03 August 2010

"I mustn't keep you"

by Dan Phillips

I'm listening to several sermons by D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, thanks to a Tweet from Phil. In the (very fine) sermon I'm just hearing, the Doctor just said briskly, "I mustn't keep you" — and it stopped me.

I realized that he'd said something similar in one or two of the other sermons as well; then I recalled that I'd actually heard it more than once from Lloyd-Jones, in various forms:
"I needn't detain you"
"I'll not keep you"
"I mustn't detain you"
Now, ponder that. Here is one of the most powerful, influential preachers of the 20th century. Should the Lord tarry, folks will still be hearing and reading Lloyd-Jones' sermons in a century, two, three... and he's worried about me thinking that he's wasting my time. "I'll not keep you." The beloved physician doesn't want me to imagine that he is taking my time for granted, or that he's presuming on me.

Of course, it's a little ironic, this brisk language coming from the man who could preach a whole sermon on a single conjunction or a preposition. But even then, what he preached was full, deep, useful, meaty. Like Spurgeon who, famously, could preach wonderful sermons on the wrong texts.

So here's my most obvious thought, followed by a few observations: if such a brilliant light as Lloyd-Jones gave thought not to waste his hearers' time, what does that say to us dim bulbs? Do you have more Biblical, Spirit-drenched wisdom to impart than Lloyd-Jones? Yet even he thought to take care not to belabor a point unnecessarily.

One might say it was just an expression, or even a rhetorical device. I'm not so sure; after all, Lloyd-Jones is quoted as having said that he personally "would not cross the street" to hear himself preach.

A little appropriate humility might do us wonders in the pulpit.

More generally, I've been a younger unmarried pastor, and I've been an older married churchgoer. I have to confess, in the former role, I felt everyone should be at every meeting. In the latter, I see where that's not so easy. It wouldn't hurt a pastor to remember that he may be the only one actually paid to attend church meetings. Most or all of the others are volunteers, who work 40+ hour weeks and/or attend school and/or have to bus kids all over the place. Their time at church is important, vital, and costly.

So? So everyone involved in any aspect of leadership should remember that. Be thoughtful. Be disciplined. Be organized. Be purposeful. Be respectful. Be reasonable.

"Unspiritual!" Really? Is practicing Matthew 7:12 unspiritual?

Please note, by the way, that I've said nothing about how long worship services should be. I'm talking about how full they are, how wisely-crafted — in other words, what you do with other people's time. If others lend their time to your care, redeem it well.

I recall one church where maybe 45 minutes of content was "crammed" into two full hours of time. Rambling chit-chat, shallow choruses sung over and over and over....

I'm talking about planning out what you're doing before you do it. I'm talking about showing that you actually have taken to heart Proverbs 16:1a, 3, and 9, as well as the principle of 1 Corinthians 14:32 and 33.

There's a difference between someone getting up and free-associating through a 5-10 minute patchwork of "like's" and "y'knows" to open the service or expand the announcements, and some over-regimented military march. If the Holy Spirit is not well-served by an intricate and lifeless liturgy, neither is He  honored by a vapid chorus repeated until emotions are excited or trances induced (or desperately sought).

Likewise in preaching. As a young Christian, I knew a pastor who refused to work out preaching notes, because he wanted to trust the Spirit's leading. Even then, I wondered why the omniscient Spirit couldn't move days in advance, as the pastor carefully and prayerfully worked out some notes. Then he wouldn't have to ramble through (or around) a text like a drunk staggering through a church.

Scripture is a book of amazing artistry and complexity. We hardly glorify its Author if we sidle into a text, wander around like Israel in the desert for 40 minutes (seeming like 40 years, to our poor victims), and then circle around and around in search of a conclusion, like a Christmas shopper seeking a parking slot in a crowded mall.

To say the least, it is not unspiritual to have an eye to the most respectful, fullest, wisest use of the time of the folks who come to worship, putting themselves under our leadership and care.

