Managing the Clock in Your Preaching

More than fifteen years ago, I was beginning a series of meetings in Newark, New Jersey on a holiday weekend. The church started the meetings with a long musical program which minimized the focus of the evangelistic message. When the pastor went to the pulpit to introduce me, it was 11:50 a.m. and the services were to conclude shortly after noon. I could have thought, “These people better pay attention and no one better move until I finish my masterpiece of a sermon.” The pastor then introduced me saying, “The first time I met our speaker today was in my office this morning. He comes from the Midwest. Please help me to welcome him.”

Since the people did not know me and did not know anything about our ministry, I was facing an uphill battle to gain the attention, and respect of the audience. I walked to the pulpit, thanked the pastor, and said, “It is my honor to be with you today. I just noticed on my watch that is 11:50 a.m. It is amazing how quickly time passes in a worship service. Please look at your watch with me. If you will give me the opportunity to minister to 12:20, I promise to finish by that time. In a moment, however, when I request us to stand for the reading of the Scripture, if you must go, then feel free to be dismissed.”

When the audience stood, only eight people left the service. What did I accomplish in two or three minutes with an audience who had never heard me minister before? I immediately built an emotional, trustworthy bridge to them that said, “I recognize the hour and will respect your most precious commodity: your time!
We began our evangelistic services that morning, and they became some of the best I have ever conducted in my twenty-five years of ministry. The length of the sermon is not determined by the clock, but by the crowd.

There are no doubt speakers you have heard who have gone too long, while others have gone too short. There are those times we have said, “Will this person ever end?” Other times, we have said, “This leader finished too soon. I wish I could have heard more.” What is the secret to becoming the presenter who people want to hear more instead of less?

It is important we know our surroundings and understand our audience at all times during the preaching of the sermon. This is crucial to effectiveness. A sermon is not too long because the clock says so. It is too long if the audience says so. If you are wondering if the people are following you, walk to the outskirts of the platform and watch the heads of the people. If their heads turn as you walk, they are with you. However, if the people refuse to follow you, you need to conclude the sermon as quickly as possible.

The shorter the time left in any setting, the more the people must be convinced of the importance of the presenter or the presentation. This holds true regardless if you are the presenter or the one to introduce an invited guest. It is unfortunate but true; we live in a clock-centered instead of a compass-led culture. The bigger the “why” you give the people, the longer the attention span.
Because “master time” is often dictating the thinking of people, we must reflect over it, redeem it and release it.

Reflect Over Time
Regardless of our wealth, no one has been given any extra minutes in any given day. Often, time is wasted during a worship service simply because the leader does not value time like he or she should. When every moment is given proper reflection before the event takes place, we are more apt to be successful with our desired outcomes. We are to squeeze all of the life out of each day in general and each presentation as well. If we do not respect “father time” then we will fail in the organization and preparation for each presentation of the gospel to our audience.

During your reflection, secure copies of different worship schedules. Observe how leading pastors organize the worship service.

Discover how much time they allot to the presentation of the gospel. Sometimes, just one new idea will spark fresh creativity in your mind and heart—the mind being the practices and the heart being the passion. We need both practices and passion to navigate successfully the ebbs and flows of presentation opportunities.

The deeper one thinks through the issues, the freer he or she becomes. The person who says, “The Holy Spirit will lead us” or “The Holy Spirit will fill our mouths” is often the same person who has not carved out time to reflect over the causes, choices and consequences of people who do not listen to his or her message. People are more apt to give their money than to give their time. The cause has an effect, the choice has a chain and the consequence has an eternity!

The Weekly Task Of Time
Each presenter needs to develop a sense of time needed for the average message. For example, most of my messages are between forty to forty-five minutes. Yet, there are numerous instances each year when these messages are shortened for various reasons. The overarching point is that if you do not cultivate a sense of how much time is normally needed, you will find yourself over-preparing and trimming your presentation as you present each week, even though other stage participants have been respectful of time.

A good rule of thumb is that approximately eight hours is needed to prepare about a forty-minute message. Once the presenter has come to understand the average amount of time needed each week, then he or she can effectively reflect over time, redeem time, and release time for powerful results.

