How Long Must We Listen?
A recent article to European church leaders suggested that no sermon should be longer than 18 minutes—the maximum length of time, the author suggested, that any pastor could hold the attention of his congregation. We live in a sound-bite age, and so it’s somewhat natural to think about packaging a message in a very short timeframe. Is there a best-practice length for a sermon? I don’t think so.
The short sermon. Some messages naturally lend themselves to a shorter timeframe. I’ve helped plan worship services with an extended time of musical worship, in which the pastor’s remarks were very short in order to focus on other elements of the service. I’ve also served in churches with multiple services, where time constraints dictated a sermon of 20-25 minutes. This is not a tremendous amount of time in which to communicate a message. I believe it takes an accomplished preacher to not feel rushed in this timeframe and to communicate clearly in that short span. Several pastors I have spoken with about the shorter sermons relate that it is considerably more difficult to prepare for a short-form message.
The long sermon. Likewise, I’ve worked with pastors who taught for well over an hour. One pastor I served with, who is an accomplished teacher, did periodic teaching sessions of over six hours. Far from turning off his audience, seats for these sessions were gone in minutes. Long-form messages have the advantage of covering much ground, if the teacher can keep the subject engaging for that length of time. The long-form sermon has taught me that length is really not the issue—a long-form message can be as impactful, or more so, than the short-form.
In-between. By far the broadest range of pastors I am familiar with preach in the 35-40 minute range, in a service that lasts a total of 70 to 80 minutes. This seems to be a happy medium. Beyond the 25 minute range allows the preacher time to relate personal stories or illustrations that make the key points more memorable. The 35-40 minute timeframe also splits the difference between being “rushed” and forcing people to look at their watches.
Find your best length. Each pastor develops a comfortable pattern after teaching for several years in terms of sermon flow and timing. One helpful suggestion is to have someone time your messages to give you an accurate record of your times. Most pastors have a good “feeling” for when to stop talking, but may not have a clear understanding of how long they have been talking. Several pastors I have served with believe their time to be “x”, and it’s typically 10-15 minutes longer than their impression. Pastors also forget the time involved in “housekeeping” during the service—announcements and such—which, when lumped in with the sermon “talking” can make the experience of the listener seem much longer than the message length.
Don’t be a slave to the clock. A few pastors who are subject to a radio or television broadcast, multiple services or other tight time constraints must watch their clocks carefully. Whenever possible, allow time for the Holy Spirit to move in the service. Better to end 5 minutes early than to not allow time for a “holy moment” of decision or application, and cut God’s movement short for time.
Value the time of those you teach. Value the time that you spend in preparing to teach. Look for a good balance in your service and sermon time. Most of all, don’t believe that a sound-bite world will cease to listen to the preaching of God’s Word. He draws men to Himself through preaching—we can, and must, allow adequate time for the message to be heard.
Author: Eugene Mason, Communications Director for Cross Pointe Church under the leadership of Dr. James Merritt.