If you find yourself tempted to the self-indulgent laziness of bloated, meandering doodling, think of the good Doctor. Hear him say,

"I mustn't keep you."

Dan Phillips's signature


DJP said...

What works for preaching or leading a service, applies to writing, as well. That brevity which is the product of clear thinking is a wonderful thing.

Graham said...

Over here in the UK, there is an unspoken rule in many independent circles that a sermon MUST be 45 mins at least otherwise the preacher cannot be doing the passage justice.

What the Doc said was bang on the money (as he often was) as there can be few things worse than when a preacher gets to 30/35 mins and thinks to himself "hmm, i've got to preach at least another ten minutes, I'd better fill the time up with some quotes".

Brevity whilst not neglecting quality, is a lesson that needs to be learnt by many, especially by preachers.

Mike said...

Not sure where I land on this one. On the one hand, it's easy to want to jump up and say, "How dare we think our time could best be served elsewhere than under the skillful preaching of God's word!" On the other, the flesh wants to say, "If I can make my point in 15 minutes, why stay longer?" It's easy to polarize here. I think, (as with many things) the answer lies somewhere in the middle. If we compare the sermon on the mount with some of the parables...we see that Jesus varied the length of His sermons. Ultimately I think it comes down to what God is trying to say with the particular text. Should we forcefully shorten it if we know that more needs to be said? The other side of that is what my pastor and I felt Josh Harris did at T4G this year...he took an hour to preach a 30 minute sermon. (It was an excellent sermon though...just a bit windy.) But who am I to talk? I probably could have said all this in a couple of sentences if I'd really worked at it. :p

Good post, thanks for getting me thinking about it.

DJP said...

I probably could have said all this in a couple of sentences if I'd really worked at i


I really mean this to make leaders reexamine what they/we do, rather than for anyone to focus on what others do.

Robert said...

I love reading Martyn Lloyd-Jones. I have a three volume book entitled "Great Doctrines of the Bible" that I found myself reading every day for the course of three months (when I finally finished it). It was a collection of his notes from a series of his Friday night services and I got the same sense reading those of his appreciation of time. He did not waste any words while still taking the time to explain everything very thoroughly.

I think it is very important that we make this our practice. While we shouldn't be looking to end services early, we shouldn't just fill up the time with fluff. Take the time to read the text...read commentaries...find parallel passages in Scripture. Pull otgether relevant and important texts in order to enrich the time and fully develop the sermon. Pray for wisdom in instructing how to apply the message. God puts men in front of His people to handle presenting His Word faithfully in worship to Him. When my current pastor first started preaching, one of the men in the congregation told him to remember that he was preaching to an audience of One. I'd like to think that Lloyd-Jones had the same thought in mind when he prepared his messages. That surely would keep us from wasting time in preparing and delivering a sermon.

JackW said...

To my mind, it's almost like he is saying, "Ok, I've spent this time pointing you toward Jesus, I mustn't keep you, go."


olan strickland said...

Content with continence is better than conjecture with continuance!

Canyon Shearer said...

Steve Lawson drove this point home for me in his book Famine in the Land (Amos 8:11). He quoted Charles Spurgeon who said, "We cannot play at preaching, we preach for eternity." And then T. David Gordon in his book, Why Johnny Can't Preach, makes excellent points at driving towards a point, ensuring movement, and textual fidelity.

We have a "Young Preachers Society" and my number one critique of students (and pastors) is that they didn't spend adequate time in preparation and didn't actually know what the text was saying. Heaven forbid that we be found misrepresenting God!

This is a hot topic for me because I see it neglected so often. It's so easy to boast in this area, and I hope I do so rightly, that God has impressed on my heart the importance of spending adequate time in preparation and taking both his Word and my hearer's spiritual health seriously. If the Apostle Paul would say, "What is my joy or crown of boasting at the appearing of our Lord Jesus? Is it not you? You are my joy and glory." then we ought to be investing fully in our congregation, not neglecting our duty to rightly divide the Word of God for them.

