There is perhaps not a religious subject that is at once completely carnal, and at the same time prompts more conflicting and passionate points of view. How long should the worship service last?
Short sermons, concert-like productions, and overall brevity are the order of the day. We want our worship with ‘heat-and-serve’ instructions. As Frank Chesser notes, “the hurry-up-and-get-it-over-with philosophy has found a home in the church.” But why?
The old saying “if a man can’t find oil in 20 minutes, he is drilling with a dull bit” is funny, but does it really apply to spiritual matters? If we are intent on drinking sumptuously from the living water that Jesus promised, what place would time ever play? Seriously, can you get too much “living water,” consume too much “bread of life”? I understand the corporate assembly is not the only place where spiritual nourishment takes place – it ought not even be the primary place. But in truth, for a not-insignificant number of folks, the Sunday service is where they get the bulk of their spiritual feeding.
Serious-minded people whom I respect attempt to justify our lack of interest in spiritual matters as a human failing – man’s attention span is simply not up to a 45 minute sermon, a 50 minute Bible class, or a 90 minute worship service. This is usually applied to small children or elderly adults, and it’s insane. The truth is, a person’s capability to concentrate depends upon their sense of priority. I have yet to meet the person who cuts off his favorite television show or sporting event because it goes “overtime.” If anything, we are thrilled at the prospect of being entertained for longer periods, and the concentration deepens. How sad that it does not deepen when the worship service includes an additional inspiring song or two, a well-worded and sincere prayer, thoughtfully prepared and presented words to remind us of the Savior’s suffering, or a well-delivered exposition from God’s saving gospel. And all because we’re huddled at the starting line awaiting the gun that starts the NASCAR race to the local restaurant for lunch, or Aunt Mary’s for the after-service potluck.
P.T. Forsyth, in Positive Preaching and the Modern Mind, writes, “I should like to say here that in my humble judgment the demand for short sermons on the part of Christian people is one of the most fatal influences at work to destroy preaching in the true sense of the word. How can a man preach if he feels throughout that the people set a watch upon his lips? Brevity may be the soul of wit, but the preacher is not a wit. And those who say they want a little sermon because they are there to worship God and not hear man, have not grasped the rudiments of the first idea of Christian worship.”
Of course, the sermon is not the only factor. A worship service is an opportunity to feast on spiritual events. What does it say about the focus of our intentions when we hold the hymn book with one hand while checking our watch (sorry),… our phone, with the other? Is this something we think pleases God? Is it possible that at judgment God will exercise wrath against us because our worship services are too long? Do we honestly believe it is possible to serve God too much? To worship too much?
If the worship service – any part of it – is uninteresting and seems a chore to us, what will we think of doing the same kind of thing for an eternity in heaven? The fact of the matter is that the three or four pitiful hours a week we devote to public assemblies and worship is a tradition-bound exercise that we have allowed to become the defining element of our spiritual service to God. This is exactly the same problem the people of Israel were condemned for – a lack of “life devotion” to God. Keeping the hinges on the church house door hot and dropping a sizeable check in the collection plate every Sunday is not what spiritual service is about.
Now, having said that, I don’t believe it is necessary for us to worship for hours and hours either. Although there’d certainly be nothing wrong with that. Rather, we need to strive to worship until we’re through worshipping – however long that takes. Our focus should be primarily on glorifying God, with the collateral benefit of group edification – not where we’re going for lunch.
This point has been brought home to me in an extraordinary way in my own personal experience. I have been humbled by many examples of godly and righteous people, who put me to shame for senseless and carnal thinking about matters like this. The most telling has been my observation about my brethren in Africa, who I have been blessed to meet, get to know, and work with over the past several years. These men and women will walk for miles, sit for hours on rickety wooden benches in thatched huts in oppressive heat – just to hear the treasures of God’s word. How tragic when our interest in spiritual things can be exhausted in the course of a 30 minute sermon.
May grace reign through righteousness in your life.
– Bo Couchman