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preaching article The Perfect Length for a Sermon

The Perfect Length for a Sermon

based on 13 ratings
Jan 22, 2013

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.

Sermon Limits

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.

Starvation Diet?

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

Thom is the chairman of Group Publishing, and president of the Lifetree Cafe national network.

Talk about it...

Jun Ang avatar
Jun Ang
0 days ago
it seems to me that despite some of the points that the author has mentioned, the point of the article is still "pastor are to be making short sermons". peace.
David Buffaloe avatar
David Buffaloe
0 days ago
The point of every sermon is either to present the Gospel so that the Holy Spirit can lead the lost to receive Christ, or to present the Christ of the Gospel so that the believer can become more like Christ. No one sermon accomplishes this. We plant, and we plow, but it is God Who gives the increase in due season. I do, however, agree with the denominational executive that you seem to chastise. If a pastor consistently does no more than a 5 to 8 minute sermon he will not sufficiently feed those listeners. You cite Jesus (I assume) when you talk about "The One Who 2000 years ago" spoke short sermons. Sure He did. But those who heard Him stayed in His presence more than the 5-8 minutes - they followed Him, often for days, and listened to more than one of His sermons. Today our listeners are only in Church usually once a week, if that. At most the singing goes 30 minutes, the preaching 30 minutes. When they leave they will go home and watch 15-20 hours of television, be exposed to radio and culture that will feed worldly vision to them - and they MIGHT come back to Church next week if it's not too sunny or too rainy. How foolish to waste the 30 minutes you may have with that person with a poorly prepared message! If God has given you 30 and you use only 8, best make sure in your heart that the 8 is all He wanted you to take. Amen?
Jeff Robinson avatar
Jeff Robinson
0 days ago
I agree that there should be no set time for sermon. Whether you preach topically or expositionally, each topic or exposition should set its own length. Some require much time to explain and apply while others can be done in a relatively short period of time. If you are preaching 5-8 per week, you probably aren't dispensing much when you hit the more in-depth areas of the faith. The issue I have with this article is that the analysis used by the author of this column never takes into consideration power of God in the sermon delivery. Weekly (and sometimes more frequent) expositions are unique to the Christian faith. We come together not to hear some eloquent lecture by a gifted speaker, but rather to hear the Word of God expounded upon. It is not just the words spoken that are the influencing factor. There is the conviction of the Holy Spirit. There is the confirmation of God's plan through the Holy Spirit. So, yes, be mindful of the psychology of preaching but do not be limited by it. Paul preached all night! (Now, if we plan to do that we should make sure God has told us to do so. That way if anyone falls asleep and plunges to his death God will be honored in that person resurrection.) God often confounds the wise when He speaks. Preach with the thought of the recipients in mind but with direction of God in heart whether that be five minutes or forty-five!
Ralph M avatar
Ralph M
0 days ago
(Ralph) This is something I was a part of for years as a child, teenager and young adult. I valued time, more than my relationship, building on Biblical knowledge, warning and growth about and from God given, and following, sources. I remember when I use to look at my watch, shuddering to miss one second of a football kickoff. I remember watching, as many members would walk out during a sermon to 'beat the crowd', like the home crowd does when their home team is losing...and they don't want to hear it from the visiting team. Satan loves the fact we are built on a timeline. Many times no value of any kind delivered from the pulpit in that excuse. It reminds me of when Jesus asked His Apostles to pray with Him...and all they could do is fall asleep, the words, "The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak" in a loving tone coming from our Lord in knowledge of just how weak man really is to outside sources and values. While the goal shouldn't be be to be so long, all any of those from the pews give the pulpit is the sound of snores, there has to be Biblical guidance to feed our spirit, through God's chosen vessels of WHOLE TRUTH, and knowledge, commands, warnings, instructions, examples and grace. To pass that value down to the next generations in every area of our lives. That 'hour or two, could be the difference of a difference of, "Well done good and faithful servant"...or "My people