Mike said...

Olan - Answers with alliteration are always appropriate! :p

donsands said...

D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones says things so well. He reminds me of JC Ryle.

I need to read more of Lloyd-Jones. And what a terrific name he has.

Great post. Good stuff for pastors. I found a church a years ago where the pastors truly fill the the time of our gathering with the fullness of worshipping the Father in Spirit and truth, for they are humble servants, who know they are sinners in need of a Savior and His grace.

" shallow choruses sung over and over and over.."

That 7-11 music in church eh? 7 chorus' sang over 11 times.

Zaphon said...

I musn't keep you, so my pithy input here...Preparation & Prayer-the twin pillars of fruitful, rich sermons and lessons.

Scott said...

Of course it was Spurgeon who said on the occasion of his "Jubilee" that "I cannot see anything about myself that you should love me: I confess I would not go across the street to hear myself preach." For Lloyd-Jones to say the same thing really should send a message to the rest of us "dim bulbs." Thanks for the reminder.

Trevor said...

I wondered why the omniscient Spirit couldn't move days in advance

I will have to point this out to someone the next time I hear someone speak of eschewing preparation in lieu of "trusting the Spirit". lol!

Brevity is something that is wonderful when executed properly (and it certainly takes skill to do such!). If I remember anything from AP English in high school, it was to cut out as many words that need not be there. Make your point and then add the "." point.

Also..word verification: foreempe
Is an electromagnetic pulse imminent?

Terry Rayburn said...

I'm pleased to have a "First Printing" [book lovers get into that kind of thing] of THE best book on preaching ever written!

It is only 107 pages long.

On page 43 the author writes,

A sermon does not have to be eternal to be immortal. Be thankful for the opportunity to minister the Word in love. Remember: the entire Sermon on the Mount can be read aloud in less than ten minutes.

The book is deliberately written on the model of The Elements of Style by Strunk and White.

Although extremely short, by windy authors' standards, it (like a well-crafted sermon) is *full* and *satisfying* and *edifying*.

The book:

The Elements of Preaching, by Warren Wiersbe & David Wiersbe.

You can buy it today on Amazon for as little as $1.34. It's worth a million dollars.

I used to go hear Warren Wiersbe whenever he spoke at the Gull Lake Bible Conference in Michigan in the late '70's.

He practiced what he...wrote...and every message was full, yet...unwindy.

I can still remember the impact his message "The Word of God and Prayer" had on me. Still does.

William Zinsser, famous author of On Writing Well, is an unbeliever as far as I know. But he has always recommended to his writing students to read the King James Bible.


In order to learn to say much in few and simple words.

Not a bad way to preach.

Thanks for a great reminder, Dan.

Gov98 said...

More generally, I've been a younger unmarried pastor, and I've been an older married churchgoer. I have to confess, in the former role, I felt everyone should be at every meeting. In the latter, I see where that's not so easy. It wouldn't hurt a pastor to remember that he may be the only one actually paid to attend church meetings. Most or all of the others are volunteers, who work 40+ hour weeks and/or attend school and/or have to bus kids all over the place. Their time at church is important, vital, and costly.

This is oh so appreciated. I love our local church, but my wife and I go to the Sunday service, the Sunday night service, the mid-week Bible studies (one for men and one for women), and then alternating Sundays for door to door evangelism.

I know, from discussions I have had that the pastor keeps an eye on expanding things further (like an College and Career Bible study at the end of the week or the other things some people would think would be "great." They would I'm sure, but it's much appreciated to know that the pastor is concerned about how much the church is doing.

Gov98 said...

Saturdays not sundays for the d2d evangelism.

Webster Hunt (Parts Man) said...

