Torch Article: Reverendly Yours - Rev. Tom Goldsmith

01 November 2018

At the 188th Semiannual General Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, it was announced throughout the world that Sunday worship would be reduced by an hour starting the first Sunday of next year. Everyone rejoiced, apparently the bishops more than anyone else. They were feeling the “burden” of planning and executing a service each week for the three-hour block of time, which has been the tradition since 1980.

I am delighted for bishops and parishioners alike, but feel a need to understand just what the perfect length for a service really is, in any house of worship. Never in my experience has anyone told me they wished the sermon or service were longer. If anything, the yearning was always for a quicker version, to expedite spiritual matters so as to still salvage the day. I remember when the Roman Catholic Church introduced Saturday afternoon services for the express purpose of allowing churchgoers the luxury of a full Sunday without ecclesiastical commitments. 

I have been pretty time conscious throughout my ministry, mostly due to learning the ropes in a small New England church where duty eclipsed polite etiquette. I received my comeuppance while preaching in my mid-twenties. A good number of parishioners just left the sanctuary while I was still in mid-sentence. I didn’t think I had offended anyone. I learned later that a good number of families had their Sunday roast in the oven, and even Jesus himself could not have kept them in church rather than attend to their dinner before it got too dry. The roast was timed for a one-hour worship service, and if the sermon went long the congregation would disappear before your eyes. 

But how long should a service be? Everyone is terribly busy and has a laundry list of things to do once the closing hymn is finally sung. Should worship last maybe half an hour? Or 40 minutes? No one has ever expressed the need to get their money’s worth, where an extended service would be welcome. Worship services are a mixed bag; people attend for a variety of reasons. Seldom is it to hear a sermon, much to the chagrin of the minister. 

My homiletics professor offered the sage advice that a congregation might give you five minutes to connect to your sermon before they mentally “pick up and go visit elsewhere.” So I began my sermons early on in my career with thunder and lightening, not quite sure of where to take the sermon next. If you start with the climax, there’s really nowhere else to go. I had to modulate the tempo somewhat, always fearful that my five minutes allowing for engagement would rapidly disappear. 

Asking how long should an ideal worship service last, seems like asking how long should a walk in the woods be. We all have different agendas for our walks, take different strides, and have different appreciations for the vegetation and geography. Some prefer a brisk twenty-minute hike; others like to saunter for an hour or two…or three. It all depends on the spirit and what exactly is being sought.

Last week I asked Mary if she wanted to join for me a hike. It was a beautiful autumn day and I was sure she would love the idea. Her response, however, didn’t really surprise me. “A short one,” she said.” I have a roast in the oven.” TRG