parish fro lack of knowledge." It is why pastors, clergy, preachers, those that say they come to stand in the WHOLE TRUTH of God, to save and restore, many will be met with, "Depart from Me, I never knew you" from God Himself. In the long run, even our fleshly shells will not be with us, even the Bible that we read or leave on a shelf, let alone our earthly possessions. Instead of the excuse of time, we had better focus on the message, and where we get the instructions, of man...or of God. I use to make a bee line to get out of church to sit down at a television to watch a game...today, the importance of a game over God, makes me ashamed that was my mindset in the past, but our sanctification process is one on one with God...and in that growth the importance God wants us to have, will grow in our relationship with Him and those of the same value. We all have to decide what time means to us, what we do with it and of what value we use it for. God Bless
Pastor Jerry Rohn avatar
Pastor Jerry Rohn
0 days ago
As a fairly new Pastor (4yrs) I have to say something here. I don't believe you should put a time limit on your sermon. God is timeless! The Holy Spirit should be leading you and your congragation. Sometimes our service lasts for 2 hours, and sometimes 1 hour... I have one friend that will go to my campground ministry but not to my church. She and her husband are used to the one hour ministers. My thought is how in good consious can we teach the Word of God under a time constrant? It seems to promot a lack of learning. If a person sitting in that pew is thinking about the big game its because we as Pastors have allowed them room... by keeping that sermon in the box of time constrants. Thank You and God Bless!
Jack Witt avatar
Jack Witt
0 days ago
I understand the reasoning that Thom uses to get at his point for shorter sermons, but I think it's faulty reasoning. To point at the information glut as reason to give less, does not account for the fact that most of the information absorbed by the average church-attendee is based in something other than biblical truth. If our teaching and preaching is anointed, creative and well delivered, the sermon may be the only place where the lies of our culture and the ill-informed ideas that pass for Christian doctrine today can be effectively confronted and clarified through the lens of Scripture. I don't agree that a sermon needs to be eternal to be immortal, but I am at the same time unconvinced that surrendering to the compromised appetites of people by snack-feeding them serves them all that well or fulfills our obligation to feed the flock.
James R. Warren Jr. avatar
James R. Warren Jr.
0 days ago
The person who wrote this article doesn't sound like he leads a church. I have preached shorter sermons with some of his same points in mind and have been approached by Christians asking, "why was it so short?" I do agree that the mind can only retain what the "behind" can sustain, but if you know your members and fellowship them, engage them outside of Sunday worship on a weekly basis, you'll know what the needs are and prepare accordingly. I work with small group leaders who keep me abreast of the needs in my congregation, along with time in the Word and prayer. It helps me to preach to the needs. I also incorporate visual illustrations when it applies to help make the point and keep our youth engaged. I would have appreciated this article more if he used Jesus as the model and not as the hammer. Jesus used many visual images ("look at the fig tree...")and stories (the parables, "there was a man who found a pearl...") He is who we should model our preaching and teaching methods after. I'm sure he had the same type of listeners back in his day!
Leslye Haller avatar
Leslye Haller
0 days ago
I must say I agree with everyone's comments here; and I agree that we should be led by the Spirit, not the people in the pews as far as the length of our sermons. With that being said, we need to make sure that if we preach a long sermon, it had better be because we are being led by the Spirit to do so, not our egos. In today's world, most people don't have the attention span--especially young unchurched people--to listen to a long sermon. Sad but true. It shouldn't be that way, but it is. Our job is to meet the people in the pews where they are, like Jesus did. And let the Spirit work through us to nurture and grow them in the faith. If the first time someone new to the faith comes into the church and they hear a sermon that's long and drawn out just because the pastor thinks it's a bad sermon if it lasts less than 30 minutes, they will never be back--and that would be a shame.
Ralph M avatar
Ralph M
0 days ago
