I once asked the following questions on a Facebook update: “How much information and data should be included in a pulpit sermon before it reaches overload? Sometimes I do preach too long! And how long is too long?” I received a number of thoughtful responses that make some good points [edited slightly].
The preaching isn’t everything
“Such a great question and one that I’m convinced more pastors need to ask themselves (and others) more often. Here’s my current thought (I’ve thought a lot about this one over the last few years and have changed a lot in my thinking): there’s so much more to corporate worship than just the preaching. So, I’d love to see services structured in such a way that more components (corporate prayer, testimony, music—psalms, hymns, spiritual songs—etc.) are also included as vital elements to corporate worship (I’m guessing God saw them as vital since He said to do them). In fact, I’d probably say, in a 75 minute service, a 30-40 min sermon maximum, giving people an opportunity to not only hear God’s Word, but then also to provide opportunity to engage with each other through prayer, fellowship, testimony, etc. This is so encouraging and probably another effective way to worship God together, rather than just more listening to one person, taking notes, going home and moving on. Of course, there are all different types of learners etc, so there’s no one right way, but that’s my two cents today (it may be different in 5 more years).”
“It depends on the audience. A regular church congregation vs. a bunch of seminary students makes a difference for sure. I am generally good for 35-45 minutes before I hit overload and zone out.”
Shorter is better
“As a non-scholar, too long and too much info is too much. Hit the point in the first 10 minutes. My mind wanders and needs to be reeled back in by then. Another 10 to 15 mininutes to reiterate and clarify. Anything longer and I am tuned out and have forgotten all that’s been said except a major point or two. For me, someone trying to get too much into one sermon is frustrating. I’ve always believed that when we study to teach, most of the studying is for us and then we should share the main stuff with others. On the other hand, classes/Sunday school/Bible study are there to dig deep and learn all the details.”
Train them to listen longer
“If I am not mistaken, the Lincoln vs. Douglas debates lasted about 8-9 hours at a time and were attended by everyday folk with regularity. Of course, that was before the image took over as the cultural epistemological medium in dominance. In our ‘now this’ age of distraction people have a much harder time paying attention for more than twenty minutes. A pastor must know his people and if he desires to preach longer must train then over time from dullness of hearing. It is a shame that most Americans watch 4 hours of TV a day and struggle with a 60 minute sermon. But such is the age of entertainment we live in.”
Bob Jones, Jr.
“I remember Dr. Bob Jr. addressing this topic: If you’re in your 20’s, preach 20 minutes. If you’re in your 30’s, preach 30 minutes, and if you’re in your 40’s, preach…30 minutes! To which he got a hearty laugh. But he meant it. And he practiced it. He said more in 30 minutes than many I have heard when they preach 45 minutes. A couple more thoughts. 1) Longer is not always better. 2) The shorter the sermon, the less prep time went into it is not true. In fact, many times the opposite applies. 3) One has to be an absolutely extraordinary speaker to go longer than 45 minutes—effectively. They’re out there, but there are more people doing long sermons than should be!”
How long it feels
“I think it also matters how long a sermon feels. Depending on factors such as the dynamics of the speaker and the technicality of the content, the sermon might not feel as long as it really is or vice versa. I also think that there is such a thing as a timely joke to prod your listeners back to where they should be.”
After that initial discussion on sermon lengths, a dear brother responded to argue for longer, not shorter sermons and for more of them, not less. Here is my response, with some added thoughts and conclusions.
I preach 45-50 minutes every time I am allowed to do so. Furthermore, I am radically opposed to 12-14 minute “sermonettes.” Although it is a corny cliche by now, I do believe that such sermonettes only will produce “Christianettes.” But I question if I really need 50 minutes to adequately deliver and apply a message from the Word. As much as we hate to admit it, people today (Christians included) just have a harder time sitting through hour-long lectures like they did in the days of the Puritans. I am also convinced that the oratorical staying power of a Charles Spurgeon is something that few of us preachers possess today.
I think that my conclusions are as follows: If we preachers could all eliminate non-essentials, and concentrate on the most important matters, and reduce needless repetition, we all could even more effectively deliver our goods in 40 minutes.
And yes, I am for more good sermons, not fewer—but some of us need to realize that the sermon is not the only component of a truly biblical public worship experience. In that regard, I draw your attention again to the first response above. It is thoughtful and helpful, and comes from a person whom I deeply respect for her spiritual and theological depth.
One other person wisely responded: “I don’t think long sermons are wrong; I just think too many are too long!”