I believe there are unique dangers in the social media age we live in; dangers that young men and women keen on full-time Christian ministry face in particular.
Before I head into the warnings, just a bit of background, so you know this isn’t just a baseless rant from a middle-aged pastor who’s out of touch.
In my role as a pastor and church planter, and a leader in the RICE youth movement, I am constantly in touch with young adults. Some of these are young men I am personally mentoring and walking with towards full-time ministry.
One more thing: I myself headed towards full-time ministry as a young man (I was 23 when I started Moore College; 21 when I started MTS). And while what I have to write below in terms of warnings for young men are equally applicable to the 20-year old me (from the late 90s), I believe there are unique challenges and temptations in the ever-changing world that our young men and women find themselves today.
Almost all of them have to do with the social media phenomenon of Facebook, Twitter, WordPress and so on.
1. Greater opportunity to indulge in narcissism
Yes it’s an over-used word nowadays – ‘narcissism’, but I can’t think of another word for now. We are all, in our sinful natures, narcissists to a certain extent. However, with social media, it’s much easier to feed that aspect of our old selves.
While your friends post up endless selfies, the keen young person wanting to head into ministry is tempted to self-obsess in other ways.
You have a blog? How important is it to you to track how many people read it? You have a social media profile? How important is it that you present the perfect image, have that perfect DP – you know, the one that balances your fun-loving casual youthful self with your desire to be taken seriously as that up-and-coming theologian or pastor?
When the Apostle Paul tells Timothy to ‘flee the evil desires of youth’ (2 Tim. 2:22), I wonder if what fleeing our narcissistic selves might actually look like in this day and age?
2. Over-inflated sense of influence and importance
People reading and liking your posts, subscribing to and sharing your blog posts can create an illusion that you are more influential than you actually are. Before this brave new world of social media, if a young person wanted to influence others, the most he or she could hope for is an itinerant speaking gig somewhere. Not now. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, could be liking and sharing your posts, giving you the illusion that you have a group of others (mostly peers or teenagers) who are hanging on your every word.
It’s easy in this situation to get a big head. Your writing started off being less assertive because you’re not as sure about yourself and what you’re writing. But as you pick up more followers, likes, and shares, you soon gain more confidence, make more certain pronouncements about life, the Bible, and ministry. You start getting into endless arguments on your page or others’ defending your point of view. And why? Because deep down you’re beginning to think you’re more important and influential than you are.
3. The Shallowness of “wiki-theology”
Now more than ever, keen young leaders have open access to theology and sermons online. That’s mostly a wonderful thing. But we must remember that wiki-theology tends to be shallow; like getting your news from your Twitter-feed.
It grieves me that some young men wanting to head into full-time ministry talk about formal theological study as some sort of outdated hindrance to actually getting your hands dirty in ministry. I wonder if a lot of that is due to the prevalence of “wiki-theology”.
Don’t be fooled in thinking that reading lots and lots of stuff online is a substitute for serious theological study. That’s why I’m encouraged by Joshua Harris’ recent decision to do just that – to take some time off and study theology formally.
4. Devaluing the local church
The world-wide-web-“church” (if we can even call it that) seems far more exciting than the local church. Your ideas of church growth, church planting, church ministry, theological discussion and education comes more and more from ‘out there’ than from your local church (or local denomination or training college). It’s easy to develop an insatiable appetite for that which is ‘bigger’ and ‘better’ somewhere else in the world. And so you begin to slowly (and sometimes unconsciously) devalue the small, struggling, one-pastor congregation you’re part of. You begin to see churches and pastors simply as those who will aid you or hinder you in your personal growth as a young man or woman heading into full-time ministry.
5. Devaluing personal mentors
Related to the above, it’s easy to think that podcasting Tim Keller, reading R.C. Sproul, and following David Platt is enough to guide you into becoming the Christian leader you want to be. And so you devalue the vital mentoring and training that can only happen when a local older man or woman in full-time ministry walks with you over the course of years, in the context of a local church.
The last thing I want to do in this post is to discourage young men and women from heading into full-time ministry. I love that one of my roles is to walk with some of the best and most gifted young men I’ve ever met in this crucial stage of their lives.
Neither am I without guilt when it comes to some of the very things I’ve identified. I’m tempted – even as I blog – to indulge in narcissism, and develop an over-inflated sense of my importance and influence.
I write this because I believe it is a different world for keen young leaders than the one I grew up in. You’re immersed in this online social media-saturated world in a way I wasn’t. And so it’s more likely that you’re less aware of its dangers and deceptions. Call me old and old fashioned, but I’m hoping that a word of caution from someone in your world but a standing a little outside of it, will be helpful for you.
Signing off so I can go meet with the saints at my local church.
Okay I know. This is a somewhat controversial blog post title.
Yes, if you’re wondering, my sermons are over 30 mins. They average 45 mins. And perhaps some readers out there are of the opinion that no sermons should exceed that length.
I’m not going to argue that point or assume that all of my listeners like the length of my sermons. However, I do think there are good reasons for rookie preachers to adhere to the 30 min rule a little more than a lot of them do.
