We finish the week of episodes on preaching with another question from a seasoned preacher who wishes to remain nameless. It’s a question a lot of people I think want to ask you, and I’m surprised we haven’t gotten around to it yet. Here it is: “Pastor John, can a sermon be too short or too long? How can we know the ideal sermon length? Is there a one-length for all? Should some be shorter or longer? If so, when?”
No, there is no one length for a sermon that’s ideal for every situation. Yes, some sermons should be shorter and some longer. Yes, it is possible that a sermon be too long or too short. Those are my answers. Now, let me give some factors that we should just take into consideration when we’re pondering how long we should preach.
I would say that vastly more important than length is whether the sermon is faithful to the biblical text and rich with God-glorifying, soul-transforming truth. Far better to have a truth-laden, Christ-exalting, textually faithful, clearly spoken, deeply felt ten-minute homily than to have a totally fascinating, biblically vacuous, textually unrooted, story-laden piece of inspirational moralism that lasts for an hour.
Substance is vastly more important than length. But of course, if there is soul-nourishing, Christ-exalting, mind-engaging substance, ten minutes will ordinarily be too short. Okay, that’s factor number one.
2. Complicated Texts
Another factor is the nature of the biblical text we are trying to communicate to our hearers.
How long is the text? How complex is the text? Longer texts may require longer sermons — not always, but they might.
The more complex the text, the more time it takes to make it clear and compelling in practical ways for people. The logic of some texts and the vocabulary of some texts demand closer attention and therefore more time.
3. Soul-Satisfying Food
Take into consideration the nature of the audience. Are they unbelievers? Did they choose to be there or was there some kind of compulsion? I’m thinking, for example, of a chapel setting.
How old are they? If they’re believers, how mature are they? What are they used to? How well have they been taught? What have they been trained in? How tired are they? Is this a late-night service, and they have been working all day?
All of these will affect the length of the sermon. I would add that, over time, a pastor may train his people to love the preaching of the word of God so that they will be unsatisfied with a mere twenty- or thirty-minute message if they are being fed rich food that holds their attention and satisfies their souls.
4. Consider Your Gifts
Consider your gifts as a preacher. Some speakers are so compelling to listen to that the time goes by so quickly that you hardly even know it’s gone.
We need to know ourselves and the kind of response we are getting from our people. Can we hold their attention for 45 minutes, or do we not have that gift?
5. Know Your Audience
What’s the situation in which the message is being given? Is it a wedding? Probably keep it short. I mean, this is one of the hardest situations in which to preach because people, frankly, are looking at the bridegroom or the bride and the wedding party and their hair and their dresses and — oh, good grief — you’re supposed to be connecting them with the living God through some particular, glorious text.
Well, I would much rather preach a funeral than a wedding. I’ll mention why maybe in a minute, but, here again, know your audience.
There are some weddings where the spiritual maturity is so deep that they want a rich feast about the glories of covenant, married love. At funerals, people are usually tender and hungry for truth — some strong, clear word from God about death and hope and resurrection. However, even here the emotional nature of the day is such that a long, drawn-out service can be uncharitable.
Preaching outdoors at the quad at the university may call for something shorter than Sunday morning to the people of God. Preaching at a businessman’s gathering once a week over the lunch hour will probably demand a twenty- or thirty-minute limitation. Having three services on Sunday morning with difficulty clearing the parking lot between services is going to affect the sermon length.
Never forget the dear nursery workers. They’ve got the most important job, according to Mark 9:37: “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me.” Good night! That’s the most awesome verse in the Bible for a nursery worker. Remember them too.
Linger in God’s Presence
I would end by simply saying that what I have found in my particular cultural setting after years of experience with the same people is that both they and I would be frustrated if I didn’t take the time while preaching to do the serious explanatory work of exposition as well as appropriate application. In my experience, this simply seldom could be done in less than forty minutes — more often, fifty. That’s just where we settled in as a church, and I mention it for consideration.
“It is a mark of immaturity if we don’t allow for lingering in the presence of God.”
It seems to me, if I look around the nation, that there are many hundreds, maybe thousands, of growing churches where pastors preach rich, Christ-exalting, God-centered, Bible-saturated, textually rooted, intellectually challenging, emotionally moving, life-altering sermons for fifty or more minutes, and very few people get frustrated that they are too long.
It is a mark of immaturity in a congregation if we live by the clock in such a limiting way that we don’t give time for extended lingering in the presence of God in singing and lingering in the presence of God in expository exultation.
Know yourself. Know your people. Know your text. Know the situation. Pack as much as you can into the time you have for the glory of God and the good of your people.