It’s a question that comes up in churches often: what is an appropriate length of a sermon? The conversation is usually sparked by someone in the congregation who has made a complaint that a sermon was too long. Complaints like these are a reasonably regular occurrence for the average pastor. Not once in my 25 years of ministry have I heard a complaint that a sermon was too short!
There are a few variables that need to be considered: what the church is used to, the maturity of the preacher, the spiritual maturity of the audience (believers or unbelievers?) and the particular culture. When visiting churches in Russia there appeared to be no time limit. In certain parts of the world where Christians are persecuted, people are starving for truth and you could probably preach all day.
In the context I was trained in (an educated, middle-class church in Southern California), 45-50 minutes was the standard fare. That’s what the church was accustomed to and what was modelled. But that doesn’t necessarily fit all contexts, and it certainly didn’t fit the context of my first church back here in New Zealand. I received immediate push-back from the congregation. But I was young and stubborn (as newly graduated, hot-headed pastors tend to be), and refused to budge. After a number of warnings from the elders I was finally given an ultimatum not to go over 35 minutes. I thought the world had come to an end.
But it was the best thing that ever happened to me. It forced me to sharpen my messages, reduce content and be clearer and more concise. Introductions and illustrations were crafted more carefully, sentences were shortened, and vocabulary simplified. The result was my preaching got better and my listeners were happier.
Kevin de Young posted some thoughts on this subject a few days ago (in fact it was the impetus to write this blog – you can read the entire article here). Here are a few extracts from what he wrote:
“While guest preaching in a church several years ago I asked the senior pastor how long I should preach. He replied, “Five minutes shorter than you think.” He wasn’t trying to be mean. His advice was tongue-in-cheek. But it was also partly serious. He went on to add that he’d rarely heard a sermon that couldn’t have been better by being five minutes shorter…
We honour good preaching in our circles. And we should. Preaching is the lifeblood of the church. There is no greater calling than to herald the riches of Christ. But good preaching is not the same as long preaching. We love to hear of the Puritan preachers who turned over the hourglass and settled in for a second hour of sermonizing. Many of our heroes from ages past preached long, dense, wonderful messages. What we forget is that those congregations often complained about those sermons too!
More importantly, we overlook the fact that today’s congregations have books and podcasts and small groups and Sunday school classes and book studies and a host of opportunities to be instructed in the Word. The Puritans were preaching to many people who couldn’t read and who received all their Bible teaching from Sunday services (or pastoral catechizing). So a 30-minute sermon is not necessarily a capitulation to short attention spans. We live in a different time with different avenues for good Bible teaching.”
John Piper preaches for 30 minutes and I would consider him one of the best preachers in the world. There has been some great preaching that has come out of the Sydney Anglicans over the past years and seldom do their messages go over 35 minutes. I’m not talking about clever little homilies here with lots of stories to keep people entertained. I’m talking about well-formed, clearly presented expository sermons that unpack the meaning of the text.
As for myself, I have settled for messages between 35 and 40 minutes. I try not to go over 40 and find that my sermons are better when they don’t. That’s just me. Every pastor and preacher will find his own optimum length. And every congregation, over time, will get used to them.
I’ll conclude with the closing remarks of Kevin de Young. I don’t think I can say it better:
“Here’s the bottom line: there’s no need to preach for an hour when 40 minutes will do. The truth is most people will be glad for a shorter sermon. The parents with children in the pew certainly will be. Your wife just might be too. And the nursery workers will rise up and call you blessed.”