A few words about preaching and praying within the worship service. There has been in the past, and still is today, a notion that sermons have to be long in order to be good. A long sermon is a mark of orthodoxy. This idea is especially found in more “conservative” churches, including the URCs and particularly among the younger ministers.
A preacher who knew the ropes in his day said a few things about the length of the sermon:
Be careful that you don’t make it too long. It becomes more and more clear to me that preachers soon make the sermon too long and very seldom too short, as long as that brevity is not the result of inadequate preparation.
There are a few hearers who desire a long sermon. They are the exceptions. By far the greatest part of the congregation appreciates a short sermon. And indeed it is a lot better for the preacher to preach with brevity than it is to drag his lecture out so long. It is absolutely not necessary either to preach so long. I have done it myself too on occasion but it is foolishness.
(Rev. D. Van Dijk in Van Den Dienst Des Woords).
A colleague once said to me, “The mind can only absorb what the seat can endure.” There is a good deal of truth to that. When it comes to preaching, the adage is apropos: Stand up, speak up, shut up.
What has been said of preaching can also be said of the congregational prayer. Listen to Spurgeon:
Prayer must not be transformed into “an oblique sermon.” It is little short of blasphemy to make devotion an occasion for display. Fine prayers are generally very wicked prayers. In the presence of the Lord of hosts it ill becomes a sinner to parade the feathers and finery of tawdry speech with the view of winning applause from his fellow mortals.
George Whitfield once said of a certain preacher “and if he had stopped there, it would have been very well; but he prayed me out of it again by keeping on.” The abundant long-suffering of God has been exemplified in His sparing some preachers, who have been great sinners in this direction. They have done much injury to the piety of God’ people by their long-winded orations, and yet God, in His mercy, has permitted them still to officiate in the sanctuary. Alas! for those who have to listen to pastors who pray in public for five and twenty minutes, and then ask God to forgive their “shortcomings”! Do not be too long, for several reasons. First, because you weary yourselves and the people; and secondly, because being too long in prayer puts your people out of heart for hearing the sermon.
It is necessary in prayer to draw near unto God, but it is not required of you to prolong your speech till everyone is longing to hear the word “Amen.”
One little hint I cannot withhold. Never appear to be closing and then start off again for another five minutes. When friends make up their minds that you are about to conclude, they cannot with a jerk proceed again in a devout spirit. I have known men to tantalize us with the hope that they were drawing to a close, and then take a fresh lease two or three times; this is most unwise and unpleasant.
Then, by way of negative canon, I should say, do not let your prayer be long. You cannot pray too long in private. The more you are on your knees alone the better. We are now speaking of those public prayers which come before or after the sermon, and for these, ten minutes is a better limit than fifteen. Only one in a thousand would complain of you for being too short while scores will murmur at your being wearisome in length.
Note that Spurgeon warned against “blasphemy” in connection with prayer. And he said that “fine prayers are generally very wicked prayers.”
Dr. J.K. Popma in his work on the Catechism said, in connection with L.D. 36 (3rd Commandment), that God’s Name is misused more in church than anywhere else. Says Popma, “When I hear ‘nice’ prayer. I say to myself: Stop swearing.”
Kuyvenhoven says this in his Daylight:
God’s name may not be used for the sake of solemnity at funerals and weddings where hired clergymen baptize unholy affairs with Bible texts.
When we attend worship services and use the name of God simply because “that’s the thing to do,” we use God’s name in vain. When we conduct hymnsings where the most sacred words about God and His redemption serve no other purpose than “to show we can sing” or to “raise the roof” or “because it’s such a pretty tune,” we are using God’s name in vain. It is the “sacrifice of fools” of which we read in Ecclesiastes 5.
Yet the intent of the commandment is not to hush up the name of our God. God’s purpose is especially revealed in Jesus: Repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations.
Rev. Jelle Tuininga is an emeritus pastor in the URC living in Lethbridge, Alberta.