A denominational executive recently chided pastors in his tribe for inflicting “spiritual starvation” on their flocks. The crime? Brief sermons.
After skimming a sermon on a pastor’s blog, the denom leader wrote: “It could not have been more than eight minutes long, if that! This is, sadly, not some exception. It is in keeping with a disturbing trend: shorter and shorter sermons. We cannot expect our congregations to remain healthy and put them on a preaching starvation diet.”
This misguided executive has been duped by the myth of “more is better.” I’m afraid he’s assuming his longed-for long sermons achieve far more than they really do.
The Goal & Not
We need to be clear about the goal of a sermon or message time. To me, it’s to help draw people into a closer relationship with the Lord — to help them know, love and follow him.
And we need to be clear about what is NOT the goal. The sermon’s goal should not be ...
- To dispense information. We’re drowning in information. We no longer need an information middleman. We need a transformation guide.
- To showcase the speaker’s oratory skills. It’s not about the messenger.
- To prove to the congregation that the preacher studied all week.
- To deify or over-exalt the sermon. Yes, God is holy. God’s Word is holy. But a human’s sermon is, well, human. God can work through it. But that’s God doing the supernatural stuff, on his terms.
When it comes to determining the perfect sermon length, we need to know the limitations of the medium:
Lecture method. Of all the forms of communication and inspiration, the lecture method is among the least fruitful. Research shows that people remember just 10 percent or less of what they hear in a lecture or sermon. Most of those well-prepared words are quickly lost. Forever. The longer the sermon, the more that’s forgotten.
Finite attention spans. Everyone knows that children’s attention spans are short. But adults’ ability to concentrate on a speaker’s words is similarly short — about seven minutes. They’re just better at masking it. (Pastor, even though I’m looking at you and maybe even nodding, I’m actually daydreaming about what I’m going to do after church.)
Passive form. Most preachers still employ a passive, spectator approach to the sermon time. They do all the talking. And because the people sit without the opportunity to interact or process what they’re hearing, they fail to engage in a meaningful way. Some may be entertained, but rarely moved.
Human wiring. People consume, learn and apply communication in different ways. Some process predominantly through their eyes. Others internalize primarily through action. And some process chiefly through their ears. The latter are the auditory learners. They do better with sermons. The problem is, they’re in the minority. (I suspect many, if not most, preachers are auditory learners — who often assume, dangerously, everyone learns as they do.)
The Ideal Length
First, the length of the sermon is not the point. The point is ... the point. However long or short it takes to make a lasting point.
Using a variety of supporting ideas, scriptures, stories, visuals, experiences and interaction, an effective message might take 20 or 30 minutes. Or it may take five minutes.
No two messages are identical. So, why do preachers attempt to manufacture lectures that fill the identical time allotment, week after week? Why not allow other elements of a worship service to expand and shrink? I think some preachers believe those of us in the pews will feel cheated if the sermon runs 10 minutes short. Trust me on this: If we sense God moving us within a five-minute message, we won’t complain.
Our society and our congregations may be suffering from some spiritual starvation. But it’s not because our preachers are not long-winded enough.
The denominational executive concluded his remarks about sermons with a suggestion that any preacher who delivers even an occasional short sermon should be removed from ministry.
Be careful, sir. One who is guilty of your condemnations was in fact quite effective with the short-form message. That was 2000 years ago. People are still talking about his brief, punchy stories and lessons.
He could have turned every opportunity into a 30-minute lecture. He certainly had plenty he could have shared. But he knew his audience. And his goal.
He didn’t buy the “more is better” myth:
I have many more things to say to you, but they are too much for you now. – John 16:12