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The Perfect Length for a Sermon

A denominational executive recently chided pastors in his tribe for inflicting “spiritual starvation” on their flocks. The crime? Brief sermons.

After skimming a sermon on a pastor’s blog, the denom leader wrote: “It could not have been more than eight minutes long, if that! This is, sadly, not some exception. It is in keeping with a disturbing trend: shorter and shorter sermons. We cannot expect our congregations to remain healthy and put them on a preaching starvation diet.”

This misguided executive has been duped by the myth of “more is better.” I’m afraid he’s assuming his longed-for long sermons achieve far more than they really do.

THE GOAL & NOT

We need to be clear about the goal of a sermon or message time. To me, it’s to help draw people into a closer relationship with the Lord–to help them know, love and follow him.

And we need to be clear about what is NOT the goal. The sermon’s goal should not be . . .

. . . to dispense information. We’re drowning in information. We no longer need an information middleman. We need a transformation guide.

. . . to showcase the speaker’s oratory skills. It’s not about the messenger.

. . . to prove to the congregation that the preacher studied all week.

. . . to deify or over-exalt the sermon. Yes, God is holy. God’s Word is holy. But a human’s sermon is, well, human. God can work through it. But that’s God doing the supernatural stuff, on his terms.

SERMON LIMITS

When it comes to determining the perfect sermon length, we need to know the limitations of the medium:

Lecture method. Of all the forms of communication and inspiration, the lecture method is among the least fruitful. Research shows that people remember just 10 percent or less of what they hear in a lecture or sermon. Most of those well-prepared words are quickly lost. Forever. The longer the sermon, the more that’s forgotten.

Finite attention spans. Everyone knows that children’s attention spans are short. But adults’ ability to concentrate on a speaker’s words is similarly short–about seven minutes. They’re just better at masking it. (Pastor, even though I’m looking at you and maybe even nodding, I’m actually daydreaming about what I’m going to do after church.)

Passive form. Most preachers still employ a passive, spectator approach to the sermon time. They do all the talking. And because the people sit without the opportunity to interact or process what they’re hearing, they fail to engage in a meaningful way. Some may be entertained, but rarely moved.

Human wiring. People consume, learn and apply communication in different ways. Some process predominately through their eyes. Others internalize primarily through action. And some process chiefly through their ears. The latter are the auditory learners. They do better with sermons. The problem is, they’re in the minority. (I suspect many, if not most, preachers are auditory learners–who often assume, dangerously, everyone learns as they do.)

THE IDEAL LENGTH

First, the length of the sermon is not the point. The point is . . . the point. However long or short it takes to make a lasting point.

Using a variety of supporting ideas, scriptures, stories, visuals, experiences and interaction, an effective message might take 20 or 30 minutes. Or it may take five minutes.

No two messages are identical. So, why do preachers attempt to manufacture lectures that fill the identical time allotment, week after week? Why not allow other elements of a worship service to expand and shrink? I think some preachers believe those of us in the pews will feel cheated if the sermon runs 10 minutes short. Trust me on this, if we sense God moving us within a five-minute message, we won’t complain.

STARVATION DIET?

Our society and our congregations may be suffering from some spiritual starvation. But it’s not because our preachers are not long-winded enough.

The denominational executive questioned the fitness of any preacher who would even occasionally offer a sermon that did not meet his standards of elongation.

Be careful, sir. One who is guilty of your condemnations was in fact quite effective with the short-form message. That was 2000 years ago. People are still talking about his brief, punchy stories and lessons.

He could have turned every opportunity into a 30-minute lecture. He certainly had plenty he could have shared. But he knew his audience. And his goal.

He didn’t buy the “more is better” myth:

“I have many more things to say to you, but they are too much for you now.”
–John 16:12

24 Responses to “The Perfect Length for a Sermon”

  1. Good points, Thom, though I think you’ll find that many pastors are, in fact, experimenting with innovative and varied approaches to preaching. Be careful about painting with too broad a brush, but I’m glad you issued the challenge. Even those who are intentional in tailoring the medium to the message, who care more about what’s heard than how long they talk–a reminder is healthy for them, too. We all too easily become creatures of habit.

  2. A brief sermon, to the point, one that presents Jesus as Lord and uses one or two vivid illustrations is all that it necessary. The best sermon is one that moves the listener from where he or she is into the presence of Christ. This is transformation. You’re correct. It can be done in five or 30 minutes.