I've been real convicted through God's Word about how I use my mouth here lately (I've been studying Job in a chrono study and find myself more in Job's friends than Job), and this reminds me to keep that in the forefront. Prov. 10:19 comes to mind. Thanks for that post.

Brian Roden said...

My pastor works 4-6 weeks ahead. That gives him plenty of time to review and revise (and to avoid giving us a "Saturday Night Special"). The children's pastor has time to prepare a message for the elementary age service that goes with the main service message, at their level. And the worship leader and choir director are able to plan the songs to dovetail with the sermon.

olan strickland said...

How many points should a good sermon have? At least one! We ought to get to it, stick to it (no wandering around), and conclude it.

Now I'll have to practice what I have preached - ouch!

Al said...

Excellent post Dan!

I used to plan for a 45 - 60 min sermon in the midst of a 1hr 45 min service. Frankly, this was easier for me and harder for my congregation. Speaking for myself, it was laziness that caused me to preach that long.

Explaining how the Holy Spirit ministers through music, for example, is a tough subject and if I want to put that into a 30 min sermon it is going to take reading, internalizing, meditating, praying, and writing (a bunch of writing) to get it into the ears of the people with any success.

When I preached a longer sermon I ended up giving my people information out of a fire hose, which is fun to play in but dangerous to drink from, and they all tried to drink.

al sends

David said...


Oh, sorry. That's 20.

Come on, Dan. You'll never beat last weeks records by telling preachers to pay attention to what they're saying.

Srsly, I have to give kudos to my pastor for giving meaty, whole-bible, systematic exposition on the passage in a way that I, my wife, and my 10-year-old can each take home a solid page of notes to compare. And act on.

He takes his 40-45 seriously.

Gary Benfold said...

Great that you're hearing Ll-J, Dan; he's always worth it. Some of your contributors though - and maybe you ? - think he's saying something he isn't. I'm currently working through his 'Acts' sermons for a doctorate thereon: few are under 55 minutes. And in Aberavon in particular (his first pastorate) the complaint came (not from his own congregation, but from others) that the services typically lasted two hours. And, yes - he expected people to be at both of them. 'Oncers' - those who only go to church once on Sunday - he thought were the worst possible advertisement for the gospel.

HSAT - a full hour under Lloyd-Jones' preaching is a lot shorter than twenty minutes under almost anyone else!

DJP said...

I think you misunderstand me. I specifically noted in the post that I said nothing about length per se, but about content, discipline, consideration.

So it was (say) 50 minutes of tight preaching; "I mustn't keep you" for 60 minutes with unnecessary repetition and rewording.

DJP said...

David, that's a terrific testimony.

Saved By Faith Alone said...


Other than the aspect of common courtesy (a healthy respect for the hearer's time); could the good Doctor simply be saying that the efficacy of the Gospel message depends not on the speaker's talent nor the total time taken, but exclusively on the workings of the Holy Spirit?

Joe Cassada said...

Excellent! I wish I read this 10 years ago.

Al said...

I understand Dan... my point was that longer sermons are generally easier to prepare even with good content since you can add content that helps explain your points. Too often that leads to information overload for a congregation. David and his 10 year old excepted :-)

al sends

Al said...

of course I think I misunderstood your last comment.

al sends

Gary Benfold said...

Yep, Dan, you did. Silly of me not to read your post properly before commenting on it. That must get really annoying - have you ever thought of doing a post on it?

Sir Aaron said...

Considering attention spans, I'd think short and to the point would be the order of the day. I do a lot of public speaking and I couldn't imagine presenting even the most complex subject for more than an hour without a break.

Melinda said...

A hearty amen to your article. Two months ago, my pastor decided to stop preaching off of his notes because he felt he had been quenching the Spirit by doing so.

His sermons went from being on-track, helpful and challenging to rambling, confusing and emotional. And its all done in the name of the Holy Spirit, so who am I to question his decision?

Rob Bailey said...

One of the contributing factors of the issue of content is the sheer amount of resources available. It makes it easy, even unknowingly, to use them as a crutch in lieu of hard work.

