Thursday, March 06, 2008

#2- The Gettysburg Principle: Make it only 279 Words.

Regarding my previous post - Here are my thoughts on Lincoln's address:
  • It's short.
  • It's inspiring.
  • It does not meander.
  • It is part of the larger narrative of American history ("Four score and seven years ago") and references itself within that narrative. ("Now we are engaged in a great civil war...")
  • It exegetes a moment of history ("We have come to dedicate") and yet speaks beyond that moment ("that we here highly resolve ... that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth").
So I get it.

In relation to Sermon Preparation, I now propose The Gettysburg Principle:

'Make your sermon only 279 Words ...(before you ruin it.)'

That is, don't write out your sermon hoping for 4000 words, beginning with a poorly conceived 'hook', and then meandering your way through the 2000 mark, while seeking to guess an ending.

Here is my plan to stop my own meandering. For my next sermon...
  • I'm going to write out the entire sermon in 279 words. No more, and no less.
  • I'm going to work hard choosing each of those 279 words.
  • I will make sure these 279 words are the entire sermon and able to be delivered on their own. (They are not just 'the Big Idea'; or a 'main sentence'; or a goal; or a synopsis.)
  • My 279 words will need to exegete the biblical text drawing from the grand narrative of the Christ story.
  • I will then ask myself: Are these 279 words worth hearing? Do they take us to a new level? Do they give us a bigger vision of God? Do they propel us to new possibilities of faith for the Glory of God in the face of Christ? Do they challenge the complacent soul and give hope to the hungry heart?
  • I will then deliver these 279 words to Dr. Laurel (my personal literature expert) for rigorous scrutiny.
  • Then, and only then, will I add any more words or thoughts or ideas or illustrations or applications. And these extra words will be added only to explore and deepen and enhance those 279 words.
  • So I may end up with a normal sermon length. Or maybe not. But only when I've gathered my 279 words will I be confident that I will neither meander, nor repeat myself.
Otherwise, our words may be lost like the 13,607 words belonging to Edward Everett. History has blown away Everett's 2 hour speech in favor of the wonder of Lincoln's 279 words.

I'll let you know how it goes.

Pic on Flickr by Andertho.


michael jensen said...

278 or 279? You seem undecided.

Actually, I think this is brilliant brilliant strategy. Hope it rocks. You should always be tempted just to say the 278/9 and sit down. Then you will know that you have got it right.

Con Campbell said...

It also helps to be one of the greatest leaders in human history.

Shane said...

arbitrarily clever -but are you as clever as old Ab? could you also grow a beard and shave the mo?

Justin said...

Laurel suggested I wear the hat at church...


(What do you mean, by the way, by 'arbitrarily clever'.)

Pete said...

I sometimes wonder why people take so long to say things. But then unless I write something down, I ramble and through in all sorts of useless information.

Some people have a natural gift to keep other people's attention for long periods, with others God is gracious.

I have a feeling that if Lincoln had said more, his speech would have been remembered anyway, though the simplicity of his honouring did help a bit.

Soon we might have a generation though who can't say anything longer than 160 characters.

byron smith said...

Sounds like good advice for blog posts too.

Anthony Douglas said...

I just did my first word count on this Sunday's sermon. 277 words...and I've reached the introduction.

Time to get concise.

Stan said...

I suggest we print out this blog and then have airplanes fly over churches dispensing these pamphlets from the sky.

Anonymous said...

Only now do I read your post!! I have 2 talks of around 4000 words ready to deliver for a women's day tomorrow. I think for one more day the Everett in me will have to live on! Susan Shiner (nee Everett)

seapea said...

wow, talking about OCD!!!

but yeah it's a cool idea. it'd be great if your 279 words would HIT US OVER OUR FACES like how they did it in "a beautiful mind" movie (remember?). wouldn't THAT be really cool!??!

Shane said...

its defintely clever - and a great exercise - but why not some other great speach that is slightly shorter or longer. its an abitrary number. like 20 minutes for sermon length. why not 21 or 12 minutes.

how long does the Gettysburg take to read? hmmm the magic sermon length...

Justin said...

Shane -- Sure!

I could have chosen Paul to the Athenians -- 266 words (NIV). Or something shorter or longer. I certainly believe that 279 words is not enough to explain everything. Stephen's speech in Acts 7 is 1221 (NIV), and I'm not going to criticize that!

The point is to choose anything that forces you to be efficient and clear and uplifting and true.

Eun said...

interesting endeavor, Justin - hoping to hear how it went!

Lance said...

I get your point.

At the same time, The Gettysburg Address was not a sermon in cooperation with the work of the Spirit.

I have not counted the words in the Sermon on the Mount, nor of Stephen's or Peter's sermons in Acts, but I'm betting they tip the 279 scale a bit.

Nonetheless, I think I see your point. We should prepare as if every word counts, rather than ramble on.

BTW: How many of us, without looking, can state Lincoln's central proposition in the G. A.?

Justin said...

Lance -- welcome.

Re speech length -- Sure. See my comment to Shane (two comments above yours).

I do not believe that we can say all that needs to be said in 279 words. But that a cap like that may force us to be efficient, and, God willing, more powerful in what we say.

Lance said...

Got it. Thanks for the post.

Benjamin Ady said...

Frackin' A! I might even be tempted to go to a church (occasionally) where I knew the sermons would be limited to 279 words. =)

I believe in you Justin. You can do this.

Karen Marie said...

i think my favorite part is the literature expert. My second favorite is your point that we should say our 279 words before we mess up the sermon. so true.

James said...

so how'd it go?

Jason said...

As teenagers my friends (including the gorgeous blonde I later married) and I would sit through one hour sermons, delivered by a wonderfully Godly man - Geoff Croft. Romans 8 lasted one year. What a foundation!

The Holy Spirit will determine the length of the sermon; all we need to do is pray, prepare, show up and move our lips.

Justin said...

Jason - indeed. You'll notice that I am not limiting the length of a sermon. I am just making sure that if someone speaks for an hour, that it was an hours worth of truth and wisdom.

Jason said...

Justin, I wholeheartedly agree. I often struggle not to run out of church (or buisiness meetings for that matter) screaming, when I have to sit and listen to even one minute of nonsense. But recently I listened to several hours of Mark Driscoll in one sitting before I got a "Brain Full" error and needed to come up for air!

Justin said...

Another Driscoll-ite?

Justin said...


Former CMS missionary and long-time rector of Holy Trinity, Baulkham Hills, the Rev Geoff Croft passed away on February 10.
Mr Croft was born in 1919 and ordained by Bishop Marcus Loane in 1958. He was a CMS missionary in Tanzania in the Diocese of Central Tanganyika from 1958 to 1963 and in the Diocese of Victoria Nyanza from 1964 to 1967.
Mr Croft served at Holy Trinity, Baulkham Hills for two decades, from 1967 to 1987.

Jason said...

Amen. It was a privilege to have known him.

Thank you Justin.