John Chapman, Mark Twain and the Twenty Minute Sermon

John Chapman and Mark Twain both had much and little in common.  

Both were great communicators and raconteurs with a razor-sharp wit. But Chappo loved his golf while Twain is thought to have said that golf was a good walk ruined. Chappo’s spirituality was biblical and evangelical. Twain’s was anything but.

However, when it came to preaching, they had something very much in common. They had little patience for preaching that was unnecessarily long - or even longer than twenty minutes.

Twain’s famously sarcastic quote on preaching goes something like this:

    No-one ever gets converted by a sermon that’s longer than twenty minutes.

There’s a story coming from our own stable of preachers in Sydney where four or five friends would meet monthly with Chappo to hear and review each other’s preaching. Chappo put one preacher through the ringer because the sermon was far too long for his liking. Another member of the group who had also heard the sermon ‘live’ came the preacher’s defence by chipping in with the comment, 

    But Chappo, three people came to Christ as a result of that sermon.

To which Chappo responded, 

    Yes, and think about how many more people would have come to Christ if it had been shorter.

Chappo’s twenty minute sermon mantra has become legendary, So much so that Colin Buchanan, high profile Australian Country singer, and well-known in Christian circles as a singer/songwriter and children’s entertainer, wrote a song for a large Christian conference that contained these lyrics (to the tune of ‘What a Friend We Have In Jesus’):

    Chappo used to love to tell us,
    In Sydney, there’s a dozen men,
    Who can preach past 20 minutes,
    And, brother, you ain’t one of them.

The great 18th century preacher, George Whitefield, was a little more generous than Chappo:

    To preach more than half an hour, a man should be an angel himself, or have angels for hearers.

Last month in our Diocesan Synod meetings, a lay member of the synod moved a motion asking the synod members to urge preachers to limit their sermons to twenty minutes. It was a fun motion with a serious edge. The mover marshalled all the well-known data about communication, attention spans and retention of information rates as he humorously made his case for shorter sermons.

An entirely sensible and universally agreeable (motherhood-ish without a doubt) amendment was moved to encourage further attention to preaching training, from the Bible college to the ’burbs.

Two clergy members of synod spoke stridently against the motion. I was waiting for the famous Chappo line to be trotted out to give the increasingly weighty debate a little light relief. A friend in the seat next to me dared me to do it myself and given that it was unlikely to happen, I launched myself into the discussion, just to lighten things up with the one-liner quoted above.

I made it known that as Chappo had aged and began living in a retirement village and went to the retirement village church of  mostly septuagenarians, octogenarians and nonagenarians, the twenty minutes went to fifteen. 

But it really had nothing to do with twenty, nineteen, twenty one, twenty five or fifteen minutes. It had to do with understanding your audience, listening to your listeners, discerning that less is more and that brevity, word economy and efficiency are not the enemies of good Bible teaching and spiritual development. Quite the opposite. The motion was not about time but discipline.

It even had to do with understanding the kind of communication medium a ‘sermon’ is.

With the motherhood amendment, the motion should have been passed unanimously. It was only endorsing how we can all improve something we all love to be done well. 

But, no, the chorus of ‘ayes’ and ‘nays’ couldn’t be split so it went to a show of hands and it was lost by seven votes.

Could this have meant that most of the laity and a sprinkling of clergy wanted to pass it? Did most clergy and a handful of laity vote it down? I hope not, but fear so. A vote by houses would have been very revealing. 

Are we listening to our people? Are we sure we know what is best for them without asking them, or may self-protection, pride and self-indulgence have been at work?

Are we even listening to some of our own finest preaching exponents and teachers? It’s no secret that Chappo was anxious to improve the preaching skills of Moore College graduates from as far back as the 1970’s and successive principals: Knox; Jensen and Woodhouse gave him overwhelming encouragement to do so. 

Neither has David Peterson kept silent about his concern that Australia has not been producing the quality that Britain has among graduates of our respective colleges and exponents of expository preaching. His efforts through Cornhill Sydney have been an attempt to address this concern.

I want to stress that this is not a fault of the colleges. Up-skilling preachers during and after college has been a high priority. You couldn’t have had a better team of preaching coaches than Gibbo and Chappo over the decades at Moore College.

The Lord Jesus called Chappo was called home just on four years ago. Let’s keep honouring his legacy as best we can in the exacting discipline of sermon preparation and delivery, brevity and clarity, urgency and sensitivity.

Perhaps the final word should go to the prince of modern-day preachers himself, John Stott:

    A sermon should feel like it went for twenty minutes.