Question: How long should a sermon be?
Answer: A sermon should be long enough to impress the truth on the people’s hearts, and no longer. Let me explain:
Most sermons could be distilled down to a paragraph or shorter, but if a sermon consisted of 45 seconds of reading an explanatory sentence, then the people would not get the truth planted deeply and watered thoroughly in their hearts. They would only have the gist of the matter – the bare propositional statement and nothing else.
A preacher could stand in the pulpit, read “love one another,” say “ya’ll quit fighting” and sit down and be done, and though the gist of the matter would have been addressed, it would likely not impress the importance of the matter on the people’s hearts.
A sermon must be more than the mere conveyance of information, it must also transfer feeling. The people need to feel the truth, not just hear it. Hearts must be pricked, consciences stirred, and spirits lifted. This takes reading Scripture, explaining context, illustrating concepts, and applying next-actions for the people. Or to put it simply: preaching is proclaiming and pleading and always pointing the hearers to the cross of Christ. This takes time.
But how much time? 30 minutes seems to be the average for the modern preacher. This is not a hard-and-fast rule, but a wise guide. It would be just as foolish to stretch a 20 minute sermon to 30 minutes as it would be to shorten a 45 minute sermon to 30. The former will strain the patience of your hearers, but the latter will frustrate them because they were left hanging with unfinished material.
Here’s a few things I’ve learned:
1. If you’re new at preaching, it would be best to aim for a sermon shorter than 30 minutes. Let experienced saints give you feedback about your preaching, and cautiously go a little bit longer the next time you preach if you have the material for it.
2. If you run out of things to stay, close the sermon. Filler is for cheap hot dogs, not Bible sermons.
3. If you go longer than thirty minutes, you better be good. I’m not sure why, but people’s attention span will only go beyond 30 minutes if the preacher is able to keep them interested. Even a good sermon that lasts beyond 30 minutes may press the hearers’ endurance. People have bladders – even a saint with the patience of Job will start checking their watches when the bathroom beckons.
4. If you must choose between the two, it’s better to be too brief than too long.
5. Not every preacher is good, but ANY preacher can be brief, and that’s good.
6. There are very, very few preachers that can preach for an hour or longer, and you’re probably not one of them. Even the ones that seem to get away with it often stretch their sermons with engaging stories and funny jokes, not actual Bible-preaching. It’s easy to preach for an hour if you have three 10 minute personal stories and several hilarious illustrations. There’s nothing wrong with those things, but they tend to stretch a sermon. Be careful.
7. People have plans and a life that awaits beyond the church service. Babies need naps, bellies need food, appointments await, and bedtime is a thing. Don’t stretch so far beyond the preconceived idea of a church service’s length that folks are starting to lose their day, burn their casserole, or fall asleep.
8. If you think you preached too long, you probably did.
So start out by aiming for brevity, and then grow into 30 minutes. Only go beyond 30 minutes if you are confident that your material and delivery are able to keep people’s attention. This is something you must hear from trusted mentors, not something you should convince yourself of.