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Dave Browning

The Case for the Hour-Long Church Service

By Dave Browning

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The one-hour service is "where the rubber meets the road" in our commitment to reach the lost.

Conducting a one-hour service is not easy (like most things worth doing). It will require psychological and practical daring.

Ephesians 5:16 reminds us to "redeem the time" because the days are evil. In a public worship service, we are tempted to think that our primary medium is words; it’s not. Our medium is time.

While there is no God-ordained length for a time of public worship, there is a sensitivity dictated by 1 Corinthians 9:21: "To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some."  In our "microwave" culture, events that go longer than an hour – like school commencement ceremonies – are increasingly frowned upon.

For some Christian leaders, an hour-long service can be viewed as too short, if not restrictive. For the people we are trying to reach, however, an hour may seem long, if not excessive. After all, look at what happens in modern culture in an hour or less:

  • Doctor's visits
  • Business meetings
  • Class periods
  • Television shows

An ancient proverb states, "The mind can absorb only what the seat can endure."  For many unchurched people, the church stands for every commandment except this law of common sense.  Childhood memories of boredom flood back to them with just the mention of the word "church."  The one-hour service is "where the rubber meets the road" in our commitment to reach the lost.  If your church will consistently deliver on the promise of a one-hour service, you will equip your "bringers and includers" with an important counter to one of Satan’s greatest allies: busyness.

Imagine for a moment that you are not a Christian.  You have been invited to church, but you don’t know if you want to go or not. You begin putting up objections: "I don’t have anything to wear...I think my kids have a soccer game on Sunday..." Your friend insists that you can come as you are and that the services only last one hour. So you walk through the door on a Sunday morning a few minutes late, but the service is already underway. Though you do not know any of the songs, the musical portion of the service is well-paced. The teaching begins without delay and is relevant, Bible-based and interesting.  Before you know it, the teaching is brought to a conclusion, as is the service. You walk out pleasantly surprised, ready for a second dose. Later, when your friends or family ask you about your experience, you cite your surprise that you were "out of there in less than an hour." 

A mantra for intentional leaders is, "Start on time, end on time, do the right things in between." This is a challenge at every level of convention, from the small group to the worship service, but the local pastor has a disproportionately important role in modeling this behavior publicly. If the Sunday service proceeds without time-boundaries, it sets a tone for the entire ministry that says, "Time is not of the essence." If a service that is supposed to start at 10:00 AM routinely starts at 10:10, what time do you think a 1:00 PM staff meeting or 7:00 PM small group will begin? The cumulative effect of Sunday’s sluggishness is hundreds of wasted hours in your ministries each week.

Conducting a one-hour service is not easy (like most things worth doing). It will require psychological and practical daring. The pastor may need to send out a note to everyone involved in the worship service that "we are going to make starting and ending on time a point of emphasis, beginning this Sunday." He may need to apologize publicly for services running overtime. He may need to trim his teaching notes from eight pages to five. He may need to specify a time-frame to the worship team. Five minutes prior to the service, he may need to say to the worship team leader, "I’d like to get started in a couple minutes."  Three minutes prior to the service, he may need to ask, "Ready to go?" He may need to bring conclusion to a delinquent pre-service prayer time. He may need to put a clock in the worship center, so that everyone is on the same page. He may need to "cut in" on the worship team when they go long. He may have to forego one of his points in order to finish on time. He may need to say "No" to certain public announcements that people want to make. He may need to have lights in the auditorium that signal transitions in the service. He may need to have an uncomfortable conversation with a worship leader about the length of prayers. He may need to keep a "score card" of the number of weeks each month where services ended within the hour time-frame. In any case, the power to act is never released until the decision is made. 

What does a one-hour service look like? A 10:00 AM worship service may flow like this:

9:45
Pre-service Prayer
This needs to begin well in advance, so as to not “bleed” into the start of the service.
9:57
Opening Song
10:00
Welcome & Opening Prayer
This should be direct and brief.
10:01
Worship Music

Program either a four-song set with longer anthems or a five-song set with smaller choruses. It will be important to limit conversation between songs.

10:20
Pastoral Prayer
The 20-minute mark is an important one to hit in order to assure a one-hour service.
10:21
Greeting
If you take a "fellowship break" during the service, allow more time here.
10:22
Teaching

Teachers should shoot for a 25-minute message with a very brief introduction, i.e. "It’s good to be with you ..." etc.

