How Long Should Sermons Be?
Over at TGC-Australia, there has been a great discussion about sermon length with Rory Shiner arguing for shorter but better-prepared sermons, and then with Mikey Lynch arguing for slightly longer sermons. Both guys make some good points!
So how long should a sermon be? Well, it is hard to say, and there’s no single correct answer.
I used to work with a Roman Catholic Chaplain who told me that in his seminary he was told were told that homilies (i.e., sermons) should last no longer than eight minutes because eight minutes is the normal period between adverts on television.
However, I also once talked to a missionary from East Timor who told me that people in his region can walk up to three hours to get to church, so when they arrive, they don’t want a ten-minute pep talk. They expect three sermons of about 30-40 minutes each interspersed with worship, prayers, and community notices.
The famous Scottish preacher, William Still, typified the Puritan style by offering a Bible reading that went for 20 minutes, what we’d call a reading with exegetical notes, followed up with a sermon that was largely an exhortation or reflection based on the Bible reading that went for 45-60 minutes. I’m told that if you heard William Still preach that you would hardly notice the time fly by.
Me, personally, I tend to preach for about 25 minutes, because I find that after 25 minutes of my own preaching, even I’m bored.
But I think it does depend on the preacher. There are some great preachers/teachers I could listen to all day: D.A. Carson, Vaughan Roberts, or Karen Jobes. It also depends on the audience, what are they used to, what are they expecting, what keeps them fed but not tired by the preaching length.
Part of me thinks that sermons are like artillery, there is a quality to quantity. If you preach McNuggets you’ll get McDisciples. But in an age where we are more distracted than ever, where advertisers and social media maestros measure attention spans in seconds not minutes, I do think we can say that “less is more.”
As my Wheaton-bound buddy John Dickson writes:
So, sermon length, what are your thoughts? Feel free to put your answer into this poll!
I have always preached 25–30-minute sermons aimed at exploring the key word of the passage with a balance of biblical background, exegesis, and life application. My homiletics professor, Dr. Perry, from TEDS artfully fleshed out the difference between expository teaching and expository preaching. By the gracious empowering, illuminating filling of the Spirit my parishioners were nearly always asking for more. Perhaps that was better than their snoozing through an hour-long message. I did tell them that if they slept, they were to nod in agreement. I find your discussion, Dr. Bird, very interesting. Balancing the needs of more emotion driven, surface thinking congregates with the need for a deeper exploration of the text is always a challenge.
20 minutes of quality is more than enough!