As far as length is concerned, we kind of put an expectation out there by putting our hours of operation on our signs out front.

Robert said...


I'm basing this off of the fact that your question was sarcastic (they really need to work on that font). I wonder how often people who defend their actions based upon not quenching the Spirit ever wonder if they are grieving the Spirit in testing their actions against Scripture. I mean, where in Scripture do we see teaching that is rambling and confusing. I'm not including emotional because I see plenty of emotion in Scripture...but teaching with it should be balanced against the context as well and not just be random.

I imagine that this type of thing would have upset Lloyd-Jones greatly. My wife heard a sermon where the pastor said many people take the name of God in vain every week by their preaching and worship. I think that is most definitely a cause for righteous indignation. And it should also give pause to any pastor/preacher/teacher in handling the Word of God. I hope that such men will heed the words and example of Lloyd-Jones in this regard.

greglong said...

Blaise Pascal, 1657 (sometimes attributed to Samuel Johnson or Mark Twain):

I have made this letter longer than usual because I lack the time to make it shorter.

Sir Aaron said...

I can't think of a single preacher of modern admiration (e.g., Spurgeon, MLJ, Vernon McGee) that didn't scoff at the notion of coming up to the pulpit without preparation.

DJP said...

The only exception I'd make (of course) would be emergencies, and they're actually rather thrilling, stretching. I recall it happening... let's see... three times.
1. Asked to preach at Talbot Chapel when someone didn't show, about 10 min warning

2. Asked to sub for the pastor, who'd fallen ill, about 45 min warning

3. Asked to preach/teach at a midweek meeting that was also an extremely tense, quarrelsome business meeting, no warning at all

Robert said...


I like how MacArthur says that a pastor should always have a sermon in their back pocket for just such cases. Of course, I'm not sure it makes it THAT easier when you're put on the spot like that.

I feel bad for you in case #3 especially. I've never been in meetings like those, but I have a pastor friend who was in several before being driven out of his church.

I'm curious...did you have a text in mind when asked? Or did you have to preach what was planned for somebody else? Because that would hinder you greatly in making every word count.

word verification - mitie

Melinda said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
DJP said...

Robert, I picked the text as I walked to the pulpit.

Canyon Shearer said...

Dan said, The only exception I'd make (of course) would be emergencies, and they're actually rather thrilling, stretching.

A hearty amen, one of my favorite sermons I've ever preached was totally unprepared on the Apostle Paul's conversion. We were expected to play a game outside (Middle School) and it was a solid downpour, so I asked for a topic, one of my 12 year olds asked how to get passionate for the gospel, and Paul popped into my mind. It ended up being about a 15 minute sermonette on Galatians 1:11-24.

Sorry to be long winded, but this is one of my favorite topics. I heard someone say recently that most preachers would do better to stand before their congregation and read the Bible for thirty minutes than preach whatever it is they preach. It convicted me and since then I've read in the pulpit First Peter, Second Peter, Jeremiah 26-29, and Isaiah 3-4 and 11 to name the longer ones. It takes a bit of time, but truly would you rather have your words or Christ's Word go forth? We will give an account for every idle word (which coincidentally is my topic for next Sunday).

Finally, one place where I prepare very little is open-air preaching. I go out with a three word outline, "Law, Grace, Repent" and sometimes it is a one minute sermon, usually 5-7, and sometimes dozens of minutes, here I truly let the Spirit lead and usually read whichever passage pops into my mind (Psalm 24 or 84, Acts 17, Matthew 5, Acts 2, 3, 4, or 10 are common passages I read aloud). It this situation it is good to stay flexible. Once I had a young lady sit on the grass in front of me and I decided I'd preach until she left (others would come and go, but she was my main audience), I preached for over an hour on multiple subjects, including parts of the sermon I'd preached the previous Sunday. Finally I decided she wasn't going to leave so I wrapped up and approached her and we had a nice talk for about another twenty minutes.