Be sure to study what the Bible has to say about time. The Scripture was given long before the invention of the clock, yet the Lord has a timeline and a prophetic schedule. Our Lord operates above and beyond time, yet He also orchestrates and organizes in the world of time. Of course, we are not to become slaves to “father time,” but we need to learn to respect time if we are to truly appreciate each and every day.

Redeem The Use Of Time
We also need to redeem time “for the days are evil” (Eph. 5:16). When it comes to the presentation or the worship service, when moments are lost, time must be redeemed. Most of the time, it is the sermon that is sacrificed due to poor management at another juncture in the service. It is usually the minister who has to adjust his message, or the guest speaker who is placed in a predicament due to wasted time earlier in the service.

The overarching reason for this common outcome is that many other activities are valued more than the preaching of the Word of God. If we were to take a poll, we spend more time thinking about the announcements, the music, the offering, and less time on how to protect the sacred time of the presentation of the Gospel. The preaching of the Word is the time when God speaks to His people. Due to the Christian tradition that I was raised in, I have often heard, “The Holy Spirit really moved today and we did not even hear a sermon.” I look forward to the day I hear, “The Holy Spirit really moved today and we did not even have singing, announcements, and offering; we just preached the Word!”

We need to redeem time in general and the “preached Word” in particular. If people are going to be turned back to God’s Word, then we must reevaluate its placement, priority, and purpose. All of us have been in worship services when someone chose to sing too long, share announcements without time consideration, or other surprises that we were not counting on that day. So, how do we redeem the time?

Process in Place
First, as leaders we should have a process in place with our team so these are not common occurrences. If the process is bad, the product will be bad. There is a process of success in every stream of society. We should incorporate the necessary checks and balances during the week so maximum results are obtained each weekend. Many pastoral teams meet each week to assess the previous weekend so they can eliminate past mistakes and continue to incorporate those elements of effectiveness into future worship services.

Plan to Practice
Second, as preachers or presenters of God’s Word, we need to know our message so well that we can adjust the sails so we are successful with our sermon. I do not memorize my sermon, but I mentally organize my sermon. This organization brings great freedom to me when I am not given ample time.

Many years ago, while preaching in Memphis, Tennessee, the pastor leaned over to whisper when a person chose to spend more time talking about her special song than actually singing it. He said, “Do you know what Psalm 151 says?”
“No, I don’t know what Psalm 151 says,” I whispered back.
“It says, ‘Blessed is he that preaches but does not sing, and blessed is he who sings but does not preach.'”
The point was and is, each of the stage participants has a role. They need to understand what the roles are and what the goals are for the service.

When I find myself in a situation where time has not been respected and the preacher’s task has not been redeemed, I begin thinking through the most sacred elements of the message. Immediately, my mind moves from the good highlights to be spoken, to the best thoughts to be shared in that setting. For example, normally I have at least one illustration for each main division of the message. I begin assessing which illustration could be eliminated without closing the windows to the soul. Illustrations are there to illustrate. They are the windows of a beautiful home. They let the light into the mind and heart.

Once I have mentally eliminated one illustration or story, then my mind goes to the introduction. I think of the shortest yet most creative way to introduce the message so people will get into the message as fast as possible. The reason for this is because the audience at this moment is thinking about the “tiredness of time” and wondering how late the worship service is going to go. By my getting them quickly into the message, their imagination is captured sooner, and they are more likely to go with me to the end. If we ignore this at the beginning, most people will mentally check out before we ever have time to engage their senses.

Once I have thought through the illustrations and introduction, if I still believe more time is needed to be redeemed, then I will choose not to lead in oral prayer before my message begins. One of our public traditions is to pray after the Scripture is read, followed by preaching the message. However, if time is extremely short, I will pray quietly in my heart before going to the pulpit, offering the message to my Lord.

I am sure that you can think of creative and dynamic ways to redeem the time when needed. With experience comes a variety of mental methods to recapture lost time so we can be effective. One of the greatest expositors of the twentieth century, Dr. Stephen F. Olford, had a biblical process that he applied for many decades. Before he would preach, he would repent, reflect, and recommit his life. The point being made here is that each of us needs to have a pattern or a path so we can carve as much “think time” out of our lives as possible, to reach our personal and professional potential.

