The Long and Short of Sermons

This post has been here for a long time and has had a lot of reads. I’m surprised that there hasn’t been more input on this vital subject. Maybe everybody who reads it is a preacher and therefore feels unqualified to answer. If so, let me step in as one who has been on the other side of the message for 50 years and so, must endure.

TylerR gives a good definitive answer centered around how able you are to hold their attention. Of course, there are those who feel they have the attention they want, when they don’t. How do you tell? A good place to start is with the eyeballs. Yes, but isn’t it good that they are looking down at their Bible? Maybe; depends on whether your message requires Biblical confirmation. The reason I say it that way is that in a class situation you can ask questions to show the degree of comprehension. A student quickly learns how to get their mind off your boring subject by looking at the material in his lap or on his desk as a way to get through a message. They can always claim the ability to multitask, which reduces the need to concentrate on your message.

In my career as a sermon listener, I have heard messages ranging from twenty minutes to two hours. An Episcopal neighbor of mine said it was wrong to make someone endure a message longer than twenty minutes; of course, consider the content. The hours-long speakers probably thought their audiences were absolutely captivated by their long message by the extreme attentive look on their faces, not realizing that we listeners “check-out” once the mind has absorbed its limit and our faces turn to stone because we are no longer interested. The mind cannot absorb more than the body can endure, according to an old sage. Arthritis becomes quite painful when a person sits in one position too long and we learn that it pays to look like “we’ve got it; can we go home now?”.

The length of time you can take depends on the content and your presentation. I’d like to see a normal message be 30-35 minutes for a non-motivated audience, but for exceptional messages from a good presenter, you have earned the right to go 45 minutes as long as you don’t erroneously feel you always hold their attention. When you tell me something I don’t know, you have my attention. If your introduction in directed toward two-year-olds, I’d like to have you consider a twenty-minute message. Many years ago, I asked John MacArthur who he aims his messages to. He said he preaches to his 35 assistant pastors who are in the audience, not to the hundreds who are in attendance for the first time. If you preach to this level and I’m in your audience, you can take another fifteen minutes as far as I’m concerned.

John J. Stewart

I’ve been preaching for over 30 years. I’ll confess that when I was in my 45 minute plus period, I did so thinking that those sermons were 2700 seconds of solid content. Then I started listening to myself. I would listen to my recorded sermons, often transcribing them, and critique myself. (I also invited some close friends and a couple of non-church acquaintances to be honest critics and give their opinions.)

Here’s what I discovered:

I wasted a lot of time with words that weren’t truly necessary to the sermon. (One critic said “more glitter than substance”.) When I edited my transcriptions, taking out extraneous material, I reduced the sermon length by 1/3.

A lot of what I thought was interesting/beneficial/effective wasn’t.

Most people won’t remember the majority of the sermon, so I need to make sure that they understand a few main points and their application.

Here’s what I do now:

My typical sermon is 30-35 minutes.

I often pause during the sermon to keep myself focused, to think about what I’m going to say (and IF it’s important), and to see if my audience is still “locked in”.

My notes are more extensive and are nearly a manuscript, but I’m not reading it.

I will highlight two to four “application points” in the sermon that I want to make sure are remembered. I’ll stress those in the sermon and in the conclusion.

Finally, there are very few preachers today who can preach effectively for nearly an hour. (If you think you’re one, you’re probably not.) An elderly man once told me at the end of my 55 minute sermon, “Son. If you’ve beaten a horse for an hour and he ain’t moved……..he’s dead!”

Advice: Get yourself some honest critics and listen to them.

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

I took his last eight sermons (videos are on Vimeo) and averaged their length: 46 minutes 54 seconds.

(And I must say time flies when I’m listening to him.)