Sermons - How Long?

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

“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.”

My thoughts

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!”

[node:bio/will-varner body]

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There are 12 Comments

Ron Bean's picture

For me, it's not so much length as it is content. There are some preachers that can get away with a 55 minute exposition and keep the congregation tuned in. The key is content and presentation--and these require preparation.

Here's my challenge; Listen to a sermon (preferably one of your own) and transcribe the whole thing, including the "ums", "ers", and "you knows" and then edit the thing. I think you'll be amazed at how much time is wasted. Don't be afraid of going into the pulpit with a manuscript if that's what it takes to keep you focused. Dr. Bob Jones Jr., whom you mentioned, usually memorized his manuscript. I'm not advocating reading a manuscript but I am advocating preparation.

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

Ann B.'s picture

I can listen to any long sermon IF the preacher has something to say.  Sometimes I have listened to sermons over an hour and been disappointed when the preacher stopped.

However, preaching that involves a three-point basic outline of the text, and then using that as a jump-off for a series of examples and talking about one's family, experiences, college days, connections, etc., is wearisome, and I think that there is far more of that out there than solid sermons that are too long.

TylerR's picture

Editor

Mine usually stay around 35-40. I believe this depends entirely on the preacher and the material. Overload is an issue to be concerned with. I personally think that if something cannot be said in under 45 minutes perhaps it should be split into two sermons. You can tell when you start to lose some of the congregation - that typically takes place sometime between 30 and 40 minutes. They go from paying attention to marking time. 

Regarding Ron's challenge above; I record mine and listen to bits of them later. I am astonished at how poorly I express myself sometimes. When speaking I think I'm being clear, articulate and succinct. The recording often tells a different story. I listen afterwards and cringe! 

 

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Ron Bean's picture

I've had the same feeling, Tyler. It's a good thing for preachers to allow themselves to be critiqued. This can be done by other members of the leadership team, the congregation on Sunday night, or your wife. 

Tip: If the idea of having your sermons critiqued by someone else bothers you, you may have a problem.

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

Lee's picture

"A good sermon is about two things:

It is about Jesus,

And it is about 30 minutes!"

 

Hard to argue with that.  Smile

Lee

handerson's picture

Step 1: Rate yourself on a scale of 1-10 on how "good" you imagine your preaching to be 

Step 2: Subtract 2

Step 3: Multiply by 5 minutes.

=Sermon Length

:-) 

TylerR's picture

Editor

handerson:

 

I scored -5. What does this mean . . . ?!

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

dcbii's picture

EditorModerator

I very much agree with Ann. I've heard sermons that went almost 90 minutes that left me wondering where the time went, and I've heard 20 minute messages that were so devoid of meaty content that I was looking at the clock long before the 20 minutes were up and hoping it would end soon.

In general, though, there needs to be time to reflect and digest after a sermon that has a lot of good content. That's the way learning will normally take place. There's a reason that very few college lecture classes are longer than an hour. Sometimes a 3-hour class will be put into 2 sessions instead of 3, but that's not really optimal.

I haven't been to many preaching conferences but at some of the best ones, I came away with a lot more understanding (and remembrance) of what was said when there was a discussion time after each message, and then enough break time to further discuss things with my fellow attendees in a relaxed and interactive fashion before the next session.

If the purpose of preaching is to get the people to understand and internalize the Word of God rather than to simply develop patience on the part of the listeners (most of whom will tune out after a certain amount time even if they still appear to be listening), then learning how to deliver the right amount of content in a concise manner (which may take a lot more preparation) is much to be preferred over really long sermons where many people are likely to either not remember as much, or to get lost in the amount of material presented.

Dave Barnhart

JNoël's picture

While it is true that the congregation will be thankful for a 75 minute message if the content and delivery are excellent, the nursery workers never will. A message that long means closing in on two hours of nursery time. And don't start talking about sacrifice and spirituality - the youth workers generally are overworked and under-appreciated and, many times, by the one hour point, ready to quit.

Consider your nursery and youth workers when you preach, for pity's sake.  :)

 

V/r

Ashamed of Jesus! of that Friend On whom for heaven my hopes depend! It must not be! be this my shame, That I no more revere His name. -Joseph Grigg (1720-1768)

Fred Moritz's picture

Robert Delnay writes that the reason a preacher should stop after 30 minutes is the beatitude that says: "Blessed are the merciful."

Pastork's picture

As I read through the various points made here, I was left with a few questions that will reflect something of my own perspective on the matter. For example, who is really speaking through the sermon? Is it merely a man speaking? Or is God speaking through a man who has been called to the ministry of the Word and has sought the Lord's guidance in preparing to be used of Him to deliver His message to the congregation?

And, if preaching/teaching is really such a spiritual work, if a man is used of God to teach His Word to His people, then doesn't this also mean that proper hearing of the preaching/teaching of the Word is also a spiritual work in which the congregation seeks the enabling grace of God and illumination of the Spirit in order to be good hearers of the Word?

These are the kinds of questions I had as I read through the above responses, and I also wondered why no one mentioned any of these basic, foundational points concerning the ministry of the Word in the local church. I just kept thinking, does anyone really understand the nature of what they are talking about here? Have we really diminished our view of the role of teaching in the churches to something like a college lecture? Have we really begun to view listening to the pastor-teacher like simply listening to a speech or a college lecture? Have we really gotten to a place where we can think and talk about this ministry without any reference to the God's purpose for it and the role of the Holy Spirit in it?

Perhaps it would be better to discuss these matters instead. For, if we view the preaching/teaching office as I have suggested, then the real issue isn't, for example, the length of a modern person's attention span, but rather how long the Holy Spirit can get someone's attention through the Word as they depend upon Him and as He enables them to listen in faith.

P.S. I am currently in a hospital bed recovering from a major surgery, and the pain medication is making it somewhat difficult to think, so please bear with me as I attempt to be lucid.

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