the shape of leadership

Is Your Message Too Much?

Sometimes less really is more when it comes to preaching

Chris Colvin on February 20, 2020

How many times has this happened to you? You’ve prepared a sermon you think is the right length, only to get halfway through your message on Sunday and realize you’ve run out of time. It’s just too much. Too much research, too much material, too many illustrations or main points. You’ve got too much sermon for the allotted time frame.

One solution is just to keep preaching. There’s something exhilarating about going over the time limit. It can be an opportunity to give people even more than they asked for.

But there are times when too much is just too much. When you go past the expected dismissal point, it can have cascading effects. Parents in service can’t leave to pick up their children, so nursery and children’s workers have to stay longer. If you have multiple services, people are entering the parking lot looking for spots that aren’t available.

There’s another problem with packing too much into a sermon. When you give people too many things to think about, they might not be able to retain any of it. Instead, aim for a sermon that is just right and never too much or too little.

How Much is Too Much?

How do you know when your messages are too much? It starts with knowing your congregation. When do they start to get antsy, shifting in their seats? Are they looking at their phones and glancing at their watches? Is anyone falling asleep on you? If so, you may have too much.

There are no hard and fast rules about how many main points, illustrations or other elements to have, but there are some basic considerations I try to keep in mind. I believe that if you have more than four main points, you have more than one sermon. The reason is people have a hard time remembering more than three things at once. That’s why most people take a list when they go to the grocery store for several items.

When you give people too many things to think about, they might not be able to retain any of it.

When it comes to illustrations, more is not always better either. And the time you spend on each illustration can be distracting. If a story goes longer than a minute or so, people’s minds may start to wander.

Try to stay focused when applying your sermon as well. What do your listeners need to get out of this? What’s the one thing you want them to do? If you can narrow it down for them, they will be more likely to put it into action.

What About the Surplus?

When you realize you have too much, what do you do with the extra material? On the one hand, you feel the need to let people know all you’ve learned. You did the research, and they should reap the rewards.

That may be true, but they don’t need to hear it all this week. Instead, there are some practical ways you can go about sharing the material you gathered without giving them too much at one time.

One way to take too much and make it just enough is to expand that one sermon into two or more. Preaching in a series format allows you to go deeper in a passage than one week will allow. Also, since you’ve already done the research, your schedule will be lighter the following weeks.

Another way is to preach what’s needed on Sunday and then give the rest away throughout the week. Take the leftover material and turn into blog posts, videos or handouts for small group discussion during the rest of the week.

Whatever you do with that material, don’t get rid of it. You can save it for next time, because chances are you’ll come back to this passage again someday. You may even write a book, and those files will be helpful research. Or maybe you can give the material to one of your staff members to preach when you take a much-needed break.

Preachers sometimes worry they won’t have enough material, that they will approach the pulpit with a 15-minute message and then won’t know how to fill the rest of the time.

Usually, though, we have more than we need — and more than the congregation needs as well. Stay focused on one main idea, and be willing to make some cuts.

Finally, take into account your congregation’s comfort level instead of your own. They’re the reason you preach, after all. So make the most of what you have without adding too much to your message.

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