How Long Should a Sermon Take?

So, how long should it take for me to preach my sermon?

I get the sense from listening to some folks that a sermon isn’t worth it’s salt at any less than 40 minutes. But maybe that’s the company I keep. In other traditions, anything longer than 20 is severely pressing the expected norm. Of course, those folks don’t really care about ‘biblical’ preaching – at least that is the perspective that is usually left unsaid.timeclock

The whole discussion strikes me as misguided. Why would it matter for how long we preach? Shouldn’t we be more concerned about how well we preach? Is there some special time frame in which preaching finds its power? Is duration the test of faithfulness in the preaching of a sermon?

Perhaps one of the critical factors relates to how we conceive of our task. If we understand our task to be the transmission of ideas and that the more information we can pass along the better our sermon will be, then it stands to reason that more minutes allows for more material. On that calculation, longer is better. Of course, if we buy the sense that less can actually be more, then we might find virtue in brevity. But that said, there must be some kind of minute minimum under which effectiveness in preaching could not be possible.

But as I have listened to preaching, I have found that it doesn’t really matter. I have heard many excellent long-forms sermons that have brought me to the cross and led me into Jesus’ presence. But then I have to say that some of the best sermons I have heard are short – 15 or 20 minutes that have brought me to my knees. And of course the converse is also true. I have heard short sermons that were a mess. I have heard long sermons that were similarly mangled.

Long sermons put a particular burden on the preacher to manage more material without loosing the thread. More words offer more opportunity to mess it up. We remember, of course, what James said about the tongue.

Short sermons put a similar burden on the preacher to be economical. In the effort to be concise, significant pieces can go sadly missing. If the sermon is a journey, it is going to need to take some time.

Maybe the whole question is wrong-headed to begin with. Maybe what we need to be thinking about is the purpose of the sermon. What is it that we are trying to achieve? If we had a solid grasp on what it is that we are doing, we will know exactly what it is that must be done, regardless how much or little time that it requires.

My basic rule of thumb is to focus on what is needful to the process. Once I know what it is the God is saying through his Word, I set about considering what it will take to proclaim it. If a piece is necessary I will include it. If it is going to get in the way,  I leave it out – even if the piece is good and right and worthy. I strive to use only what is needed. Then when I am done, I might check the clock to see how long that it has taken.

I will say this – holding attention over time through oral presentation is a difficult business. People don’t experience it many other places in their lives. We cannot afford to be sloppy, redundant, or unwise.

So I try to say only what I need to say – however long it takes. It usually requires less time than what I would have thought.