I have been thinking lately about the difference between “speaking to time” and “speaking to content.” The difference between the two may not seem that large to you but I would put it to you that it is immense . . . if not more.
To give you some background, I first began “real” public speaking as a debater when I was 13 or 14 years old, and I’ve been doing it in one capacity or another ever since. Back then I had an English teacher who saw great potential value in everyone debating and our Junior High School had a reputation for producing good debaters. I only debated competitively for one season but it did several things for me, some good and some bad. The bad outcome is it gave me an unhealthy sense of the relative nature of truth as it appears in a formal debate. When you are required to prepare to vigourously defend both sides of significant issues it is all too easy for the young to think that that means that there really isn’t any truth . . . it’s just a matter of who has the more compelling argument. However, that is a topic for another time.
The good things far outweigh the bad. One of the most interesting things it gave me was an ability to speak to time. Now that is an ability that needs to be consistently exercised to stay sharp but once you have it you never really lose it. Back in the day when I was travelling for Canadian Bible College and Canadian Theological Seminary as a recruiter I was at a church where I was regaled with all the reasons that they wouldn’t let their denominational schools speak in their main worship services. All the reasons boiled down to one and a half things. The one was that every time they had had a schools representative speak s/he had gone over the time allotted . . . by a lot. The half was that they were boring and irrelevant. I told the pastor in charge that all he had to do was to tell me how much time I had and I would stick to it. He seemed somewhat skeptical but as he was relatively new he was willing to chance it. He told me I had five minutes in the main, big-time, worship service. I got up, spoke, had the congregation laughing, then emotionally touched, then thinking . . . when I sat down I had taken 4:58. I just looked at him and said, “told you.”
So what is the point of that last story, other than to let me do some bragging? It is to bring home the point that I tend to speak to time. Did I mention that at the church, there wasn’t a clock in view? I used a stopwatch, which I did not look at, to time myself. I was doing a lot of speaking then and all I needed to know was how long I had and what kind of audience I was speaking to and I’d take it from there. Young, old, mixed; two minutes, five minutes, an hour; it didn’t matter, I’d be within a minute of the time I had and I was always shorter rather than longer. This is all good isn’t it? Well yes and no.
When it comes to preaching which is more important, time or content? Of the two, which is privileged over the other? They are really trick questions because there shouldn’t be a definitive answer other than “both” which comes across as a copout. How can you say that your content is sufficiently excellent and virtually God breathed week in and week out so that you don’t have to pay attention to how long you preach? How can you say that the clock can possibly determine when you are finished opening the Word of God to His people? If I have to choose one over the other I simply won’t . . . or will I?
It has come to my attention over the past few weeks that I have been too concerned about what time it is, how long I have preached, rather than “Am I done?” ”Have I covered the topic properly?” “Have I said what I think I need to say?” This is a problem for me. I suspect it is a problem for anyone who is in front of a congregation regularly or irregularly; but what is the solution?
I preach to two congregations every Sunday. Two wonderful congregations. The first service is at 9:15 and the second is at 11:00. They are geographically separated by a 25 to 30 minute drive. How can I simply ignore the time? I have mentioned before and in many different contexts how blessed I am by the people to whom I preach. They are engaged, they attend church on purpose and for a reason. The majority of the congregants are mature in their faith and highly experienced in the rituals and “mechanics” of church. They are trustworthy and respected church people. So why don’t I trust them with the double edged sword of the clock and the content?
I am highly unlikely to simply prepare X minutes of talking as they would see through that for the fraud it is in very short order. I think carefully about what I going to say whether it is written out or spoken ex tempore or some combination of both. So why am I so willing to continue talking when I have said everything that I have to say simply because of the time? Why has it become so difficult for me to simply stop on those Sundays when I am done at the 12 to 15 minute mark? I seem to feel that I am in the cleft stick of respecting the first congregation’s length of service while respecting the second congregation’s expectation of starting on time and giving the first congregation the quantity of content they desire. Once I have preached for X minutes at the first congregation it is very difficult to preach considerably less or more at the second congregation lest, when reviewing both sermons on the blog, one or the other or Heaven forefend, both(!) feel hard done by.
I wish I had an answer to this. I’d even settle for a facile or glib answer but I don’t have one so I’m throwing it out to the blogosphere for any input that anyone might care to provide. I can hear the shaking heads already and the rhetorical “who does he think he is?” questions . . . at least I hope they are rhetorical. I know that I am doing extremely well in this situation and maybe all I need to is stop whining.