Certain brethren would preach better if they would not preach so long. Very seldom among Dissenters do we hear any complaint as to the undue shortness of discourses; the tendency is all the other way. Why do ministers preach long sermons? Is it for their own pleasure, or is it for the pleasure of the people? If it is the latter, they certainly are grievously mistaken; and if it is for the former, they might practise a little more self-denial. Over an hour might be enjoyed by our Puritan forefathers; but we are a degenerate race; and, besides, have more to do. Yet good men here and there presume upon our patience, if not upon our piety, and though they give us little make it long. I heard of one of our own brethren that he would have been very much liked, in the four sermons that he preached upon probation, had he not been so dreadfully long-winded that the friends were frightened, and he did not receive an invitation. I was told that the people did not long for him because he was so long. Some excellences are high and difficult of attainment; but brevity is quite within reach: I mean, of course, that moderate brevity which consists in getting through a subject in the allotted time. Extreme brevity is probably as difficult as extreme length is easy; you need not distinguish yourself in either direction.
A good rule for length is that which is mentioned in the following anecdote — 'A newly-fledged Scotch minister, who was leaving home to preach his first sermon, was followed to the door by his mother, who was much interested in the appearance he was likely to make. Clapping him kindly on the shoulder, she said, Noo, Jock, I ha'e jist yae advice to gie ye ere ye gang, and I hope ye winna forget it. It's jist this — dinna forget to stop when ye're dunne.' In plain English — 'leave off when you have done'. Say no more when you have no more to say. Don't let the millstones revolve after the wheat is all ground. If some people remembered this rule they would never begin at all, and others would conclude after half-a-dozen sentences. A little girl, when her father's table was once graced with a visit from a justly-esteemed pastor, began talking very earnestly in the first pause of the conversation. Her father checked her sharply, saying, 'Why is it that you talk so much?' 'Tause I've dot somesin' to say', was the innocent but highly suggestive reply. One would hope the child was allowed to use her tongue without further restraint; at any rate, we would accord the utmost liberty to any speaker who can truly say as much. I fear it is not the rule with preachers that they do speak because they have something to say, but far oftener they speak because they are expected to say something. Sermons ought never to be measured by the yard-stick, or the clock; but they ought to be measured by this one simple rule — 'have done when you have done.' Don't be particular about how you come to a close; but be a deal more concerned not to keep on till your discourse dies out, like a candle which does not give another flicker.
Brother in the pulpit, do not be too much drawn out in your discourse, because very frequently the people are tired enough before you reach the sermon. When they have heard you read those hymns in that horrible tone; when they have listened to the chapters, unbroken by a word of comment; when they have defied sleep during that long prayer of yours, which is so rambling and monotonous; they are by that time near enough to being worn out. Take pity upon them, and do not impose upon their good nature any more than you can help. They are willing to sit out that dry discourse, and to hear you through to the bitter end; but is there any cause for prolonging the agony? Do not lay upon them more than is meet. Moderate the weight now that the last sack is to be brought from the mill. Make the sermon as good as you can; but length need not be aimed at.
I am afraid, also, that if you multiply words, you will spoil what you have done. Strike while the iron is hot, but do not keep on striking till the iron grows cold; though that is what many do. They hit the nail on the head, and drive it in; and then go on hammering till they split the board, and the nail drops out. They preach their people into a good frame of mind, and then preach them out of it. It is well to preach until your people feel the power of the truth; and when that is the case, you may begin looking out for 'lastly'. I hardly dare advise some speakers to continue till they reach the point I have mentioned, for then they would go on to Doomsday, since they never do impress their people at all.
I remember, writes Canon Hole in his Hints to Preachers, that when I was travelling with John Leech in Ireland, we went forth from our hotel in one of the chief cities without instruction, and disdaining guides, and twice found ourselves unexpectedly at the place from whence we came. It is so with many preachers; they seem to revolve in circles, to wander in a maze, hither and thither, with no clue to extrication. "He's a very nice gentleman", a worthy old woman said to me, of a clergyman who had preached to her during my absence, and we're always expecting he's going to tell us something to think on; but somehow or another, it never comes.