(Ralph) This is something I was a part of for years as a child, teenager and young adult. I valued time, more than my relationship, building on Biblical knowledge, warning and growth about and from God given, and following, sources. I remember when I use to look at my watch, shuddering to miss one second of a football kickoff. I remember watching, as many members would walk out during a sermon to 'beat the crowd', like the home crowd does when their home team is losing...and they don't want to hear it from the visiting team. Satan loves the fact we are built on a timeline. Many times no value of any kind delivered from the pulpit in that excuse. It reminds me of when Jesus asked His Apostles to pray with Him...and all they could do is fall asleep, the words, "The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak" in a loving tone coming from our Lord in knowledge of just how weak man really is to outside sources and values. While the goal shouldn't be be to be so long, all any of those from the pews give the pulpit is the sound of snores, there has to be Biblical guidance to feed our spirit, through God's chosen vessels of WHOLE TRUTH, and knowledge, commands, warnings, instructions, examples and grace. To pass that value down to the next generations in every area of our lives. That 'hour or two, could be the difference of a difference of, "Well done good and faithful servant"...or "My people parish fro lack of knowledge." It is why pastors, clergy, preachers, those that say they come to stand in the WHOLE TRUTH of God, to save and restore, many will be met with, "Depart from Me, I never knew you" from God Himself. In the long run, even our fleshly shells will not be with us, even the Bible that we read or leave on a shelf, let alone our earthly possessions. Instead of the excuse of time, we had better focus on the message, and where we get the instructions, of man...or of God. I use to make a bee line to get out of church to sit down at a television to watch a game...today, the importance of a game over God, makes me ashamed that was my mindset in the past, but our sanctification process is one on one with God...and in that growth the importance God wants us to have, will grow in our relationship with Him and those of the same value. We all have to decide what time means to us, what we do with it and of what value we use it for. God Bless
Dalton Avery avatar
Dalton Avery
0 days ago
I feel that the length of the sermon is secondary to its faithfulness to the text. This argues for a variety of sermon lengths depending on the given text. I also think the length of the sermon is secondary to our faithfulness as pastors to our people. Our calling and divine mandate is to make disciples of Jesus (Matthew 28:19) and to present those disciples as fully formed, fully devoted (Colossians 1:28) followers of Christ. The reality is that people on different levels of spiritual maturity need to be taught at different levels of complexity, in differing levels of information density, and smaller digestible concepts. Another factor is our ability to actually process and apply information given in a sermon. If we can be more effective in discipleship and evangelism with 20 minute messages....and the actual life change factor in our listeners is higher with a shorter message, why is this even a discussion? Are we preaching to fill an expected time slot? Or are we preaching to make disciples of Jesus? We must pursue the most effective, ?faithful to the bible? methods of preaching. If a short sermon more effectively disciples than a long one--we owe it to our people to preach shorter--if a longer sermon more effectively disciples our given flock than a short one--we must preach that way. We must know our people, their needs and meet them where they are. Otherwise we are preaching in spite of people rather than to disciple people. Both styles can be appropriate and both styles can be done to people?s detriment. Our preaching cannot be self-centered it must be Christ centered and people centered. Do what your people will be discipled most effectively by. And don?t just assume you know what they need and do things your way. It?s not about you. It?s not about you, it?s about Him and them.
Bill Williams avatar
Bill Williams
0 days ago
@Jack and James, just to be clear, the author is not saying that sermons should be shorter. What he is saying is that sermons should be however long it takes to make the point. That time will vary depending on the preacher, the context, or even the point in question. Some points may need longer to develop than others.
Bill Williams avatar
Bill Williams
0 days ago
As a general observation, the best way a pastor feeds his flock is by teaching them how to read and understand the Bible for themselves during the rest of the week. Christians will be malnourished if the only exposure they have to Scriptures is from a weekly sermon, no matter how long that sermon is!
David Pegarella avatar
David Pegarella
0 days ago
