How long?

How long should a sermon be? 

Over the years as I’ve taught preaching and trained preachers there has been one question that has been asked more than any other, and by a considerable margin: How long should a sermon be?   Mind you, even as I think about that I realise that there is one place where my students have never asked the question: Africa!

Asking this question is a bit like asking ‘how long is a piece of string?’ and the answer is simple: it depends!

1. It depends on the congregation

Some congregations are used to and appreciate good solid sermons that take some time, but others are not.   I was once visiting a church in Glasgow and, trying to get a feel for the place before the service started, I asked the Minister how long he usually preached for.  The answer shook me!  “I usually try to spin it out to 15 minutes,” he said “but if you can only last for 10 that’s fine.”  I seem to remember commenting in response, whether out loud or internally I’m not sure, ‘I’m still clearing my throat at that point!’

If you are a visiting speaker, try and find out what the congregation is used to and, if it strikes you as being a very short period of time, perhaps try and extend it a little but, as a visitor, you won’t be able to push the boundaries massively and you will probably lose the attention of your listeners once their usual listening time has been exceeded.  In such cases I always try to do this, making sure I am feeding them well and thereby perhaps whetting their appetites for more substantial ‘meals’ in the future.

The attention span of a group of unchurched people at an evangelistic event will probably be considerably shorter than that of the congregation of the local, well taught, Bible Fellowship.  I used to preach regularly in a church where 50 minutes was the usual sermon length and some folk felt cheated if it was less.  What a joy for a preacher!

2.It depends on the content

Some types of sermons and some passages of Scripture really demand that you take more time over them.  Some passages need some more background and context setting than others, for example.   Again, there may be a difference in an evangelistic address and a ‘meaty’ exposition.

3. It depends on the context

Some occasions and meetings are such that they require shorter messages and it would be inappropriate and unhelpful to abuse that by preaching for an extended period of time.   Again, this needs to be assessed and understood in advance.  An additional factor that comes into play here is one that surprised me in my early days in pastoral ministry.   If you are in a settled pastoral and preaching ministry, and preaching systematically through books and sections of the Bible – which is, after all, by far the best way to maintain a regular preaching ministry – you will not, each week, need to take much time to set the passage under consideration in its biblical context because that ought to be familiar to your listeners.  You will probably want a brief word of reminder as to how the present passage is connected with the previous one but you will not need to dwell over long on that.  However, if you are preaching somewhere else, or indeed in your own church, on a ‘one off’ event or passage, you may need to allow a little bit of extra time to set the passage in its biblical, and even historical context, before delving into the meat of the text itself.

4. It depends on the communicator

The truth is that there are some preachers who, to listen to for more than 10 or 15 minutes, would exercise the patience of a saint, while others can be listened to for longer periods of time with hardly any sense of the passing of time.   Some by their monotonous use of their voice or the dry content of their message ought to be brief while others have much good to say and say it well.   It is said that the first time Jonathan Edwards’ preached his sermon lasted for two hours but that his listeners listened so intently that they were unaware of how long he had taken.

In conclusion, and based on my own personal experience, it probably has to be said that in the average western evangelical church 30 minutes seems to be the maximum attention span of congregations while those blessed with a particularly good preaching ministry can cope with and profit from 40-50 minutes of faithful exposition.

One of the marks of times of spiritual quickening, but also of spiritual maturity among God’s people, is the greatly increased appetite for God’s Word and the ability to sit and listen for longer.  O for such days to be our experience as well!

Finally, here is some advice from the Prince of Preachers:

“In order to maintain attention, avoid being too long. An old preacher used to say to a young man who preached an hour, — “My dear friend, I do not care what else you preach about, but I wish you would always preach about forty minutes.” We ought seldom to go much beyond that — forty minutes, or say, three-quarters of an hour. If a fellow cannot say all he has to say in that time, when will he say it? But somebody said he liked “to do justice to his subject.” Well, but ought he not to do justice to his people, or, at least, have a little mercy upon them, and not keep them too long? The subject will not complain of you, but the people will…Brevity is a virtue within the reach of all of us; do not let us lose the opportunity of gaining the credit which it brings. If you ask me how you may shorten your sermons, I should say, study them better. Spend more time in the study that you may need less in the pulpit. We are generally longest when we have least to say. A man with a great deal of well-prepared matter will probably not exceed forty minutes; when he has less to say he will go on for fifty minutes, and when he has absolutely nothing he will need an hour to say it in. Attend to these minor things and they will help to retain attention.”[1]

[1] Spurgeon, C H     Lectures to My Students     Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2008     pp155-156

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