What Downton Abbey and Your Sermon May Have in Common

Rumors have leaked that 2015’s Series 6 of Downton Abbey will be its last. As a new fan of the show, I am sad that I will only have a handful of “live” episodes to enjoy. However, as someone who powered through the first four seasons way too quickly and did not build years of connection with the characters, there is part of me that thinks the entire show will have ended up being twice as long as it should have been.

By thirty seconds before the end of series three we had seen characters stretch and grow, we had plenty of conflict and romance, we had tragedy and comedy, and the initial challenges faced both upstairs and down had been relatively resolved. And then we got punched in the gut. And then things got sort of crazy as writer Julian Fellowes had to work around the departure of lead actors and find new through-lines to carry the show.

As a pastor who relies heavily on storytelling to bring the Scriptures and its themes alive, I get a pot-calling-the-kettle-black feeling as I write this. Brevity and the intentionality of every element in my sermons has always challenged me as a preacher. Back when I was an associate who preached roughly once a month, I would sometimes preach for 45-minutes, trying desperately to get out everything I had taken in or thought about over the last month. Now, as an every-Sunday preacher, the length is more reasonable, but the same problem persists. I am also prone to following tangents in the moment. Being one who preaches without notes even if a manuscript gets written, this is a guilty pleasure. Sometimes it reveals itself to be Spirit-led, but sometimes it is just the product of an overactive brain.

To try to give myself some concrete structure to relate to, I have identified three TV shows I love that I think went twice as long as they should have gone. Perhaps some of the symptoms in these shows are found in our preaching as well.

Downtown Abbey – Too Much of a Good Thing
As mentioned at the top of the post, I think Downton will result in being twice as long as it needed to be. Time will tell however, as series 5 debuted to near-record ratings in the US, and we have yet to see how Fellowes will wrap up the saga of the estate and its colorful characters. For me, the issue with Downton is that it was all wrapped up nicely, but everyone was loving it so much (and profiting from it) that it was worth trying to continue. To be fair, there have been stellar moments. The storyline with Anna and Mr. Green tackled a timely yet incredibly difficult topic with reality and grace, and it has been rewarded with accolades (way to go, Joanne Froggatt!). I have also enjoyed the softer moments between Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes, especially at the beach. However, one of the current driving forces has been Mary’s romantic foibles, which are a direct result of a lead actor leaving the show, not the needs of the narrative.

Where I see this in my preaching is the dragging out a sermon or sermon series because of an affection for a moment, illustration, or topic. You have a favorite Scripture or Bible character, and you go so long or in-depth that it loses its impact and reveals that you can’t wait three years until the lectionary comes back around. Or perhaps you came across an illustration, video clip, or interesting fact that gets your gears turning, and you force it in where it doesn’t really belong. That’s the beauty of social media, by the way–Tweet it, Facebook it, Instagram it, blog about it! Or store it in your Evernote for a time when it is the perfect illustration.

One solution might be to map out the sermon or series as you would a story. Does every element move the story/point/topic forward? Does every detail within a point or illustration serve the bigger theme? A general tip for screenwriting is come into a scene as late as possible and leave as early as possible. This used to frustrate me because we never got to hear or see the full conversation or conflict. I have come to learn that this tactic is used to tell only the critical and interesting parts of the story. We fill in the rest on our own or deduce what happened from what comes next. I don’t know about you, but creating this kind of longing to hear more or to work it out on your own is the kind of engagement I want from my congregation. At least it is a lot better then people checking out because we hopped off the relevance train.

The West Wing – The Structure That Kills
When you join a likable and relatively-bulletproof president one year into his first term, you get the sense that the show would run seven years, ending with the president leaving office (unless the show got cancelled). There were also plenty of political topics and current events to delve into. However, as the person who recommended the show to me said, “Watch the first four seasons, and then you can really stop there if you want.” This point in the show coincided with the departure of creator and head writer Aaron Sorkin. He was the spirit and voice of the show. Seasons five through seven felt like photocopies of photocopies of Sorkin scripts. Everyone still spoke quickly as they walked down endless corridors, but the rhythm and musicality were off. Also, it was well within the rights of the new writers and showrunners to take the series where they felt was best, however, a controversial story-line involving Toby in the final season was so off-character that it led Sorkin to write an email of apology to the actor (see near the end of this article).

To extend a sermon or sermon series because of your interest and passion can be a good thing. Passion is relatable and infectious. It is also smart to do series that fit certain structures or are designed to carry through a liturgical season, like the four-Sunday Advent or six-Sunday Lent. However, if you are bound to a structure that takes the sermon or series beyond its timeliness or leaves parts feeling really thin, it may be time to restructure. Just because the book has six chapters doesn’t mean it needs to be six weeks. If a six week series runs out of gas in week three, you are stuck with almost a month to go.

The go-to solution I think most preaching instructors would recommend is to give each sermon a one-sentence purpose statement. If you find a lot of commas and conjunctions, perhaps there is too much in there for one week. If you find that some of the purpose statements in a series are a little too similar or can’t carry a full week on their own, perhaps it is time to combine.

House – What Do We Do Now?
The concept was awesome. The characters were captivating. The medical mysteries didn’t feel like filler to slog through on our way to the serialized content. And season three ended with the complete disintegration of House’s team–either through resignations or firings. The final image was of House absent-mindedly strumming a guitar and smiling for the first time in who-knows-how-many-episodes despite the complete destruction of everything he had built. While not terribly uplifting, this is exactly how this character’s story should have ended. I turned to my now-wife-then-girlfriend Kara and said, “That was perfect. That was beautiful. I don’t think I am going to even watch this show anymore.” Yet, I did. For five more seasons. I tuned in out of a sense of obligation. It got to the point where I was entertained while watching, but in between episodes, I had no desire to watch the next one. Clearly, I wasn’t the only one who felt that way, as season three was the peak in the ratings with a precipitous decline until the end.

Obviously, the prolonging of House is similar to Downton. Why end a story with good characters that is still making money? But where I want to focus with House is on the fact that the show didn’t really know where to go after that. They also faced the LOST challenge of not really knowing how to end it–they had a feel in mind but obviously not a plot. Season three ended in the perfect place–with Nero playing his fiddle while Rome burned. House was not a story of redemption, no matter how much they flirted with it, and so they were left with trying to find a new way to get to where they had already perfectly landed. No doubt, you have heard all of the airplane metaphors for sermon endings–the plane crash, the plan circling the runway, the plane touching down and suddenly taking off again… There are also plenty of jokes about the pastor’s spouse saying, “I did like the sermon. I especially liked all three endings.”

A solution here is to have an end in mind–which admittedly I don’t do often enough. If there is a purpose statement that guides the theme, there should also be a statement of where you want to leave people. I am someone who likes to write “chronologically,” which means I write from front to back and generally “discover” an ending. I am currently in a year-long program to work on aspects of my preaching, and one of the things I am working on is ending well and with intentionality. Don’t just talk until you have no more ideas. Don’t circle back around to something you suddenly realized you left out (we non-note preachers can be bad about this). If you find yourself saying, “as I said” or “as we saw earlier,” you may be circling without a plan on how to end it. Obviously, the end point doesn’t need to become a restrictive piece of structure, but it can give direction and help keep you on track.

How about you? Do you or your pastor struggle with sermons that are too long? What are some reasons you have identified? What are some solutions that have helped you combat this? Or perhaps just have fun with the pop-culture concept here and share in the comments below a show you think has gone or is going way too long.

Image by Flickr user Richard Munckton. Used under Creative Commons License. Edited from Original.

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