The Perfect Length for a Sermon

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Why do preachers attempt to manufacture lectures that fill the identical time allotment, week after week?

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 denominational 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 And 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 overexalt 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 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 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.)

Thom Schultz Thom Schultz is an eclectic author and the founder of Group Publishing and Lifetree Café. Holy Soup offers innovative approaches to ministry, and challenges the status quo of today’s church.

More from Thom Schultz or visit Thom at http://holysoup.com/

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  • Khamneithang Vaiphei

    A 1-minute bite of biscuit cannot be compared to a 15-minute dinner that will fill your stomach to the full. A sermon is a sermon, and if a church is content with a 5-minute or 8-minute sermon, it only shows the lack of hunger for God’s bread. A church service should ideally have a 30-minute sermon on all occasions. The 8-minute sermon proponents are only a part of the rot in Christianity. In this era of superficial Christianity, may be, for the vast majority 8-minute is also too long a sermon as they have many other things to attend to. God, be merciful upon us!

    • Chad

      Actually, your analogy misses a little. To a person who is truly starving, a 15 (or 30) minute dinner may do more harm than good. That person probably needs time for their “stomach” to become accustomed to receiving more. As a person begins to become healthy, they begin to learn to feed themselves appropriate amounts of nutrition on a daily basis. Perhaps someone who is overweight or otherwise unhealthy needs more to fill their stomachs. If in fact, a person is relying on a once a week message to fill them, they are unhealthy. Also, a quality sermon, I believe, creates a greater hunger in the heart of the person to seek God for themselves when the message is over. Just my thoughts.

      • Khamneithang Vaiphei

        A sermon feeds the hunger, and an ideal message should create more cravings in a person. Duration of the message is not as important as the message itself but too short a sermon that finishes like the tick of a second would be nothing more than a chaff of wheat!

    • @pastortomweaver

      Gotta go with this guy :)

      • Khamneithang Vaiphei

        Thank you!

  • hilbert

    If your preaching is boring, please keep it short. If your preaching is good, people like it to be a bit longer.

  • Ian Ferrin

    I’m not a pastor, just one of the flock. But I’ve sat under really good preachers and really bad preachers. You imply that oratory isn’t important, but IMO it’s more important than length or maybe anything else. Good oratory makes the most of that 10% retention and perhaps boosts it. But the biggest problem with preaching, in general, IMO is that many preachers aren’t accountable to ANYONE about their sermons. They don’t get any meaningful feedback about what works and what doesn’t. They don’t get corrected about repeated bad practices like tangential illustrations or grammatical or stylistic overuses. Basically, they get into ruts and their speaking craft suffers. I’m NOT commenting about the 10% inspiration for a message. Only the 90% perspiration part!. Ministers would be well advised IMO to solicit critiques of their preaching from a few selected folks in their congregations. I’m not sure length is all that important.

    • Nate from nowra

      I have to agree with you. I heard a preacher, who has been preaching for 30 years last sunday. He was terrible. It is such a shame to think that you could get through a job for 30 years without really learning to do one of the fundamental aspects well.

  • Rich Jones

    It would be easy to resort to self-defense, but that would serve no purpose. I have been bored within 5 minutes; offended by the slaughter of the English language; and endured for over an hour. I pray I have not been guilty of the same. I would take exception with the premise that Jesus only talked in short-form messages. At the Sermon on the Mount they listened until it was time to eat and stayed even after. I believe it has to do with content and the expression of the heart of the preacher to convey the love of God.

  • Paul NH

    I think back to the Preaching icons of yesteryear who preached just a “tad” longer than 15-20 min [Spurgeon, Edwards etc].
    I believe that there are many preachers who could have said what they said in half the time – that is a problem. However, if you have a congregation that is bored or not willing to take in the nourishment of God’s Word for more than 15-20 min. you need to reevaluate your message &/or honestly evaluate the spiritual maturity of the congregation.
    Which both reflect on the Pastor & leadership of the church

    • Chad

      I think the spiritual maturity of a church is shown more by what they do on the other 160 or so hours of the week than the few hours they are in church. Consequently, if people are truly mature, they will be leading others to Christ, which makes for a far less “mature” Sunday crowd, but one I would prefer over a more “mature,” but self-centered congregation.

      • PrescottJayErwin

        But remember that the biblical purpose of preaching (as Paul solemnly charged Timothy) is to reprove, rebuke, exhort, and instruct and to do so with great patience. While pastors are to “do the work of an evangelist,” preaching is not only, or even primarily, evangelistic.

        • Chad

          I didn’t mean to say that the preaching should be evangelistic per se. I believe the outcome of properly reproving, rebuking, exhorting, and instructing will lead to a congregation of “evangelists.”

          • PrescottJayErwin

            Agreed.

  • http://www.churchformen.com/ David Murrow

    It’s been said that a good sermon is like a good skirt – long enough to cover essentials but short enough to keep you interested.