  3. Awesome!! I’m with you on this, Thom. Thanks.

  4. Very well said Thom, and to the point! :) LOL! I’m amazed at the arrogance of us “preachers”, me included, who have the audacity to think our sermon is the most important part of the worship experience and requires a lengthy time limit. We must look at the statistics! Who remembers what the last sermon was about? Even comedians know this! As much as people laugh at a comedian, how many jokes/stories can they remember from a long monologue? What if in our worship gatherings, we gave authority to the congregation to share, to doubt, to be guided into worship, instead of told what to do in worship? These are questions that could take shape in many different ways. Many young minister/clergy students and collegues of mine are leaving evangelical churches to go to main line denominations where the clergy/sermons are not the central part of the service. When I asked why? They’re response is that they want the smells/bells/tastes/touch experiences of worship. They need mystery in their life. It’s through the mystery they find that God can love all people, instead of a rigid set of levitcal rules that are outdated for today’s culture.

  5. I had a professor back in college years ago talk about the “grace of conciseness” and would mark down our practice sermons if we went over 20 minutes. That’s something I’m still trying to work on. You’ve got a good point Thom. We have to be sensitive to the Spirit and also to the audience, letting the Lord speak through us and shutting up when He’s done.

  6. Ted Faszer wrote: When I take God’s word seriously, with a heart to apply it to my life, sermons of various lengths can be impactful. Other worship elements often reinforce the point of a sermon better than extended preaching, because I’m wired for affective learning. Scripture put to music impacts me. I often keep singing and meditating on the scriptures all week. Great art can cause me to reflect on scripture. Drama can too. Powerful sermons come in varied forms and lengths. Psalm 68:11NLT “The Lord gives the word, and a great army brings the good news.”

  7. Pat Pope wrote: “Depends on your context. In some churches, 30 or 45 minutes is considered normal and if the preacher is skilled, the time goes by quickly as you are engaged in the message. Others go for 15-20 minutes and they’re just as good. Those of us raised in the age before constant media bombardment may have a little bit better time sitting for longer sermons if we haven’t forgotten how to sit, be still and listen. But if all one knows is media saturation and electronic flashing, it may be a little more difficult not to have a lot more stimulation going on, thus anything over 15-20 minutes may be considered long, regardless of how good the sermon may be. The other thing that I think factors in is if people have been taught how to listen and to do so critically so that they aren’t looking for entertainment so much as they are looking and listening to learn and to discern the what the Spirit is saying to them. This, for many, is a foreign concept.”

  8. It takes a preacher/teacher with a humble enough view of their part in a worship service to realize that the meeting isn’t all about their message. It is about the Church gathering to worship God.
    The worship in song, prayer, sharing communion, and giving are also important parts of a worship service. These elements may even be more important because they allow everyone attending to express themselves in the meeting rather than just one person.
    A worship service should, after all, be about worshiping Jesus, not just one man’s message about Him.
    If there is a point of doctrine or christian living that a preacher feels that they need to emphasize by giving an extended teaching, perhaps it would better to set aside a certain weekly meeting as a Bible study rather than taking up the time the Church gathers for worship.

  9. Probably my favorite from you so far. This is great. Some great ”food for thought” and excited it helps give me some verbiage and articulation for what I have been thinking with our church plant.

  10. Jeff Slack wrote: “Once after preaching a 15-minute sermon (as a youth pastor) in a church that typically had 30-40 minute sermons, an older lady at the door said to me on the way out: “Pastor, always remember, that no one hates a short sermon; thank you for your message today”, I have never forgotten that piece of advice.”

  11. Personally, I don’t think the length of the sermon is important; it is
    1) the quality of content, and 2) the openess of the listener’s heart to hear and beleive it…

    Lincoln’s ” Gettysburg Address” impacted a nation in a few but direct words. Just imagine how
    God’s Kingdom could be expanded if those preaching God’s Word didn’t try to make it sound so complicated and those who are listening had their hearts prepared to hear what they had to say…

    Never mind about “filling time” until the next service…

  12. A.T. wrote: “This week’s sermon was nearly an hour long at my church. After fighting (and losing) nodding off for probably 20 minutes of it, I started reading a book I had with me in order to stay awake. In that case, more was definitely not better!”

