Leading Article: Feeding the faithful on spiritual soundbites

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The Independent Online
THE NEWS that the clergy are reducing the length of their sermons may be seen at first as striking testimony to the effectiveness of intercessory prayer. 'How long? Oh Lord, how long?' has been the traditional response of a congregation to anything that continues for more than about 10 minutes. Now at last it seems that the Lord has heard them and replied, 'On average, eight minutes'. That may still be far too long for a preacher who has nothing to say, as is the case with many bishops, but the more worrying question is whether it is still too long for the audience.

There is no hard evidence of a long-term trend, but everything we know suggests that sermons have grown steadily shorter this century. The tremendous sermons of P G Wodehouse's Great Sermon Handicap were preached at a time when the job of the vicar was to preach and the job of his congregation was to listen. Considerations of efficiency did not come into it. The Church Commissioners had not been thought of. The vicar had the leisure to preach, and his parishioners, perhaps for the only time in the week, the leisure to listen. Nor were there many counter-attractions on a Sunday morning in the country. In towns, where people had more choice, they may have flocked to hear sermons less often and to fewer preachers than the church would like to believe. And how many actually listened is another matter.

Clearly, however, impatience is growing. There are two possible reasons, apart from the acceleration of life in general. The audience may find what is preached untrue or they may find it uninteresting. For most people, both apply.

But since the number of regular church-goers is increasing, albeit from a very low base, there is a puzzle here. Traditionally, any revival of religious belief, such as we appear to be seeing, has been accompanied by a revival of preaching, not by a reduction of sermons to the length of a couple of thoughts for the day. Could it be that shorter sermons are actually attracting people?

An alternative answer may be the popularity of cassettes. Preachers and teachers still have large audiences but, instead of gathering in one place at one time, the faithful listen individually in their cars. Today, if you wish your voice to reach thousands, speak not to a crowd but to a microphone.