    • PrescottJayErwin

      Hm, that’s rather earthy. You write some interesting things at “churchformen,” but…

  • Jay

    Thank you for not confining sermons to a particular length. It is our job as pastors to know and understand the people of our congregation and our region or in some cases an audience we don’t know well (those who travel or speak at various events). I think the best pastors are ones who can read their listeners and learn to engage on the fly with what they have prepared. A personal touch is greatly needed…you have to reach into them. I mostly work with students but the idea is the same, with some different variables. Often I will focus on the same point from different avenues throughout a few weeks…repetition is key…

  • Christian Sanich

    The last point you made is probably the worst. Jesus was doing daily discipleship with many of those short lessons, not preaching sermons. By my calculation, the sermon on the mount was probably 30+ minutes. We do need to employ a variety of teaching methods during our sermons to teach to those different styles, which Jesus and the apostles were good at. If we are faithfully preaching the Bible and the authors intent, we need to regularly preach units that were a single thought. And I haven’t found many units of scripture that can be preached in 10 minutes.

  • PrescottJayErwin

    As wrong as the denominational leader was to make his presumption about that short sermon text, the author of this piece has some wrong assumptions and presumptions. He would do well to receive his own chastisement: “Be careful, sir, of your condemnations.”

    The denominational leader was wrong to presume that because the sermon text posted online was short, the sermon must have been. I guarantee that my written sermon texts/notes are much shorter than my delivered sermons. The denominational leader may have also been wrong about the impact of the sermon or its depth; after all, he apparently only skimmed it.

    But the author of this article is equally wrong to say that the point of a sermon is NOT “to dispense information.” To be sure, people ARE “drowning in information,” but they’re drowning in FALSE and UNBIBLICAL information. They NEED TRUE information. People DO, in fact, need “information middlemen” — they’re called teachers — for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the inability to discern what’s right/true and what’s wrong/false. But it is true that the POINT of that information IS transformation.

    The author also presumes that a well delivered sermon that displays oratory skill and demonstrates that the preacher’s intellectual credibility makes the message about the messenger. He’s presumptuous partially on people’s “finite attention spans.” People’s attention spans are MUCH longer than he gives them credit for. They attend and retain 3-hour movies and concerts and 4-hour sporting events. Good oratory skill and intellectual credibility can hold a congregations’ attention without the message being about the messenger. Done well, the message can be all about the REAL Messenger (the Lord) and the hearer — especially if the orator/preacher is able to engage the congregation in the EXPERIENCE of the message, getting them to vocalize parts of it. And by the author’s own admission, “human wiring” also dictates that the preacher engage the congregations’ eyes as well as their ears and to engage them on every possible level.

    He writes: “When it comes to determining the perfect sermon length, we need to know the limitations of the medium.” That’s a false presumption which is admitted by the author’s own assertions: “God’s Word is holy… God [is] work[ing] through it… God [is] doing… supernatural stuff, on His terms.” HIS terms: THAT’s what should determine the perfect sermon length. While Jesus was “quite effective with the short-form message” (as in Luke 4, where He read a passage from Isaiah, closed the scroll, said 8 words, and then sat down), but he also preached for extended periods (as in the “Sermon on the Mount”). The author finally DOES get to that point: “However long or short it takes… the length… is not the point. The point is the point.” Good for him.

    But the author is also a bit contradictory. “Lecture” is bad and “oratory” is bad. What’s left? Conversation? We’re not really sure even after we finish the article. Perhaps he should define “preaching.” The truth is, bad lecturing is bad; good lecturing is good. I once had a class in Church History for a 3-hour Monday night class (7-9 pm) and it was a grind to make it just through 1 hour because the professor was not a good lecturer — tops in the field in research and writing, but NOT a good class lecturer. On the other hand, I had an Old Testament class in that same time slot with a similarly distinguished professor — Dr. Daniel Block — and it was always like revival time.

    One more word on attention span: television, radio, magazines, and newspapers are responsible for shortening people’s attention spans. The Church doesn’t need to cater to it and encourage it, the Church needs to work on lengthening it.

  • @pastortomweaver

    Hey Thom, Jesus preached like a champ. You really think his sermon on the mount was short? Are you kidding me? Continue to push into your people’s wants instead of their needs and you will be following your sheep instead of leading them.
    Must we preach long sermons? No. Must we PREACH?? YES!
    Preaching is teaching, leading, exhorting, passionate, and scripture
    focused. Set the bar high, Thom. Don’t diminish it because you have some adults that would rather play Xbox online for hours but not listen to you for 30 min.

  • Gilmore

    Well said to the author.

  • MD

    Having spent years in churches with longer sermons (30-45 minutes) and the last few with shorter sermons, I think an eight minute sermon is hardly worth getting out of bed for.
    People may have information overload on junk information, but with few people attending Sunday School or Bible Study, or doing those on their own, the Sunday morning sermon is the only place for them to be fed.