Release Of Time
We also release time. What do I mean by this? We can either choose to use time or lose time. We cannot take time, borrow time, or give time. We can either embrace it or be embarrassed by it.
A long-term pastor has a huge advantage that a guest presenter very seldom has. The deeper the emotional equity or higher the trust factor, the greater flexibility he or she has before the hearers. In other words, most people have a higher level of forgiveness or tolerance with those who successfully preach the Word for many years. The greater the respect, the more release of time. When we consistently respect the time of our listeners, then they will release us when the service goes longer than normal.

When a pastor has a guest presenter, he or she should give the guest as much time as possible. Yet, if for some reason time is not redeemed, the pastor must instruct the congregation as to the importance of carefully listening to the guest presenter. It is at that precise moment that a powerful introduction must be given to arouse the audience to focus on the presenter who is about to bring a message. These few moments will redeem more time in the minds of the listeners and will release the presenter on a higher level of respect. The pastor who ignores this makes it doubly hard for the guest to gain proper attention.

Having said this, however, if you are the guest, all hope is not gone. If time has not been redeemed prior to beginning your presentation, determine your message length based upon the normal dismissal time. Then, simply walk to the lectern, acknowledge the time, apologize for the lateness of the hour, and quickly redeem the time. Once you have convinced your audience that you know the time and that you will shorten your message, people will relax, and time will be released in your favor. To ignore this in a clock-centered culture will cause one to hit a foul ball instead of a single or a home run.

Dr. Ademola Ishola serves at the General Secretary of the Nigeria Baptist Convention in Lagos, Nigeria. As I write today, more than ten thousand Nigerian Baptist churches are flourishing. Dr. Ishola and I serve together in the Billion Soul Network to challenge the global Church to double in size in this generation. In September 2007, I flew more than 15,000 miles to Nigeria and was driven to Bowen Seminary in Ibadan, Nigeria, for a twenty-minute presentation. Upon my arrival, I watched Dr. Ishola begin making time in the schedule so I could have as much time as possible to present the Billion Soul vision to his pastors and distinguished leaders. I arrived late in the afternoon, but his introduction awakened the audience. I noticed that they were listening with deep attention.

When I came to the platform to speak to the audience, I could sense energy among the listeners. They were ready to listen. In just a matter of moments, Dr. Ishola had awakened the audience and set the stage for me to deliver a powerful twenty-minute presentation to motivate key leaders to synergize their efforts for the fulfillment of the Great Commission. Due to the high respect that the leaders had for Dr. Ishola, he was able to release enough time for me to share in the middle of the afternoon.

In spring of 2009, I traveled as a guest to several denominational ministers’ conferences to motivate pastors to go out and help redeem the world. At one, the district superintendent brought a video presentation on church planting. The video presentation was cheaply done, lacked excellence, and was far too long, running nearly fifteen minutes. A video is considered too long at eight minutes, about right at four minutes. It was already late in the evening, so about three minutes into the video, I could see that most of the audience had mentally checked out. Upon the video’s end, the leader proceeded to continue speaking of the need for church planting and challenged the people to give a generous offering toward the effort. I do not know what the offering was, but I am certain it was not a record amount!

In this instance, it would have far better to make this presentation much shorter in order to gain the attention of the audience. When a presenter does not know his or her audience and does not have a sense of timing, he or she will cause a misconnect with his audience. We need to remember that the length of a presentation is not determined by the clock but by the crowd.

James Davis

Cutting Edge International
Dr. James O. Davis is founder of Cutting Edge International and co-founder of Billion Soul Network, a growing coalition of more than 1,000 Christian ministries and denominations encompassing more than 400,000 churches. Working together, this coalition is building the premier community of pastors worldwide in order to facilitate a global thrust to plant five million new churches and lead one billion people to Christ. Davis has written numerous books, published hundreds of sermons and prepared many life-changing training series for the Church worldwide. Learn more about Dr. Davis at JamesODavis.org.

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