When I preach in a context that is unfamiliar, I always ask two questions that reveal much about the people to whom I will preach. I inquire, what is the appropriate sermon dress and length? How long I preach and what I wear are factors that, despite their less than spiritual significance, can help or hinder the reception of the sermon. While some preachers may claim a certain sermon length or style of dress as God-ordained, these considerations are determined more by the preaching context than any other factor.
Sermon length and clothing must not only fit with the people in the preaching context, they must also match the personality of the preacher and the community that surrounds the preaching context. So, whether preaching in the local church I serve or as a guest preacher in unfamiliar territory, I aim to be in close proximity to people in the church, to people in the community around the church, and to my personality in terms of what I wear and how long I preach.
Match the Preaching Context
Wherever we preach, we want to be sensitive to the particularities of the context. Although I am quite comfortable preaching with jeans, I wouldn’t even think about doing so in a church with a large number of senior citizens. I own a few suits, but I wouldn’t dare sport mine when addressing teens or twenty-somethings. I saw a well known Christian author speak at a conference for mostly mainline pastors. He was a white young man donning dread-locks and a long skirt-like shirt. His dress did not distract me from the important and impactful message he shared, but it did become an obstacle to several of my colleagues in attendance. It was unfortunate that some allowed the preacher’s clothing to keep them from hearing his message, but I wonder if he could have done more to prevent his dress from blocking his Gospel message.
Sermon length is another contextual issue. I preached as a guest at a multi-ethnic church in Queens, NY that asked me to preach a 45-60 minute message. The suburban, mostly white congregation in the Midwest that invited me to preach wanted a 25-30 minute sermon. The preacher who stays within the bounds of contextual expectations regarding sermon length is more likely to be heard than the preacher who totally ignores these boundaries.
Match the Preacher’s Personality
While ignoring the preaching context is disrespectful, ignoring your personality is inauthentic. As much as possible within the parameters of your context, be yourself. If you are a 23 year old preacher, my guess is the three piece suit is not your style even if it fits the context. If you are a 75 year old preacher, you may not want to wear baggie jeans and a t-shirt even if that dress aligns with the style of most of the people in the preaching context.
I tend to be a 25-30 minute preacher, perhaps because I am a product of my sitcom culture. Unless I’m invited to speak longer or shorter, this is the sermon length I hit every time. You probably have a default sermon length too, along with convictions to support your modus operandi. The point is, know yourself.
When a local church hires me to be their pastor or someone invites me to be a guest preacher, I assume they want me to be me and not a clone of some other preacher. However, in an effort to be myself I must also be sensitive to the context. In some instances, we preachers have to find a compromise between the context and our personality. For example, you may be a jean wearing preacher in a congregational context that expects and desires a suit wearing messenger. Perhaps you can compromise by wearing a shirt and tie without a suit coat. If you prefer to preach 25 minutes and the context expects 45, perhaps you can stretch to 35. Know yourself, know your context, and preach in a manner that is sensitive to both.
Match The Community
The community around the preaching context matters too. If you are a local church pastor you will likely want to wrestle with the question: What kind of dress would foster a sense of welcome to people in the community who do not yet attend the church? One of the churches I served was attracting people from the lower social classes within the community. Few of them owned or could afford a suit. Our pastoral staff and most lay leaders dressed in a manner that the economically challenged could adopt for themselves.
The preacher must also consider the community when it comes to sermon length. One church I served as pastor was in an area consisting mostly of Roman Catholic churches. Many of the people moving into the community were from a nominal Roman Catholic background. So, most people from the community who visited our church were used to the 10-15 minute homily of the Roman Catholic liturgy. I didn’t want to overly exhaust them with a 35-40 minute sermon so I tended to go about 25 minutes, which fit with my personality. The preacher’s sermon length and style of dress should not be a needless barrier to community people who visit the church and are processing the decision to return.
How does or how should your personality, local church, and community context impact how you dress and how long you preach?
Dr. Lenny Luchetti presently serves as Assistant Professor of Proclamation and Christian Ministries at Wesley Seminary of Indiana Wesleyan University. He began his 15 years of pastoral ministry when he was 23 years old. During that time he has served as the Pastor of a small rural church, the Assistant Pastor of a large church, and as the Lead Pastor of a congregation that grew from a small to a large missional and multi-ethnic church during his tenure. Lenny has taught preaching courses for ministers since 2003. He has preached at churches, camps, and colleges in the United States and around the world. His passion these days is to invest in those who are investing in local churches.
Dr. Luchetti blogs at lennyluchetti.blogspot.com