  • PrescottJayErwin

    An interesting article appears on sermoncentral with advice to congregants regarding how to help make their pastor’s sermons better. First, the author reminds his readers that listening to sermons is an act of worship and should be treated as such; we pastors and preachers should remember that preparing and delivering sermons are acts of worship, too. He urges intentional preparation, consistent attendence, and intentional attention for congregants. Finally, he urges them to evaluate sermons on biblically objective, rather than personally subjective, criteria.

  • Jan

    Sermon length is not the issue, content, anointing and impartation is. I’ve sat under preaching and teaching that bored me to tears after 5 minutes and have sat listening to anointed gifts for hours wanting more, invigorated, inspired by what the Holy Spirit was imparting through them.

  • Jan

    If you simply see a sermon as a conveyance of information and the audience a crowd of consumers, then maybe preaching and teaching has been lowered to mere public speaking or lecturing, which it is most certainly not according to biblical standards. Preaching and teaching of the gospel should by its very definition be inspired and filled by the Holy Spirit. Paul says that he did not come with mere eloquence of speech, but in a demonstration of the Holy Spirit and of power.

  • TheBrianMo

    I like what the author has to say about the ideal length. That paragraph alone is what I’ve been saying for years. I’ve heard 1000’s of sermons in my life and preached 1000’s more and while I was initially taught to have a time limit, I later learned that I to allow the Holy Spirit to preach through me whether that was 5 minutes or 60 minutes. In 17 years of preaching I can only think of two times that I preached for 60 minutes as I submitted to the Holy Spirit. I always pray that it’s God’s message for His people for that time and place and that the words I speak are not my own but His. I’ll put together a sermon and think it’s awesome only to preach it and God change the dynamics of it. I’ve had God totally change sermons on me 2 minutes before I was to preach because I invited the Spirit to work and Yielded to what the Spirit was doing. It honestly doesn’t matter if a preacher is “boring” or not if they are faithfully proclaiming the Word of God, then the audience needs to come with a heart that is willing to receive that Word.

  • Ryan

    25 minutes.

    • PrescottJayErwin

      :-D

  • Ian Ferrin

    One very practical point about sermon length is that many churches force themselves into an ~5 minute window for the entire service. Back-to-back services and accommodating simultaneous Sunday school classes put huge time constraints on both service and sermon length. This is the case in both my current church and the previous church I attended.

  • http://www.turnaroundpastor.com/ Bud Brown

    As a homiletics prof is want to say, “Sermons are like women’s skirts. They should be long enough to cover the essentials but short enough to keep your interest.”

    • PrescottJayErwin

      As I observed below when someone wrote this, I think that’s a bit earthy for pastors, don’t you? It really calls on our baser instincts: “Neither should there be vulgar speech, foolish talk, or coarse jesting — all of which are out of character” (Eph 5:4).

      And “wont.” The word is “wont.” I used to make that mistake, too; it seems odd because it’s so close to “won’t.” The difference between “want” and “wont” is that “wont” means “accustomed to; in the habit of,” as opposed to “wanting” or “desiring.”

  • http://www.facebook.com/michaellukaszewskijr Michael Lukaszewski

    I feel this article could have been shorter.

  • Gary Colville

    I have been preaching reasonable length sermons for 34 yrs and people still love them, including GenY and Children. It is more about the way you present with all the other elements needed and variety. The short attention span theory is rubbish in my experience both as a preacher and as a listener. The only reason many people perpetuate this view is because they have never been interesting enough for people to focus.

    People are more visual so it is not about being a wordsmith, although that can help, but about understanding the community you are addressing and working with that. Jesus clearly did that when you look at the different ways he approached various individuals and people groups.

    To be silly enough to say Jesus preached short sermons is strange if you read the text then one of the preachers, Paul in fact, is reported to have been going a very long time when Euticus fell out of the window.

    Preach, but do it well not just with words but also include physical things then you will be following the method of the greatest preacher ever, and that’s not me. Jesus was.

  • Dale

    I appreciate the authors candid and pointed approach. Iam not sure if by making such a point, he will gain much influence over the denominatioanl leader he refers to. Further, I do not think that leader really cares about his opinion. All I know is after 30+ years of preaching, I have been long and I have been short, but I have never seen the Word return void…the Word is always enough. As a pastor, I ask the Holy Spirit what is the best way to convey the point to the people who will listen that Sunday. Additionally, I remind myself of who we are trying to reach as a congregation. For example, are only here for the already convinced or are we inviting the unconvinced to hear the life changing message. Even Jesus preached differently to different audiences. His content changed depending on who was listening. Spiritually mature believers would sit under preaching of any length, those who are not will sit under preaching of any length that engages their heart as well. It is important for a Pastor to know and understand assignment God is asking of him, and deliver the a word that will offer opportunity for life changeling experiences by all who here. What ever we do, in word or deed, we do as unto The Lord.