Interesting article, and good topic for discussion - Can't say I agree with all of it, but there are some good points. I was trained in inductive preaching (follow one main point) vs. deductive (tell them what you're going to tell them, then tell them, then tell them what you told them). I was also trained that people have been conditioned by television and have an average attention span of 15 minutes and a commercial; that training was thirty-two years ago when I was in Bible college. It has served me well. I prepare on average twenty hours a week for a 20-30 minute message (Study, prayer, and putting it on paper). I have found with good preparation, and good delivery people pay attention. There is no exact perfect time. I've read a three verse parable of Jesus and could feed off it for hours. The important point is: prepare well, pray hard, and deliver it with everything you've been gifted with. I believe it was John Wesley who said when asked why so many come to hear him preach, "I set myself on fire and people come to watch me burn."
Gary Webb avatar
Gary Webb
0 days ago
Let's get honest here. Many of those who warm our pews have no real interest in God's Word anyway. They are a mixed multitude - not a holy gathering. Therefore, perhaps we should follow the pattern of Christ with the multitudes. He spoke to them, yes; but He understood that the message was a call to those within that group who hungered for more. Then, He invested His life in those who were hungry. We spend lots of time trying to do what my dad did with me when I was a child. I hated liver. I wasn't going to eat it - no matter what. He made me sit at the table with a plate of that vile stuff for hours. Finally, he would just give me a whipping and send me to bed. I still hate liver, so it's not on my plate anymore. If we force people to listen to more thorough teaching of the Word, that doesn't mean they will hear it. Let's just speak call out those who want to hear. Then, we can spend lots of time with them, sharing the Word and how it applies to their lives. We can actually make disciples instead of just gathering a crowd (not that we don't need to do both).
Gary Webb avatar
Gary Webb
0 days ago
Let's get honest here. Many of those who warm our pews have no real interest in God's Word anyway. They are a mixed multitude - not a holy gathering. Therefore, perhaps we should follow the pattern of Christ with the multitudes. He spoke to them, yes; but He understood that the message was a call to those within that group who hungered for more. Then, He invested His life in those who were hungry. We spend lots of time trying to do what my dad did with me when I was a child. I hated liver. I wasn't going to eat it - no matter what. He made me sit at the table with a plate of that vile stuff for hours. Finally, he would just give me a whipping and send me to bed. I still hate liver, so it's not on my plate anymore. If we force people to listen to more thorough teaching of the Word, that doesn't mean they will hear it. Let's just speak call out those who want to hear. Then, we can spend lots of time with them, sharing the Word and how it applies to their lives. We can actually make disciples instead of just gathering a crowd (not that we don't need to do both).
Nigel Foster avatar
Nigel Foster
0 days ago
"No two messages are identical. So, why do preachers attempt to manufacture lectures that fill the identical time allotment, week after week?" That is a question I have been pondering for a long time. My old church expected 40 minutes every week, so that's what the speakers gave them. Why? Harder to answer... Tradition, I guess. One side of a C90 cassette?
Dennis Cocks avatar
Dennis Cocks
0 days ago
The author says, "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." I once heard an answer to a question somewhat similar and it goes like this. A man was asked why he wasted his time going to church as he certainly couldn't remember everything he had heard. His answer was that he couldn't remember everything that his wife had cooked for him for the 39 years they had been married, but that food had kept him alive and was enjoyable nonetheless. Jesus told the disciples that the Holy Spirit would bring to rememberance anything they need to know when they needed to know it. He will do the same for us, but we need to at least hear it first. So as far as "Most of those well-prepared words are quickly lost. Forever." I don't buy it. David Buffaloe said it well also.
Mercia Lee avatar
Mercia Lee
0 days ago
