I may not be the best person to write on this subject nor from whom you want to take advice in this area of homiletics. To give a candid assessment and full disclosure, I am not good with “preaching on the clock.” By “preaching on the clock” I mean when you are given a specific timeframe that you must stay within to keep the service, event, or conference on schedule. When I was being considered to teach at NOBTS, a derivative of this question came up in my interview with the preaching faculty. Specifically, one of my colleagues asked, “How long do you preach?” I quickly responded between 40 and 50 minutes typically. I think that almost cost me the job!
Beginning my service as Dean of Chapel, I understood why. Time is of the essence every Tuesday and Thursday during the semester as we gather for chapel at 11 a.m. Many students and faculty alike have 12:30 responsibilities and classes. I knew pulpit time management was something I needed to work on. I had to do something if I was going to succeed or even simply survive. I needed a strategy. Time management in the pulpit is the main thing that I have struggled with in my post-seminary post-doctoral career.
So, I did put together a strategy. I have become intentional. However, it is and I am not perfect. I still often preach for 40 to 45 minutes when I am in a church pulpit on a Sunday morning. But overall I shaved about 10 percent off my average message time over the last two years. And, I do not think I have gone over the allotted time in chapel once. So, I can do it. This is improvement. So, in this article I share five suggestions that I generally try to follow on a regular basis to improve the conciseness of my messages and specifically employ when it is absolutely necessary to cut down the length of my sermon in an “on the clock” situation.
First, have a clock.
This is as literal as it seems. If you are attempting to make sure you stay within a certain timeframe, you must know that timeframe and where you are in that timeframe at any given point in your message. So, have a clock and make sure you know where it is and that it is visible to you while you are preaching.
I know this seems basic. It seems basic because it is basic. Having access to a clock or some means of knowing how long you have been preaching and how long you have left is the basic and foundational component of “preaching on the clock.” The primary ways having a clock helps you stay as succinct as possible in your sermon are that it helps you gage in the moment if you are moving along your message at a steady clip and it informs you if you need to adjust parts of your message on the fly. Therefore, if you want to preach on the clock, have a clock!
Second, know your sermon.
This suggestion is embarrassingly basic as well. Perhaps second only to having a clock in regard to foundational information for preaching on the clock. But, also just as true and necessary. Think of it in the negative first. If you step in the pulpit without a crystal clear understanding of the main thrust of your message and the structure and design that you need in place to preach said message, there is little to no chance that you will be able to deliver it in a concise manner.
On the other hand, if you have a good grasp of the main points and major divisions of your message, you are set up from the beginning to succeed. I believe this is where having a great and considerate sermon proposition and knowing it with confidence serves you well. This demands that you know what your sermon is about and it keeps you from wandering too far off that path with tertiary material in your sermon preparation and by chasing rabbits in your sermon delivery. On average avoiding these two pitfalls results in a tighter, more easily understood, and shorter sermon. Knowing your sermon is a must for preaching on the clock.
Third, keep the main thing the main thing.
This does not mean that no background material is helpful or relevant. Nor does this intend to communicate that the explanation of secondary truth is invalid for explanation and unnecessary for audience understanding. However, it does mean that those pieces of information are subordinate, and therefore the amount of time you give to them and way you present them should be reflected in the message.
My overall suggestions are first, work to summarize necessary background material and give only what is necessary to understand the passage in a sentence or two in the delivery of the message. Second, provide and explain secondary material in a way that highlights the main substance and structure of your passage. Don’t get caught talking about Moses’s obscure usage of a word or how many letters Paul wrote to the Corinthian church for 15 or 20 minutes. You cannot do this and preach on the clock.
In your study you will find wonderful nuggets of information that interest you but are not germane to explaining or understanding the passage. And, your people will not find it as interesting as you do. Trust me! Therefore, work to provide only what is necessary for your audience to grasp this particular passage and therefore understand this particular sermon and do so in a concise manner. Again, in order to do this, you must know the passage and thus your sermon.
Fourth, use short, not drawn out, illustrations when possible.
Illustrating your sermon is another area of your delivery in which you can shave a few minutes off. Another way to say it is, sometimes if we do not work to tighten up the kinds we use and the way in which we say them, illustrations can be another part of the content of our message that prevents us from being able to preach on the clock effectively. Work to be precise and concise in your illustrative sermon material.
One way to accomplish this is in the types of material you use. Often quotes, statistics, metaphors, analogies, and pop culture references can effectively bring understanding to your point without taking up much of one of your most precious Preaching commodities — time! These types of illustrations often do not require much set up or time. On the other hand, often stories do require more time to set context and tell the story. I am not saying we should never use stories in our sermons. I think we should and at times must. Jesus did. And, they raise and convey real life human interest. However, we should be cautious about how many stories we use in any given sermon.
Furthermore, I often say make sure your illustration does not require more explanation than your sermon point or division does. If it does, you have not helped yourself and probably should have used a different one. We also must use discernment and skill in the manner in which we tell them. This leads me to a second way that I accomplish using shorter illustrations. Think through and memorize your illustrations and then practice how you will deliver them. Much like with your explanation, only include what is needed and necessary for your audience’s understanding. The more you have it committed to memory and truly know your illustration, the better you will be in telling it clearly and concisely.
Overall, using shorter, not drawn out sermon illustrations, will aid you in your pursuit of effective time management in your preaching.
Finally, write out succinct sermon introductions and conclusions.
Two concepts are significant here. First, write out in complete paragraph form both your introduction and conclusion as you plan to say them. I would encourage you to do this even if you do not use a sermon manuscript nor plan on having this document with you in the pulpit. Even if you do not, the habit of writing out how you will begin and end your message will help you know exactly what your going to say and deliver it with preciseness. Again, both of these practices will help you with time management in your preaching.
Second, be succinct in both your introductions and conclusions. If you have a 30 to 35 time frame in which to deliver your sermon, your introductions and conclusions should plan to take no more than 10 to 15 percent of the message time each. This is roughly three and a half to five and a half minutes apiece. I have seen introductions that take as long as 15 to 20 minutes. Candidly, I have had introductions take 15 minutes. (My wife often jokes and says that I can’t give my opening greeting in less than 20 — “You can’t say hi and introduce your message in less than 20 minutes!”).
All joking aside, having long introductions and conclusions is not conducive for preaching on the clock. As a matter of fact, it will sabotage your efforts every time. Therefore, if you want great time management in the pulpit, write out succinct sermon introductions and conclusions.
Candidly, I like to preach longer sermons. I prefer not to be “on the clock.” Actually, I think it is hard in most situations with most passages to do the text justice and practice genuine expository preaching in less than 40 to 45 minutes. However, I readily admit that I can and have often gone overboard here. Also, I know everyone is going to find himself at one time or another in a genuine situation that requires conciseness and time management in the pulpit. These may range from a normal Sunday at the church you pastor to a funeral or a conference to which you have been invited to preach.
And, if we want to continue to grow and be as good at our craft as possible, we should be able to construct and deliver a biblical message within any timeframe we are given. This is my goal. This is my aim. It is what I want to do — continue to grow and improve in my preaching for the rest of my life. It has not been an easy or perfect process, but I have made progress in the area of “preaching on the clock.” I’m continuing to work and the procedures that I mentioned here have helped me. I think generally they have made me a better preacher. I pray they will help you as well as we all strive together to better “Preach the Word.”