April 20 2022
Sermon Length Thoughts
Douglas Adams once wrote that “Time is an illusion, lunchtime doubly so.” While Adams was famously not talking about sermons, given his disinterest in Christianity, he makes a good point that figures into our discussion about sermons.
Here in the US, church services are most commonly happening on Sunday mornings. They do occasionally happen at other points in the week, but our main point of engagement is in that space.
In some churches, outside constraints such as a TV broadcast or a rental agreement will force the service to fit a definite time slot. In other places, internal constraints like a second service or a standing event immediately after the service will force a schedule on the plan. Of course, in both of those, there is still a conversation that must be had about start times or allocation of the time available.
Many of us, though, labor under no such constraints. We can preach as long as we’d like to—20 minutes, 40 minutes, and so forth. Thus the question arises: “How long should a sermon be?”
Answering that question requires us to hit a couple of additional thoughts. First, remember that you as the preacher are typically far more interested in the background material, theological truths, and historical settings than most of the congregation. The same is true of some of the underlying controversies connected to your passage. Guess who cares about the Documentary Hypothesis? Fewer people than you think.
Second, remember that (in most churches) for every minute you preach, someone is trying to keep up with small children. Maybe it’s the parent in the pew. Maybe it’s the nursery worker. But somebody’s wrestling with kids while you preach. At the very least, it will be helpful for them if you are consistent with your sermon time.
Now, to the point of the length of the sermon: if you look at the Bible (a great place for sermon information!), you do not find transcripts of sermons that took hours to preach. You find references to Paul and Ezra speaking for hours on end, but Peter’s sermon at Pentecost did not take that long. Neither did Paul’s at Mars Hill.
So we should be cautious about assigning prescriptive value to what were, honestly, special events. Paul was, after all, a traveling preacher, and hearing from him was an extra. If I could get Danny Hays to come preach and teach on the Old Testament, I’d plan for it to be several hours longer than me preaching out of the OT, because it’s different.
How long, then? How long hinges on some factors: first, your own physical stamina. You should not be nigh unto death at the end of every sermon. And your stamina also applies to how long you are able to speak plainly and coherently. Do not assume the sermon is the only ministry you need to do—you don’t need to be so wiped out that you stumble quickly away from the invitation/response time and collapse on the couch. At least not regularly…being asthmatic, I’ve had my days.
Second, consider the ability of your congregation to track your sermon. That’s a function of their attention span, physical situation, and the location of the sermon. Is there always a train blasting through at the conclusion of your sermon? SHORTEN YOUR SERMON, because you can’t change the railroad schedule. You may long for the days when people could listen for hours on end, like the Puritans claim they did, but answer me this: if those multi-hour sermons were effective, why didn’t that practice stick? If your congregation cannot listen for an hour and truly gather the point—don’t preach that long. Yes, there are always those folks who will say “Preacher, keep on!” Some of them mean it. Some are being nice.
Traditions of the church also weigh on that capacity for the congregation: some ethnic groups are more willing to stay, listen, and participate than others. You won’t re-adjust clock-driven white folks by preaching longer than they can listen every week, though. You’ll train them to tune you out. And your congregation may have legitimate outside concerns: if you’re preaching in farm country, there are 7-day-a-week seasons even for Christian farmers. They are going to carve out as much as they can on Sunday, but that water has got to get turned off, checked, or moved when it has to be done.
Third, consider your ability to be interesting. I know, the Gospel is always interesting. That’s true. God is always exciting.
Preachers are not God.
So maybe you can be engaging for 30 minutes or 40 minutes. But are you really? Most people are done with a speech at about 30 minutes. 40 pushes it.
“But they go to 3-hour sporting events!” Ever been to a 3-hour football game or baseball game? Do you sit still the whole time and listen to one person talk? No. The action happens, things change, and you eat nachos.
Mix up the sermon with changing preachers, timeouts for music, add nachos and then talk about having a 3-hour sermon.
What I am saying is this: you should preach as long as you believe the Lord has given you words to say. But you should make sure it is the Lord and not yourself. That’s what your preparation time is for: study and prayer, to ask the Lord to guide you and to help you trim it up and make the point.
How long should a sermon be? Long enough to make the point. Short enough that folks want to hear another one. Let that be your consideration.
After all, lunchtime is coming after your sermon...