When Is It Time to Quit?

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From Faith Pulpit, Winter 2014. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Every once in a while I do something that feels akin to beating my head against a wall. This article feels like that because my intention is to discuss how long preachers should preach. I have discussed this topic with enough preachers to know that preachers will preach as long as they want to preach. Certainly every preacher needs to be “convinced in his own mind” of what length of sermon is appropriate. I acknowledge this is an area where good men can disagree. Perhaps there is a certain arrogance when a preacher insists on preaching as long as he wants, or more “spiritually” stated, as long as the Holy Spirit leads.

Certainly no hard and fast rule on sermon length exists other than the guidelines of past practice and good sense. Let me say at the outset that I am advocating for shorter sermons that pack a greater punch. The bottom line is that few preachers have the ability to keep an audience for 50-plus minutes. (I know that I am not one of those preachers and chances are you aren’t either.) In fact, for every preacher who can engage an audience and keep its attention for that length of time, there are a dozen who can’t. I am not arguing for sermonettes for that would only produce “Christianettes.”

I am not making an appeal for lighter sermons with less content and more fluff. I am making an appeal for sermons that concentrate their content and maximize their impact. Certain ministry contexts can affect sermon length such as funerals or weddings. In a school, endings come abruptly at the end of the period and chapel authors need to quit on time. I remember our former president, Dr. David Nettleton, introducing FBBC chapel authors with the admonition, “May the Lord bless you until 9:40.” This gentle but obvious reminder was intended to keep guest authors from undue sermon length.

You might contend that your people want you to preach longer messages and that they complain when their time in the Word is shortened. Without trying to question the sincerity of such comments, I would suggest that our people are extremely gracious, often willing to overlook our shortcomings (or in this case, our “longcomings”). For every person willing to have you preach longer, ten would appreciate you getting to the point.

I believe an appropriate sermon length for most preachers is 30–35 minutes. This accounts for the pulpit skills of most preachers, the culture in which we live, and the attention span of the average church-goer. Generally, if you cannot say it in 30 minutes, another 20 minutes won’t help.

I recall a sermon preached by Dr. A.V. Henderson at Detroit’s Temple Baptist Church in the early 1980s. His Sunday morning sermon was 18 minutes long, and I still remember parts of it 30 years later. I felt like I needed a seatbelt as the sermon raced from the pulpit that day. While we would consider that sermon short, I experienced that morning his normal style of preaching. What the sermon lacked in length was more than compensated for in intensity.

We can argue that previous generations sat through hour-long sermons, or that other cultures have sermons that go for several hours. In 21st century America we have a culture where people are conditioned by media to think in half-hour segments. Most people mentally check out during a sermon at least once while it is preached, ironically often to check the time.

I recall a story of a preacher who tried to be conscientious about how long he preached, normally preaching for about 30 minutes. His technique was to put a lozenge in his mouth just before he got up to preach and quit when it was gone. One Sunday he preached for 90 minutes. Surprised, his wife asked him what happened to cause him to preach so long. He replied that he had put a button in his mouth by mistake.

We live in a world completely focused on time. Every person in your audience will have at least one time piece and some will have two or three. Yet somehow in the preaching event, all sense of time stops, at least for the preacher. Should the preacher be the only person in the room who has no concern for the clock? We even have some Christian quips stemming from long-winded preachers. “The mind cannot absorb more than the seat can endure.” Or, “If you don’t hit oil after 30 minutes, stop boring.” Often preachers themselves joke about being long-winded and then proceed to preach overtime. One of the worst experiences I had with guest authors while pastoring was a week of meetings with an evangelist who refused to preach for less than an hour.

Several issues contribute to lengthier sermons. Here are a few notables:

  • Some preachers fail to edit their material properly, bringing far too much material to the pulpit. Sermon preparation will always produce more content than what should be preached. Part of the skill of effective communication is knowing what to leave behind and what to bring with you.
  • Some preachers need far too long a runway to get their sermon airborne. Long introductions suck the life out of an audience. Your people are never more willing to listen than the first few minutes of your sermon. Sermon introductions should normally last about 10% of the total sermon.
  • Unprepared rabbit trails plague some preachers, adding unaccounted time. These loose paths of thought can leave preachers wondering where the time went as well as be the source of problems.
  • Some preachers never identify the sermon’s purpose by using a clear theme or proposition. A sermon without a target is certain to wander hither and yon.
  • Some sermons suffer from too many details. Only the exegetical information essential for a proper interpretation should be brought to the pulpit. As one student of preaching has suggested, paint the picture but don’t tell everyone what’s in the paint.
  • Illustrations are helpful in communication but don’t let yourself overillustrate a point. Illustrations don’t need illustrations. At some point a sermon can be like a skyscraper, one story on top of another.
  • Some preachers come to the pulpit not fully prepared. A lengthy sermon can easily flow from an unprepared mind and heart as the preacher unwittingly tends toward areas of comfort and thus greater time. Too little structure can cause a sermon to wander as the preacher tends to be like Abraham, leaving without knowing where he was going.
  • When you get to the end of the sermon, end it. Don’t give empty promises like saying, “In conclusion,” and then go on for another 20 minutes. Never introduce new material at the conclusion. Even a crash landing is better than no landing. Again, your conclusion should be 10% or less of the total sermon.

I am not arguing that the preacher should leave out the good stuff in order to make the sermon shorter. What I am arguing is that you leave out all the other stuff and leave in only the best stuff. Let your words have a sense of urgency and clarity. Get to the point of the passage. You do not need to answer every exegetical question in the passage. You don’t need to turn over every rock, understanding it is okay to leave something for another time. Exhaust neither your text nor the audience.