Please do notice that, probably, there will yet be time for you to say more upon your present theme before you die; and there is, therefore, no absolute necessity for your saying all that can be said upon it at this particular moment. It is not required of you even to say every possible thing upon the one topic which you have selected, much less all that might be said upon all the subjects in the Bible. If you cannot utter sufficient for edification in three-quarters of an hour, you would not do it in three hours. As a rule, there is range enough for you in forty-five minutes. Perhaps you say, 'I have heard that Dr Barrow was an exhaustive preacher, and I wish to be like him.' It is true that the learned doctor exhausted his subject, but I fear that those who imitate him are more likely to exhaust their hearers; and that is a different thing. Most people would rather not be favoured with such exhaustive and exhausting homilies. It will be wiser for most of us if we say as much in one discourse as can be readily received and remembered by an ordinary hearer at one time, and then we can add somewhat more on another occasion. If Rome was not built in a day, so also all truth is not to be taught in one discourse. Do not attempt to say all you know every time you preach. Reserve a potato for the next meal.
'But', you reply, 'there were certain things which I felt I must not omit. While I was studying the subject, they occurred to me as highly important.' Very well: say those things as soon as you can, but you need not describe to the people all those processes of your thought, by which you arrived at those important conclusions. Serve up the meat, but you need not bring up the spit, and the fire, and the ladle. Of course, in our deep studiousness, we have gone through the subject from end to end, we know all the heights and depths of it, for we have travelled over it from Dan to Beersheba; but our people have not had this advantage, and they will not know if we omit to mention some one little hill which we climbed in our perambulation; probably they will be glad that we should do so. People who give all the petty details of a story are usually very wearisome; and we may become the same if we go into all the ins and outs, the suppositions and possibilities, of our subject. Our people do not want threshing-machines, and mills, and kneading-troughs, and ovens: they want bread.
Please remember, also, that your discourse is probably nothing like so precious to the people as it is to yourself. When parents gaze upon their first child, they usually feel that very seldom, perhaps never, was such a baby born into the world before; and therefore it is brought forward to be admired and kissed by everybody. It is only natural that it should be so; but visitors are not all of them so much impressed as the parents themselves: I have even known some of them hint that they had seen and heard quite enough of that delightful infant. I am sorry to say that the same thing may happen in the case of a sermon. Young man, you have been all the week dressing your baby — I mean your sermon — in long clothes, bedecked it with pretty bows; and on Sunday you will hold it up to be admired. Now be wise as those parents who have ten children and therefore do not look upon them as prodigies. Believe that other people have probably preached as good sermons as yours, and that it is even possible that they have excelled you. It is not, therefore, all-important that you should take up an unreasonable length of time in displaying your production. Say what you have to say; say it with all your heart; and do not linger over the theme as if you were the only person who could handle it aright.
'Ah, but I have to state some important truths, and they require guarding! It is needful for me to show all the relations and connections of the doctrine.' Is it? Is this your motive for bringing forward a dozen other doctrines to stand round your subject, like the armed men about the couch of Solomon? If so, be careful. If you do not mind, you will hide your doctrine behind its protectors. Leave the truth which is taught in your text to take care of itself. I believe a popular statement must be somewhat unguarded if it is to be effective. A man may come to the preacher, and complain, 'You never mentioned such and such a truth.' He may reply, 'I never intended to do so; I had to preach upon a certain topic today, and I have preached upon it. I hope to live a little longer, and probably next Sunday, if I am spared, I will discuss the balancing subject and supply the deficiency which you point out.' Our Saviour often speaks in such a way that, if his words were taken absolutely alone, and apart from their connection, we might be misled by them; as, for instance, when he talks about the impossibility of a rich man entering the kingdom of heaven, or the duty of giving to them that ask of us. If he had not put these truths as he did, his hearers would not have taken notice of them; but their very baldness gave them force. You never find our Lord guarding his words, for well he knew that truth needs no armour, she is herself invulnerable. She is best defended when let alone. If you are preaching on any particular doctrine, bring it all out definitely and distinctly; and other truths can be left till another time. It is better to shoot one arrow straight at the mark than to send forth a quiverful at random.