    • I always make sure I have my iPhone with me during sermons. I can take notes to maintain concentration (and use as a future reference) or read my Bible, check Twitter or Facebook if my mind wanders off track. I notice more and more people around me doing the same. I do find the notes I take are very useful for tweeting and blogging later in the week.

  13. And one of the most irritating things a pastor can do is preach “series” sermons out of the newest book they’ve read! Books are fine, but the Bible is the best book I know to preach out of! Ok, now I’ve vented, thanks, I agree totally with your assessment, Thom. Stay faithful.

  14. I am actually going to be launching a new church next October, and I hope to incorporate interactivity into every message. This is something I have rarely seen and really covet. I hope to structure it more like an adult Sunday School class with some digital interactivity added in. Is anyone doing this sort of thing now that I could talk to?

  15. Fwiw, not sure we really know the length of Jesus’ sermons…Gospel records are not transcriptions as such…no way to know if they are full length or not.

  16. Thom – I’m afraid that your brother was right. Your piece and most of the comments are a sad reflection on the man-centred state of many churches. Preachers who are called of God, who have a heavy sense of responsibility both to the Lord and to His people, and who have a real reliance on the Holy Spirit will seldom preach 8-minute sermons, because a) They realize that preaching is the very heart of corporate worship, not an adjunct to it, b) Speaking is a mechanical process that requires time to impart an adequate understanding of the text, and c) God’s Word is worthy of our undivided attention. If we are unwilling to Give Him that attention, then assuredly we are mistaken in our reasons for being there at all.

  17. I grew up listening to 30+ min. sermons. My early adult life was spent in a church where sermons were 40-60 mins. long. I actually feel cheated now when I go to a church where the sermon is only 20 min. long! …like something’s missing. I’ve also observed that any time a church I attended was experiencing revival (the real kind, not the scheduled kind), that everyone was excited about the long sermons ’cause we were all so hungry for God.

  18. We must stop reading our current or traditional religious practice into the Bible. Jesus did not have 3 points and a prayer to his teachings. He told his story or made his point then left it there. He did not explain his point unless someone commented or asked him to clarify something he said.

  19. I am a worship leader looking for a new leader position. As I check out the mp3’s and videos of messages at prospective churches, the average length is 40 to 50 minutes. I’m looking at ministries that are trying to accommodate to the needs of the culture. The average time dedicated to praise set is 15 minutes, in a 65 to 75-minute service.

    In a society where the adult attention span is about 20 minutes, and the desire for participation and interaction is high, this is surprising. It really doesn’t even matter how good the speaker is… that format will not likely connect with the un-churched or de-churched young American.

  20. I mostly disagree. movies are usually 1.5 to almost 3hrs on some very popular movies. Do you see people complaining about the length?? No. People now are so entertainment driven that anything that will threaten it becomes wrong including the word of God. The problem is that Christians are just as guilty of this as the rest of the world and we want a 15min message so we can get out of church and watch a football game for 3hrs. The saddest thing about this?? is that pastors lost the authority and the ability to train their flock to listen. So they give us what we tell them we want. I’m not against short messages at all, but I am against saying that a long winded or short message is better every time. Both messages can be effective, but now the church follows the common trend of doing as the world does. Paul was preaching so long at one point that people were falling from windows. If I was a pastor I wouldn’t focus on time, but on preparation and anointing. Be anointed and everything will be fine.

  21. I like the comparison to movies and games, etc. So, why do people constantly want a short sermon? So that they can go and do things that have nothing to do with the Word of God? What’s the point of church is noone wants to hear what the Bible says? I would rather hear more of the Word than anything else because I do believe that it is the heart of the service.

  22. Right on. I’d like for us to teach our congregations to engage is worship, so that a “worship service” is built around giving to and receiving from God. Many evangelical churches have 15 minutes of “song service” to “get people primed for the main event,” the message, which is about 45 minutes. There are a few gifted speakers who can engage for that long, but most can’t… besides the fact that the congregation is then only receiving and not giving. He desires both.

  23. I don’t know who you are brother. but I think your argument for short sermon is very appealing to the popular crowd. And since when did we start taking cue from the crowd for giving them what they want? Also, your quote from John 16 is precisely why we can trust the Holy Spirit to make good use of a long sermon because besides everything Jesus taught them during the last weeks of his ministry, the ‘upper room discourse’ itself will take a good half-an-hour for Jesus to have said it unless he was reciting it like a Sunday School kid. Also, from what I know about the gospels, they don’t record everything Jesus taught. So…?!

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