Firstly, why 30 mins? Well in my honest opinion, the ideal range is between 20 and 25 mins. In a normal Sunday gathering, anything less than 20 mins is on the ‘too short’ side. But anything more than 25 mins is on the ‘too long’ side. Therefore 30 mins is the absolute upper limit.
Now of course there are no hard-and-fast rules. And that’s why I do believe that there are exceptions. But I want to argue that for the rookie preacher, there better be a very very very good excuse why that 30 min upper limit should be exceeded.
Before I go into the reasons why, you should know that I passionately believe in training preachers. I’m constantly listening to sermons by rookie preachers and giving them feedback. My main congregation, ACTS 11, also believes in training lay preachers. Aside from our ministry interns and student ministers, I currently have four lay men who preach regularly to my congregation, all of whom have only been trained to do it in the last year. I love training preachers, and I greatly value the men who are willing to take up the challenge to learn to preach, especially when they are also busy husbands, fathers, workers, and lay leaders.
So as an ardent supporter of preaching and rookie preachers, let me now put my cards out on the table. Please rookie preacher, keep your sermons between 20-25 mins. And please, whatever you do, don’t exceed 30 mins.
Here are my reasons:
1. Practise packaging
One of the most important skills in sermon preparation is the packaging. Rookie preachers need to learn how to spend as much time on the packaging as they do on the text. Without good packaging, even a 10 min sermonette can be extremely painful and confusing to listen to.
One of the best ways to push yourself to hone the skill of packaging is to ‘leave more on the cutting room floor’. Rookie preachers don’t yet have an intuitive grasp of what, among the mountains of material they have, ought to be left out of a sermon. They almost always leave too much in rather than cut too much out.
Keeping to an upper time limit is a disciplined way of honing your skill of cutting and packaging so that only the very best stuff stays in. After you do that for a few years, it becomes a little more intuitive. In other words, keeping it short as a rookie is a good discipline to train you for a lifetime of preaching.
2. You don’t know as much as you think
Rookie preachers are either not theologically-trained lay preachers (or youth leaders etc.), or recently theologically-trained new pastors.
If you’re not theologically-trained, then understandably you’re going to lack a certain depth with the exegesis and handling of the text.
If you’re newly theologically-trained, then you’ll probably be brimming with biblical knowledge but lack a lot of knowledge of the people you’re speaking to. This is why most rookie pastors struggle with meaningful and deep applications.
Either way, you don’t know as much as you think you know. Therefore to preach long sermons will tend to take your sermon into the land of the ‘hobby-horse’. When we’re drawing on a limited pool of knowledge (whether exegetical or practical), we tend to default into speaking about the things that we feel most familiar with and passionate about. Now that’s all fine and good for us, but it may have nothing to do with the text or with the people you’re preaching to! That’s called a ‘hobby-horse’.
3. You’re not as interesting as you think
I always remember fondly the time when one of my Bible college preaching tutors, in answer to the question: ‘How long should a sermon be?’, replied: ‘It should feel like 20 minutes.’ Great answer! It gets to the truth of the issue since sermon length has a lot to do with the giftedness of the preacher. There are some preachers who can hold your attention for 90 mins and make it feel like 20. And at the end of their sermon, you wished they talked more. Therefore it is unrealistic and unreasonable to expect that all sermons should be of a certain length.
…Unless of course you’re a rookie preacher.
We always like to think of ourselves as more gifted and interesting than we are. This is especially so when our models are extra-gifted speakers who can preach for 90 mins and make it feel like 20. Part of learning to preach is to figure out what kind of a preacher you are and be happy with how God’s made you. The vast majority of preachers are 20-25 min preachers. So as a rookie, rather than assume you’re one of that special lot who can speak for longer than 30 mins, it makes better sense to assume the opposite. Assume you’re average. Keep your sermon in that range . And if, down the track, people keep asking you to speak for longer, then maybe it’s a hint that you should speak for longer.
My point is simply: it’s unwise for the rookie to assume it.
In all honesty, of all the rookie sermons I’ve listened to, I can’t think of one instance where I wished the preacher had spoken for longer. Don’t get me wrong, some of these are brilliant and delivered by extremely gifted rookie preachers. And sometimes my feedback has been for some areas (usually application) to be developed further. But even when I’ve wished certain parts of the sermon had been more detailed or longer, it’s always been in the place of another part of the sermon rather than in addition to. I don’t want the sermon to be longer. I just want it repackaged.
Okay, these are just three reasons. I’m sure there are more. Feel free to suggest more or push back on the points I’ve made.
But in closing, I know there’s one niggling question at the back of your minds: ‘when does a person stop being a rookie preacher?’
Great question. I don’t really have an answer to that. Perhaps Chappo would say ‘after the first 50 (hardest) years’. But you know I don’t believe that, or else I’d be a total hypocrite since my sermons are over 30 mins.
Maybe there’s no ‘line in the sand’ answer. Maybe it’s one of those tacit things that you and your congregation just know. Or maybe it’s when you’ve clocked up 200 sermons (roughly 5 years of preaching if you preach weekly, with a few breaks). I have no idea. But whatever it is, if you are a rookie and you and your hearers know it, please, I beg you: keep it under 30 mins!