10:50
Closing Prayer

The 50-minute mark is an important one to hit in order to assure a one-hour service.

10:51
Q&A & Announcements

There should only be one or two priority announcements.  Other items may be listed in the program.

10:55
Closing Song & Offering
Consider asking people to stand after collection has passed them
10:59
Closing Prayer
Use one sentence and resume music immediately following.

Activity expands to fill the available time. If your services routinely run longer than an hour, there are probably good things happening to fill that time. But the secret of concentration is elimination. Something(s) will have to go. To bring a service within a one-hour boundary, you must deal with both service-related and teaching-related time-stealers. 

 

Service-Related Culprits

 

In 1 Corinthians 14, Paul does not hesitate to address service-related practices that are getting in the way of effective ministry. Here are some service-related culprits and what you can do to get back the time they steal. 

  1. Late start.  When the service gets started five minutes late, you can pretty much count on the service going overtime at least by that amount. If you go from starting a service several minutes late to starting a service a few minutes early, you can achieve a swing of five to ten minutes easily. It may be necessary to commission someone from the worship team as the timekeeper to ensure that the service is started two to three minutes early. 
  2. Announcements.  Either don’t give them from the pulpit, or be very deliberate about limiting them. Train people to read the program. You may be surprised that when you cut out announcements, you find another five to ten minutes in your service. If there is a lot to announce, put it in writing so that people can read and reference it. If you allow someone else to give an announcement, understate the amount of time they have to do so. Experience shows that a novice speaker will take five minutes to speak when you tell them they have one—and if you tell them three minutes, they’ll take ten. Remember also that it takes time to "announce the announcer" and then follow up with your own comments when they’re done.
  3. Long sets.  On average, each worship song takes four to five minutes to sing. This means that a five-song set will take 20-25 minutes. Many newer worship anthems take longer than older choruses, so a five-song set, including the opening song, is a safe standard to use. The pastor should be prepared to enter the pulpit at the 20-22 minute mark if the set goes long. If the pastor will do this consistently, the worship team will have all the incentive it needs to start two to three minutes early. In this way, you can reclaim five to ten minutes. 
  4. Long prayers. This is a delicate one to address, but the Bible actually beats me to it. Long, public prayers were a point of caution for Jesus.  Shorter prayers can save you one to two minutes.
  5. Too many transitions. Valuable time is "wasted" in a service with every transition between elements. Organize your program flow with three transitions (say, between worship / prayer / teaching / worship) rather than nine (between welcome / worship / prayer / worship / prayer / announcement / teaching / announcement / worship / prayer).

 

Teaching-Related Culprits

 

  1. Long introductions.  Many teachers actually have a 25-minute message with a 10-minute introduction. Drop the introduction and get into the topic quicker. "Get into it, get through it, and get out of it." Instead of beginning, "I was driving by the school the other day, and that got me thinking about how it’s been a while since I have spoken on the topic of children...", say "Today, we’re talking about children." Trimming your introduction this way can save you five to ten minutes.
  2. Repetition. Old deductive theory was "State, illustrate, restate." New inductive theory is "Illustrate, state." Don’t use a battleship of words to get across a row-boat thought. Trimming repetition can cut five minutes out of a message.
  3. Too much content. The best sermons only have one "big idea." If your message has more than one, consider breaking the message out into a series. Better to preach three leisurely 20-minute messages than to try to squeeze an hour of material into 40 minutes. Streamlining content this way can save you 10 to 15 minutes.
  4. Too many points. Beware of the temptation of laundry-list teaching:  "10 ways you can..."  Long lists take extraordinary time to get through, if for no other reason than you have to manage your location in the list ("The sixth reason is"..."That brings me to the eighth reason..."). Structuring the teaching to limit "time spent maintaining the structure" can save you two to three minutes.
  5. Talking too slow. People can hear at a much faster rate than most talk.  Listen to a tape and see if you occasionally wish that the speaker would "pick up the pace." If your cadence is slow and steady, consider stepping on the gas pedal, at least occasionally. Getting out of second gear could save you a couple minutes.
  6. Sluggish conclusions. Precious time can be wasted when teachers "circle looking for a place to land." Script your closing remarks so you can bring the teaching time to a succinct conclusion. This can save you a couple minutes.

