Picture from Silas Barr Photography

A few weeks ago, I ran across this snippet in World magazine:

After more than two days in the pulpit, Pastor Zach Zehnder of a Mount Dora, Fla., church has set a world record for longest speech marathon. The 31-year-old pastor of theCross church delivered a 53-hour, 18-minute sermon with the help of 200 pages of notes and more than 600 PowerPoint slides that began on Friday, Nov. 7, and ended at 12:18 p.m. on Sunday. The church organized congregants at all hours to hear Zehnder’s sermon that spanned Genesis to Revelation.

I was intrigued by Zach’s efforts to preach such a long sermon, and also encouraged to discover his desire to preach the Bible as a grand narrative (which is something W. A. Criswell famously did in 5 hours). I’ve invited Zach to the blog to give us some insight into the preparation and delivery of this message.

Trevin Wax: Zach, I’m guessing you had to do some research on the world records for longest sermon. What got you thinking about this idea?

Zach Zehnder: My wife leads the kid’s ministry at our church, and there was an activity she was doing with the kids that involved Guinness World Records. I remember thinking, “I wonder what the longest sermon ever preached was.”

First, I love to preach and anytime God’s Word goes out, it accomplishes something and so the longer I preach, the more opportunity for the grace of Jesus to be shared and make an impact in someone’s life. Secondly, I’m really competitive and so I thought it would be pretty cool to have a world-record! As I investigate with Guinness, they do not have a category for “Longest Sermon Marathon,” but they sent back the “Longest Speech Marathon” as an alternative.

Picture from Silas Barr Photography

Trevin Wax: What was the preparation stage like? I’m assuming that preaching for 50+ hours straight means you had to put together a year’s worth of sermons. How did you get ready for this?

Zach Zehnder: The preparation was by far the hardest part of the speech. I had thought of this idea over a year before we actually did it, and I started preparing 6 months prior.

If people were going to come and listen to me preach for 2 or 4 hour shifts (some even stayed for more than 40 hours of it) then I wanted to make it a quality event. Nobody had ever preached this long before, so I started like any normal sermon by preparing an outline.

My goal was to preach through the entire Bible, from Genesis through Revelation. So, I picked out 50 different stories/topics and arranged them chronologically.

From there I went through past sermons and tried to fill in the topics. I had notes and manuscripts for 35 out of the 50. So I had to fill in the other 15 just like any other sermon. All in all, this was about 2 years worth of preaching for a normal pastor who preaches every week.

Trevin Wax: You decided to do a sermon that tells the entire story of the Bible. Why did you decide to take this approach?

Zach Zehnder: I wanted to preach through the entire Word of God because I felt like certain things would stick out to me that previously I hadn’t noticed. As I did this, it just reconfirmed God’s ridiculous commitment to us despite us failing Him time after time. We know this, but when you look at the totality of the Word in one setting, it becomes even more apparent and even more amazing that God loves us as much as He does. Romans 5:8 stuck out to me as a key verse.

Trevin Wax: How did you determine what stories to include and what stories to leave out?

Zach Zehnder: I wanted to include all the major ones. Obviously, there was some bias there as I didn’t want to start from scratch. For instance, I had preached 20 weeks on Exodus a year ago, so I spent about 6 to 8 hours alone in Exodus. The same could be said of a series I did earlier this year on 1 Corinthians. I covered that for 4 to 5 hours.

Trevin Wax: When was the most difficult point in delivering the sermon?

Zach Zehnder: Training myself to eat while talking. I had a power nap about 24 hours in and woke up and was very light-headed. I hadn’t eaten enough the first 24 hours. So my medical team (I had 4 nurses from the church that rotated shifts during the speech) pumped me with a big breakfast and I got more comfortable eating in front of people while talking. I got so comfortable that I even ate steak and lobster at hour 36 while preaching through the Sermon on the Mount! It doesn’t get better than that.

My throat felt awful about 8 hours in and I was unsure if I would make it, but again, I hadn’t taken anything at that point. They pumped me with some hot honey tea, throat spray, and lozenges and I was good to go. My voice held throughout and was about as sharp at the end as it was at the beginning.

Picture from Silas Barr Photography

Trevin Wax: What did you do after you finished speaking?

Zach Zehnder: I went home and took a 7 hour nap and then watched part of a Sunday Night Football game then fell asleep again for another 7 hours. I was pretty out of it. Apparently my kids came home and I talked with them for a couple minutes, but I have no recollection of that!

Trevin Wax: Tell us about the ministry that gripped your heart and led you to take on this challenge. How much money did you raise?

Zach Zehnder: We raised over $102,000 for Hand in Hand which is a local non-profit in Lake County, FL. They recently opened a recovery house for men in our area and the money went to that house called PowerHouse Recovery Program.

I believe in second chances and I want to help those who have struggled with alcoholism and addiction. It’s been amazing to see God work through these men at the house and how He’s changing their lives. My motivation was to help this house succeed as best as I could. And if I can’t give $100,000, but can help raise $100,000 then I wanted to do my part. I’m very proud of the money that we raised and believe that many men will be able to change their lives through this event. People can still donate to the cause at longestspeechever.com/donate.

Trevin Wax: How many people were involved in this event?

Zach Zehnder: We had over 50 people that put a ton of time into this event before it even started. They were doing everything from marketing, finding sponsors, figuring out tech stuff, logistics team, rules team, and medical team. We had about 500 people that stopped in to show support over the weekend and over 200 different witnesses and spectators during the weekend as well. I want to say a big “Thanks” to my church for all their hard work.