Thank you Thom - I couldn't agree more. I have been attending church for 66 years and in that time have listened to many sermons of different lengths. The most memorable and effective (in terms of the effect they had on my understanding of God and His demands on my walk with Him) were short with a clear and simple point and a clear application to my life. It was good to be reminded that Jesus knew his audience - He's the model. He used stories as a means of connecting with people and in my experience the best communicators are good story tellers like Him. Whenever I've had the privilege of preaching I've tried to include visual support alongside the listening and also involved, wherever possible, something physical for the audience to 'do' as well, to reinforce the main point and I've kept the talking as short as possible. I have to say I'm puzzled why some who have responded to the article assume that the Holy Spirit needs a long sermon to do His work - surely He can convict as effectively in a short space of time? I also think that if the preacher knows his congregation he will keep his preaching short because he's aware that some of the congregation are fidgetting in a lengthy sermon because they have a child in the creche who needs to be taken home for a nap, or and elderly relative who's waiting to be collected from their home to share lunch, or they have to get to their next shift as a care worker. Preachers need to recognise it's not about their ego or oratory.
Dee Dee Lawson avatar
Dee Dee Lawson
0 days ago
Thom, I agree with your general line of thinking on this, but I would caution you on assuming that what we have in New Testament is the full length of what Jesus said. We cannot say for sure that what we have was not significantly edited down. What I do read again and again in Scripture is people came and hung out with Jesus all day long to hear what He said. Moreover, those times He got in the boat and "taught them" implies it was more than a few short minutes. Still, I appreciate what what one of my Bible College professors used to preach to us students, ?Lord open my mouth to say Your worthwhile stuff, close it when I?ve said enough."
Robert Priest avatar
Robert Priest
0 days ago
In a world filled with secular discourse all week, I hate to see an argument for shrinking the one agreed-upon time for helping us get God's perspective on ourselves, our work, our ethics, on others, on God, etc. to eight minutes. The only reason I am sometimes sympathetic to the call for shorter sermons is that they are so often poorly done. But when well-done, 30 minutes is not too long for anyone.
Dennis Cocks avatar
Dennis Cocks
0 days ago
Dee Dee Lawson makes a good point. John 21:24 "And there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written. Amen." I would imagine that one of the many other things which Jesus did was teach and preach, and if John says that if all of those things were recorded, the world couldn't contain all the books I would guess His sermons were a little longer than 8 minutes, or even 40 minutes for that matter.
Martin Baariu Muriuki avatar
Martin Baariu Muriuki
0 days ago
I am an average 30min sermon preacher. Sometimes I have preached for almost an hour, and the audience was still awake! The impact of every sermon no matter the time is the punch behind every word and phrase as led by the Holy Spirit. There are those members of the congregation who wake up in the middle of the sermon and others walk away with the first sentence or paragraph of the sermon!
Jerry Tipton avatar
Jerry Tipton
0 days ago
Thom, I appreciate your article. Your so right the length of the message is not the point but preaching a message to transform/change lives is the goal. I don't know about all the other preachers but I usually leave on Sunday wishing I could have done more for Christ. Thanks again for the encouragement.
Bill Williams avatar
Bill Williams
0 days ago
@DeeDee and Dennis, you both make a very good point. We must not assume that the entirety of Jesus' discourses are transcribed in Scripture. There are many passages in the Gospels describing people listening to Jesus for extended periods of time, even entire days. Having said that, we also must not assume that what the Bible describes as preaching is the same as what we assume in 21st century North America, namely, one guy standing in front of an audience of people talking uninterruptedly. It appears from the Gospels, especially in John, that Jesus' preaching took a more interactive, conversational approach than is common today, which included participation from those who were listening. Perhaps if pastors' preaching followed that same approach, people's attention span might likewise increase!
Bill Williams avatar
Bill Williams
0 days ago
@Robert, I encourage you to reread the article more closely. The author does not in any way argue for shorter sermons. His main idea is that a sermon should last however long it takes to make its point. If a sermon's point can be communicated effectively in twenty minutes, for example, it doesn't do any good to continue longer simply for the sake of filling up a "once agreed upon" time slot! Also, "in a world filled with secular discourse all week," if the congregation has not been trained how to read and understand the Bible for themselves during the week, there is no way one sermon a week will be able to counter the effect of the secular discourse from the other six days, no matter how long that sermon may be!

So, what did you think?


Thank you.