Taking advantage of just half of these recommendations could trim 15-30 minutes off your service without any appreciable loss of impact. In fact, less can be more. Many communicators demonstrate this (and for the sake of brevity, I’ve eliminated most of examples!):

"When a sentence is made stronger, it usually becomes shorter."
- Elements of Style, William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White

"I have made this letter longer than usual, only because I have not had the time to make it shorter."
- Blaise Pascal

"When you wish to instruct, be brief; that men's minds take in quickly what you say, learn its lesson, and retain it faithfully. Every word that is unnecessary only pours over the side of a brimming mind."
- Cicero

"The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak."
- Hans Hofman

Ephesians 4:11-12 states that pastors must prepare God’s people for works of service so that the body of Christ may be built up. Changes to the service time-frame will typically come only at the explicit direction of the pastor. The shorter sermon may well take even more preparation and focus to deliver, because it will require editing long thoughts to present only what you mean. It might require 30-60 minutes of preparation to remove one minute of extraneous content. But what is it worth to heighten the impact of a sermon given to 50, 100 or 500 listeners—as well as to respect their time?

 

Objection!

 

I know that there are objections, because I’ve had them and heard them over the years. Here are some of the most common and how I respond to them.

 

  1. "This is going to limit the Spirit moving in our services."

• "Do you really think that God needs more time?" I believe that God’s Spirit can speak a lot to our hearts in the course of an hour. I also trust that the Spirit is at work in a powerful way during the week leading up to the service.  We most definitely need the Spirit’s help when we are trying to choose a worship set or pare down a message to its more salient points.

 

  1. "Our services go over an hour, but we are still growing."

• "Are you growing by conversion growth?" I do not deny that transfers from other churches may be used to, or even enjoy, a longer service. But the longer you perpetuate an elongated service, the more you run the risk of alienating the very people you want to reach.

• "Is it possible that you are growing in spite of your longer service, not because of it?" Through the years, I have seen churches grow with shorter services (of less than 45 minutes) and with longer services (over one hour, 15 minutes). But overall, the sweet spot has been an hour or less.

• "Could you grow even faster if you streamlined your services?" Very few will not come because "the service is too short." More will not come because "the service is too long."

 

  1. "People say they want more."

• "Good. They’ll probably come back next week." Actually, I hope you do hear people say they want more, because it is a compliment, not a criticism. Some people may even beg you to lengthen the worship time, teaching time or both. It is preferable in my opinion to have people leave wanting more than to dump a truckload on them and have them skip the next couple weeks while they digest it.

• "People who truly want more can get more in their personal devotional time."  Design your services with the doubter, the skeptic and the prodigal in mind. Consider adding a "For Further Study" section in your bulletin that lists the pertinent Scriptures from the message and suggestions for reference.

 

  1. "Is accomplishing a shorter service worth all the change necessary to accomplish it?"

• There are a lot of sacrifices we make for the sake of the mission. Churches cease to grow when they are no longer willing to pay the price for that growth.  It costs us something as believers to reach out effectively to unchurched people. Whether or not you determine a shorter service is a worthy objective, we must stand ready to pay a high price for ministry because of what is at stake in it.

 

Ephesians 5:16 reminds us to "redeem the time" because the days are evil. In a public worship service, we are tempted to think that our primary medium is words; it’s not. Our medium is time. People are giving us their time, and we must do something meaningful with that time. If we think that words are the medium, we tend to think, "I have a lot to say. I wish I had more time." When time is the medium, we are inclined to ask, "What do they need to hear? How can I boil this down?" This is a fundamental, philosophical shift demanded by our mandate to reach out.

Dave Browning is the innovative founder and pastor of Christ the King Community Church International (CTK), named in Outreach magazine’s list of Fastest-Growing and Most Innovative Churches in America. CTK now has more than 30 locations in four states and eight countries, including India, Kenya and Nepal. Dave is a popular conference presenter, encouraging pastors to think differently about the traditional church and challenging them to break the rules. His book, Deliberate Simplicity, expected to release next month, explains his "less is more" approach to equipping believers and streamlining programs to maximize impact.

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