Just some thoughts on an exciting topic.

DJP said...

...one of my 12 year olds asked how to get passionate for the gospel

I want to know that kid! Tell more. Twelve! Wish that wasn't so rare.

Sir Aaron said...

Exceptions prove the rule, or so the saying goes.

Canyon Shearer said...

Our youth group fell into Calvinism in the past two years and we've had a wonderful outpouring of evangelism and passion ever since. That particular student isn't in this video, but here is something that greatly blessed me: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Ni1hQrfDZo and similarly: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bE8LldIgzu0

I think part of the reason students desire to be passionate and know the Bible is because their youth pastor (he's since gone to teach) was passionate; and he tricked me into youth ministry as well, which a verse which is hugely overlooked in ministry today is 1 Corinthians 11:1, "Be imitators of me as I am of Christ." Students who normally would never open-air preach were quick (and sometimes not so quick and required a lot of nudging) to follow my lead, but now we have a two dozen or so students who I suspect will be purposeful missionaries to their schools this week, and many more who can give a reason for the hope that is within them.

The passage that sums up my life is Matthew 21:28-31, there are many times where I don't want to go evangelize but do anyways, and sometimes my main motivation is so afterwards I can post on facebook, "We had a good time at such-and-such festival preaching the gospel." One of my students, who is actually a Methodist at a not so good church, recently told me that it encourages her when she saw me at a recent festival talking to people.

I hope everyone reading this would find a place to minister; Philemon 1:4-6 (especially 6) is the most perfect plan for ministry there is, resulting in the Apostle John's key to great joy in 3 John 3-4. These are my favorite verses...but unrelated to the topic at hand (well, not entirely), I preface every verse to students with, "This is my favorite verse."

Finally, and I hope I'm only boasting in Christ, the more we love one another, and that through right doctrine, the more our students will find the passion we want them to have; I wrote this last year after an especially fruitful missions trip to New Orleans: http://trustobey.blogspot.com/2009/04/loving-god-and-loving-others.html It all sums up nicely in what one of my 13 year olds sang this song on Sunday, it was wonderful: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u5NPUWCzsU0

trogdor said...

20 comments is analogous to 200, so...

My olde English teacher, when axed how long a paper should be, would always respond with the skirt rule - it should be long enough to cover everything important, but short enough to keep it interesting. It applies just as well to sermons, Bible studies, and especially meetings.

donsands said...

"I hope everyone reading this would find a place to minister"

My ministry is my family, my neighbors, my church, my work, where i meet a lot of people, mostly non-Christians. I simply live for the Lord where I am. I don't live as righteous as I should, and I don't witness as well as I used to.

Thanks for the encouragement.

I have gone door to door, and that seemed like a normal thing to do in my neighborhood, where my local church was, and so i got to know people, and invite them to church, and even share the Gospel right then, at times.
Had some doors slammed on us, and tracks torn up. But for the most part, people were simply not interested.

Yelling the Word of God out in the public is not my thing. That's for sure.

I just don't see it in the way things are here and now, but I could be wrong.

You have a great zeal for the Gospel, Canyon.

Keep up the good work for the Lord and His kingdom.

slaveforchrist said...

Wow. This really changes my perspective on how I use my time. Here I am, a student waiting for his freshman year of college to start, wasting his days watching TV and hanging out. And here Lloyd-Jones is worried about using too much of our time? Wow. I should really be using my time more efficiently, even if I am not currently in any leadership roles. I pray to become more organized, disciplined, and to the point.

Thanks Dan for sharing.

Rob said...

Perhaps, too, Lloyd-Jones, from his previous role as physician, appreciated the time folks routinely spent waiting to see their doctor, hence "I mustn't keep you" with his patients/congregation.

(although these days it seems as if doctors never bother to keep you long, but rather just scribble out a prescription and kick you out the door)