These words are not offered as a rebuke but rather as an encouragement. Sharpen your message. Think purposely about what you preach. Sharpen the sword to a fine edge.

I give these words from one preacher to another, hoping that when you preach your next sermon, you will not do what you have always done. Old habits die hard, but a long-winded preaching habit is one habit worth reconsidering. As Dr. Robert Delnay, founding dean of Faith Baptist Theological Seminary, said concerning the length of sermons, “blessed are the merciful.”

Daniel Brown bio


Daniel Brown serves on the faculty of Faith Baptist Bible College and Seminary where he provides instruction in pastoral ministry and Bible. He has served in a variety of pastoral roles in addition to teaching on the faculty at Denver Baptist Bible College and Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Dr. Brown holds the MDiv and ThM from Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary and the DMin from Westminster Theological Seminary. He and his wife, Mary Jo, have been blessed with four daughters.

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TylerR's picture
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Fri, 9/7/12
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Good Article

Whenever I make a concerted effort to stay below the 40 minute mark, I feel the message went better, was tighter and more lean, and the folks paid better attention. The messages the past two Sunday Mornings were at about 38 mins each. This past Sunday, I ran to 48 mins and I could tell folks were getting a bit restless. I'm not sure I would have done justice to the text had I cut more material, and the passage I was dealing with was large and a bit complex (Jn 4:1-26).

Sometimes sermons, due to the nature of the passage, just go long. However, I think 35-40 mins is the best range. I am trying to meet it regularly. My Sunday Afternoon message was only 26 mins, and I think it was perfect. 

Very good article. 

TylerR is the Pastor of Faith Baptist Church in Divernon, Il. He blogs here

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Tue, 6/2/09
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Excellent Article!

After nearly forty years of preaching I seem to have developed an internal clock that keeps me at about 35 minutes. It seems to be the right length for our church and for me. The paragraph on the contributing issues for lengthy sermons is spot on. Most of the needlessly long sermons I've heard have most of these issues. Currently I only know of only a handful of preachers who can preach for 50 minutes plus and leave me wanting more. Frankly what some long-winded preachers need is someone to honestly critique their sermons. Honest and constructive criticism is helpful and will reveal volumes about a preacher's character. Some churches actually have post Sunday evaluation sessions.

BTW, the best comment I ever heard was, "Son, if you've beaten a horse for an hour and he ain't moved........he's dead!"

"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan

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Very good article as well.  I

Very good article as well.  I admit that I preach in the morning about 45 to 50 minutes; usually shorter in the evening.  I type most of my sermons out in outline and paragraph style. I average about eight pages per message. The most important part of this article is the encouragement to do more editing.  This is the key.

Pastor Mike Harding

Chip Van Emmerik's picture
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I don't think there's a

I don't think there's a "right" time. Partly it's a matter of what you and the church are comfortable with. Partly, it's also having something to say. About the only time I get irritated is when someone wastes my time. I am very type A, and I speak very quickly. Just my style, which isn't for everyone. But I pack a lot into my lessons/sermons. Sadly, some guys are more concerned about a predetermined time than content. They are disorganized or repetitive. I frequently hear speakers who take 30 minutes to say what could/should have been said in 15, or who go an hour to cover 40 minutes worth of material. These people drive me nuts; I get fidgity, and I usually get less out of the presentation than I would have if it had simply been half as long because I get distracted by the speaker. The other distraction is the speaker who doesn't know how to close. The message was good, kept moving and kept my attention. But, oh those long, drawn out, repetitive closings where the speaker can't quite bring himself to quit for for he will leave something important unsaid.

Why is it that my voice always seems to be loudest when I am saying the dumbest things?

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Tue, 6/30/09
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Ron,

Ron,

 

"No horse is too dead to beat"--- Haddon Robinson

Pastor Mike Harding

Jim's picture
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Wed, 5/6/09
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Mike sits at the end of his sermon

It is finished!

 

Jim's picture
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Wed, 5/6/09
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Seriously ... say it in 30

If you've got more material ... start another 30 next week

Rob Fall's picture
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Tue, 6/2/09
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Yeup

Don't be afraid of series.

Jim wrote:

If you've got more material ... start another 30 next week

Hoping to shed more light than heat..

Aaron Blumer's picture
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Mon, 6/1/09
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Ideal time

I think most preachers have an ideal time length--a length that usually works well for their style/personality. I've heard some guys that I'd hate to hear for less than 40 minutes at a time, maybe even less than 45 at a time. There's just no fluff or fat in their delivery but also not information overload. Throw in a comfortable seat and 45 mins isn't too much at all.

But yes, for every 1 of those, there are probably 500 of the rest of us.

But I sympathize w/guys who tend to go long, especially if it's because they go to the pulpit with a passion to communicate. I remember some occasions--especially in the first few years--when I approached the end of a sermon and felt that I just hadn't quite gotten "it" across yet, hadn't done it justice. So I'd try to hit it from a different angle. Afterwards I felt I'd made a bad delivery worse. So... it's agonizing to quit when you feel like haven't quite done the job yet, but it's true: keeping on is usually going to make the effect even worse.

(Then there are the ones who go long, as the article mentions, simply because they have three sermons worth of stuff they've planned to deliver. Great stuff, but as listeners we need it in spoonfuls rather than 50 gal. drum loads.)

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