By John Pierce

On Friday, my friend Ed Pettibone took me to the historic First Church in Albany, N.Y., also known as the North Dutch Church. The building was erected between 1797-1799.

The Dutch Reformed congregation, founded in 1642, claims the oldest pulpit in America — brought from the Netherlands in 1656 for an older place of worship known as the Blockhouse church.

The most noticeable feature is the hourglass attached to the antique pulpit. There has to be more to the story. Surely, it was not the preacher’s idea.

Was it a “gift” from a weary pew sitter? Part of the architect’s design — having sat through a few rambling sermons himself?

Holding a congregation’s interest while seeking to speak a heavenly word through human lips has been and remains one the greatest challenges of church ministry. Perhaps that’s why preaching takes so many forms — and lengths.

Squirming in pews was a form of childhood penitence in the days before “children’s church” or “extended session.” For many of us, sitting through long, loud and repetitive sermonizing provided an early understanding of the concept of eternity as “going on and on forever.”

Beloved professor John Carlton told my seminary class: “If you can’t say it in 20 minutes, say it next Sunday.” Many of us took his words to heart — and our preaching is much shorter than that on which we were raised.

However, Dr. Tom Long, who teaches preaching at Emory’s Candler School of Theology, said that sermons are gaining length now for the first time in generations. It may be time to flip the hourglass again.

Sermons can be meaningful without requiring exceptional endurance from the listeners. But, of course, there are greater questions to be asked about preaching than just length. Is it relevant, hopeful, applicable and faithful to the biblical text?

These are (or should be) ongoing questions for those who dare to preach. There are places in life where the divine and humanity get mixed in inseparable ways. Certainly the pulpit is chief among them.


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