The reason why some preach such long sermons may be that they are not filled with spiritual power. Prolixity of speech can never be charged upon the Holy Ghost. Those prayers and those discourses which are fullest of divine power are never too long. There is more in one sentence of our Lord Jesus Christ than in whole pages of our poor talk; and the reason why he could afford to be so short was because he was so full of the Holy Spirit's power. If we were more fully possessed by the Spirit of God, our words would be more weighty, and probably fewer. At the same time, if the Lord leads us to speak at length, the length will never be complained of. That sermon is too long which the people feel to be wearisome; and that sermon, even if it be a very long one, is none too long if the people still desire it to be continued.
I would recommend my young brethren, as much as possible, to compress and condense. When you have obtained a quantity of good thoughts, boil them down. We live in the age of essence of meat, and everybody uses condensed milk. People do not crave expansion. You do not give your friends an ox for dinner, but a well-cooked joint: do the like at mental and spiritual banquets. Enough is as good as a feast, whether the diet be for the body or for the soul.
It may tend to brevity if we carefully exclude every syllable which ministers to display. If the finery and the fireworks are thrown overboard there will be the more room in the vessel for valuable freight. A brother who wishes to be thought highly cultured, introduces German names: let him omit them. Another wishes to be considered great in the sacred languages, and therefore perpetually quotes the Greek or the Hebrew. Mary Ann Jones is astonished, and so is Thomas Robinson in the gallery. She cannot read, and he cannot write; and, therefore, they are impressed with the conviction that the young minister is a 'wonderful high-learn't man'. 'What they must teach people up in them Colleges! It beats me how a young man can talk Greek like that!' A good old Christian woman, who sits in the free seats, says to herself, 'Greek is well enough, but I want Gospel.' Oh, for more spirituality and experience, and then we should have more learning and less talk about it! Meanwhile, a good old gentleman in the corner, who has more Greek in his little finger than the preacher has in his whole body, smiles as he notices that the quotations made by the orator are all incorrect, and his translations untenable. Brethren, know all the Greek and Hebrew you can possibly get into your brains, but do not make it the Alpha and Omega of your ministry to let people know that you have a Lexicon in your library.
Endeavour with all your might to avoid verbosity. Say as much as you can in a few words. If you can say a thing well in twenty-five words, try to say it as well in twelve; and if it be possible to cut these down to six, give your mind to it. Some things you may reduce even more than this by never saying them at all. Wordiness is the disease which comes of fluency. Good speakers have most cause to dread it. After listening to an eloquent brother the other day, I could not help repeating to myself the chorus of one of the revival hymns, 'Beautiful words! Beautiful words! Beautiful words!' There was nothing else, not a striking thought in a bushel full; but, oh, such beautiful words! It was once my painful privilege to hear a good brother, now in heaven, who was great at making much palatable soup with a mere morsel of meat. When he was preaching, or speaking, he used to say, in the space of half-an-hour, about as much as one could think of in half-a-minute. He would expand the subject so admirably that, while you listened, you thought it was very wonderful; and when he had done, you squeezed up the matter in your hand, and, lo, there was nothing! Oh, how one sighed for a solid inch of thought in lieu of acres of verbiage!
Once more, let me hint to you that it is cruel to make your hearers hope that you are about to close, and then go on again. I have suffered this wrong from brethren at the prayer-meeting. I have felt sure that the friend meant to pull up, and he has gone on again, without apology or reason. I am sure it must be dreadful when a preacher says, 'To conclude', and then 'finally', and then 'lastly', and then 'finally and lastly'. A certain divine, who is still in the body, is never very lively, but he has great gifts of holding on. When you think he has done, he issues a supplement, which is almost always headed, 'Another blessed thought'! His hearers are apt to have thoughts which are not 'blessed', and would often agree with the American who said, 'Oh, that the man would quit!' 'One word more', said a speaker, 'and I am done'. And the reporters found, when the word was written down, that it contained fifteen hundred syllables. The famous word of Aristophanes was outdone. That same speaker often says 'a single remark', and then talks for fifteen minutes.
I will not detain you further, lest I fall into the error which I condemn. I have no very assured hope of cutting any of you short; yet I do not quite despair, though I remember the words of an American humorist concerning lectures to young men. He says: 'You take a basin of water, place your finger in it for twenty-five or thirty seconds, take it out, and look at the hole that is left. The size of that hole represents about the impression that advice makes on a young man's mind.'