QUESTION: Are our churches and pastors “on the clock” with the expectation that a worship service will run no longer than one hour? What are the pressures and tensions that play into this consideration? Do we members express “felt needs” in this area that are harmful to the worship life of the church?
ANSWER: Complaints about the length of sermons and worship services are nothing new. Dr. Martin Luther himself used to give his own pastor a hard time about his often-lengthy sermons. On one Sunday, Pastor Bugenhagen (Luther’s pastor in Wittenberg), while preaching in the pulpit, accidentally tore his robe on an exposed nail. When Luther found out about it, he reportedly joked, “I always thought he was nailed in!”
Pastors often do feel “on the clock” when it comes to expectations about the length of the worship service. Sometimes, the pressure is self-inﬂicted. Many pastors understand that time is a precious commodity and they don’t want to take more time for the worship service than necessary. It’s a matter of stewardship. Farm chores, less-than-ideal work situations, or even taking care of an elderly loved one can place constraints on the amount of time a person can spend at church. So pastors do their best to accommodate the needs of their people by planning and arranging liturgy, hymns, and preaching so as to conclude the worship service on time. And, for the most part, we’re successful—though not always.
Sometimes, the pressure to limit church to one hour comes directly from the parishioners. If the Divine Service has been running consistently late for several weeks in a row, members will usually let their pastor know it—either by telling him themselves or by communicating through the officers of the congregation and the board of elders.
In those instances, there’s nothing wrong with church members expressing concerns about the length of the service. The manner in which members express that concern has a greater impact on the congregation than the concern itself. Occasionally, pastors and congregations receive ultimatums from certain members to “shorten the worship service or else…” Such demands are not helpful, nor do they reﬂect a love that bears and endures all things (1 Corinthians 13:7, NKJV). Believers in Christ, rather, will want to express their concerns—about the length of the worship service or anything else—with a spirit of gentleness and patience (Ephesians 4:2), the same spirit with which pastors and church leaders will also want to hear and address those concerns.
The Savior Himself said, “He who is of God hears God’s words” (John 8:47). When addressing the length of the worship service, believers will also want to check their underlying motives to make sure that they are not approaching the issue from the desires of the sinful ﬂesh. The prophet Amos preached God’s judgment against Israel because they couldn’t wait for the Sabbath to be over so they could get back to their buying and selling (Amos 8:5). God knows our hearts. Trying to balance our need for God’s Word with life’s other obligations is one thing. It’s a whole other matter when we ﬁnd ourselves selﬁshly staring at our watches, waiting for church to end so we can get back to doing all the things we want to do.
In the end, Christians gather for worship so that God can serve us with His life-giving Word. Whether it’s the weekly day of rest or a holiday, God has blessed us with that time so we can spend it with Him. In worship, Jesus offers us rest (Matthew 11:28-30). Rest from our endless labors in the promises of God’s grace. Rest from the burdening guilt of our sins in the forgiveness Jesus won by His death and resurrection. Rest that will ﬁnd its fulﬁllment in the eternal mansions of heaven. Remembering our rest in Christ will help keep our discussions about when we rest and how much rest we need in their proper perspective.
Rev. Piet Van Kampen
Christ the King Lutheran Church
Green Bay, WI