no means a preaching manual, and it is too resigned to our frenetic, attenuated culture. Even so, it has real cash value for those of us whose stock and trade are in words.
The problem the authors are addressing is all too familiar to preachers. As they put it, we are “wallowing in noise and nonsense.” Our devices are distracting, and our habits are horrendous. Thus, the “epic challenge” facing everyone trying to communicate a message: “How do you get anyone to pay attention to anything that matters in this mess?”
This is important to preachers because we are not merely hocking a product or boosting our brand. We do not even just have “news you can use.” The Gospel is news you live by, “News from across the sea” (in Walker Percy’s wonderful phrase). It is a word of rescue for castaways who are drowning in an ocean of half-truths, inanities, and gobbledygook.
Punching Through the Noise
How, then, to “punch through the noise?” According to the authors, the solution is Smart Brevity: “A system and strategy for thinking more sharply, communicating more crisply, and saving yourself and others time.” It is the power of saying more with less, of staying short but not shallow.
This is not new advice. The first rule of Strunk & White’s Elements of Style is “omit needless words.” Your high school English teacher told you to go easy on the adverbs. We have heard this before. What is new is the urgency of the advice in an age which is heavy on information and light on attention.
Nor should it sound strange to students of the Bible. Of course, the Bible is a long book. Within its pages, however, are countless piquant pearls of wisdom. The Proverbs come to mind, but so too do many of the Psalms, as well as the teachings of Jesus. Interestingly, Smart Brevity cites every confirmand’s favorite memory verse, John 11:35:
“Jesus wept.” These are the shortest, most powerful two words of the entire Bible. Nine letters and one vivid, telling verse in the Gospel of John. It captures Jesus’ earthly humanity, humility, emotion.
Quibble with their exegesis if you like, but the point about brevity is sound. The Scriptures consistently pack a punch with an economy of words. Shoot, even the Sermon on the Mount clocks in at less than 15 minutes. The teachings of Jesus were often short, but never shallow.
The teachings of Jesus were often short, but never shallow.
Counteract the Anti-Sermon Cabal
Smart Brevity focuses on the written word (and pastors do plenty of writing), but it does also briefly (!) address public speaking. The authors ask, “When was the last time you heard a speech, a toast, a roast, [or a sermon] and thought: ‘That was great. I just wish it had gone on longer and foggier.’”
The answer is, of course, never. Yet, all too often sermons do not so much conclude, as peter out. If parishioners could use a shepherd’s crook to give the preacher the hook like a Looney Tunes character, I am convinced that at times they would. So, another lesson from Smart Brevity: Just stop. You are not contractually obligated to keep talking once you have faithfully unpacked the Scripture and announced the Gospel. Distill your One Big Point, proclaim it clearly and compellingly, utter Amen, let the show go on.
Which brings me to my concluding admonition. Preachers, just because there is a placeholder carved out right there in the liturgy which says SERMON, that does not give us license to blather. We ought always to have ringing in our ears the immortal question of Dr. Seuss: “Why am I bothering telling you this?”
Do not take the time in the pulpit for granted. Imagine, instead, there was some shadowy cabal out to abolish sermons from worship. They are currying supporters and collecting evidence. Exhibit A is the needless prattling of preachers. Rumor has it these homiletic antagonists gained ground.
Therefore, preach each week like you are counteracting the Anti-Sermon Cabal; as though you were making the case for keeping sermons around by saying more with less, being short but not shallow. Preach, that is, like your life depends on it. Or more to the point: Preach like your hearers’ lives depend on it... because they do.
 This of course raises the question, “What is the right length for a sermon?” I cannot give a hard and fast answer to that, but in my opinion, I still think 15 minutes (give or take five) is still a good rule of thumb. It is long enough to do justice to the text, and short enough to retain attention. The fact that TED talks are 18 minutes (or less) suggests this number still holds up.