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preaching article The Perfect Length for a Sermon

The Perfect Length for a Sermon

based on 6 ratings
Mar 5, 2013
Scripture: none
(Suggest Scripture)

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 predominately 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 questioned the fitness of any preacher who would even occasionally offer a sermon that did not meet his standards of elongation.

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...

William Kruppa avatar
William Kruppa
0 days ago
The majority of what you wrote, I would agree with. One important point of contention I would make is the idea of participatory actions during preaching. The Bible is quite clear that people learn about the Gospel from preaching--from hearing (Romans 10). My concern with the idea of participatory actions could evolve into no one preaching, just many people spouting off about what they think.
Andrew Gamblin avatar
Andrew Gamblin
0 days ago
Great article! I believe we, pastors, are scared of what would happen if we allowed more interaction. What if the people in our congregations knew more about the topic than us? What if lives were really transformed, challenging us to go personally deeper? That would mean more work for us, more study for us, more worship planning! Oh no!! What if they actually liked interactions, prayer stations, etc? That would mean we don?t get the satisfaction of our words making the biggest difference! Thank you for the challenge!
Andrew Gamblin avatar
Andrew Gamblin
0 days ago
@William, the pastor is the shepard, guiding the flock. The interaction is allowed within the confines of the topic that day. Q
David Buffaloe avatar
David Buffaloe
0 days ago
Great article! I used to worry about making sure I had exactly 30 minutes to speak - but realized that the length doesn't matter. God matters. His Word matters, and the people will not grow until they HEAR and decided to DO it. It must be life transforming. What are some ways you get the audience to interact? I ask questions, ask them to repeat key words together. Are there other things that can be done in the midst of the sermon? Not to bring attention to me (I need to decrease) but to magnify our Father and His Gospel.
Don Workman avatar
Don Workman
0 days ago
A very timely article for me personally. My question to @thomschulz and @Andrewgamblin: "are either or both of you preparing sermons to preach on a weekly basis, sometimes two or three of them, with all other duties and "interruptions" through the week in that preparing process ?" Please know there is no criticism, sarcasm, or ulterior motive behind the question. Just an honest question that came to my mind while reading the post and the comments. Thanks.
Joshua Boateng avatar
Joshua Boateng
0 days ago
I think this is a very beautiful piece. Thanks for sharing. About William Kruppa's point of contention, I do believe he has a point about hearing from preaching according to Romans 10. However, as a preacher and also a university academic, I know that people (in particular dyslexics) learn differently to others. I think it is important as preachers not to assume too much that our listeners are all the same. Of course I believe in the supernatural move of the Holy Spirit but I also believe practical acting out is also used by Him. When I was growing up, the church used to have 'Sunday School' sessions where everyone took part in the discussion before the preacher summed up everything in his sermon. That seems to have vanished and we only have a lot of monologue. Even Jesus's disciples came to ask Him questions after his sermons. Overall, great article and some lovely responses.
Bill Williams avatar
Bill Williams
0 days ago
@Don, I think you asked a great question. If I may, I'd like to share what we do at our church, since I think it may be of help. At our church, our pastor does not monopolize the preaching ministry. It is shared with our elders and other gifted and trained lay members. Our pastor preaches about every two or three weeks, and the others preach on a rotation. That frees up a lot more time for the pastor to perform his primary, Biblical task: to equip us for the work of ministry. He has been with us for five years, now, and I can tell you that it has made a significant difference for the better! Hope this is helpful. Blessings to you!
Don Workman avatar
Don Workman
0 days ago
@BillWilliams - thanks, Bill for your comments. Blessed is the church with such gifted men. I have one other man who we just licensed in our church to preach and help with other duties, though he is not paid staff. I am the only full time employee, with a part time secretary in our church. We do have a lot of wonderful and gifted people in a variety of ministries, but sad to say not too many with the preaching "gift." I am all for your idea/suggestion and always keep my eye out for any who can help with this task. It is a high priority and calling, so therefore I will never be casual with whom I share this privilege. But on the other hand, I realize that I am not the only preacher in our midst!
Joseph William Rhoads avatar
Joseph William Rhoads
0 days ago
William Kruppa is right on. Even the apostle Paul had during his day a variety of ways to communicate: theater, debate, lecture, conversation, etc. Yet he chose to preach, to verbally communicate while others remained quiet and listened. The people were supposed to activate their minds while listening. (Teaching is a more appropriate time for audience participation.) TV as negatively impacted the attention span of adults. We can either go with the flow, or attempt to retrain people to concentrate for longer periods. I choose the latter.
Ed Owens avatar
Ed Owens
0 days ago
Good points...though Jesus wasn't always brief. He kept them so long a couple times that he needed to feed them.
Rev. Larry West avatar
Rev. Larry West
0 days ago
Be careful Mr. Schulz that you do not replace "effective methods" with simple laziness and apathy. I seemed to recall a young man falling out of a window in the book of Acts because of a long winded preacher named Paul. How long should a sermon be? As long as God wants it to be. Stop putting time lengths on it. It should be as short or as long as the spirit desires it to be. I do not "predetermine" the length of my sermons. Just preach the thought/text/outline I feel I need to preach. But instead of lecturing us preachers on how long to preach, why don't you lecturer the hearers to be better listeners? "He that hath an ear..." Remember, school children used to sit in a desk and listen to a teacher, back when American school children ranked number 1 in the world, as opposed to now....
Steven Brown avatar
Steven Brown
0 days ago
Someone once said "The mind can only absorb what the seat can withstand". So there is some validity to what Mr. Schultz is saying. However, if The Spirit is working and flowing, we don't want to cut Him off. I believe we should never limit God for the sake of expediency.
Rev. Larry West avatar
Rev. Larry West
0 days ago
Be careful Mr. Schulz that you do not replace "effective methods" with simple laziness and apathy. I seemed to recall a young man falling out of a window in the book of Acts because of a long winded preacher named Paul. How long should a sermon be? As long as God wants it to be. Stop putting time lengths on it. It should be as short or as long as the spirit desires it to be. I do not "predetermine" the length of my sermons. Just preach the thought/text/outline I feel I need to preach. But instead of lecturing us preachers on how long to preach, why don't you lecturer the hearers to be better listeners? "He that hath an ear..." Remember, school children used to sit in a desk and listen to a teacher, back when American school children ranked number 1 in the world, as opposed to now....
Andrew Gamblin avatar
Andrew Gamblin
0 days ago
@Don - yes. I lead two weekly bible studies as well as prepare a sermon for each week. What I have had to learn is I cannot do it all on my own. I have several people (volunteers) that work with me. I begin worship planning about 6 weeks out. I have two guys that do historical and biblical research with me. I have a guy that does litergical research with me. I have two ladies that work n worship experiences with me. I have a lady that takes care of alter settings. We treat the weekly worship experience much like the body of Christ. All with different jobs, but the same goal. At any one time, we are preparing for 6 different weeks. Today, the team, begins preparing for April 21st. However, I personally am preparing for September.
Elwood Long avatar
Elwood Long
0 days ago
William Kruppa make a valid point. I wish to add; the time used in delivering a sermon is not the most important ingredient. Some messengers can say more in 15 to 25 minutes than others in an hour. It is more important to know you have the message God wants your people to hear on the particular occasion.
Bryan Thompson avatar
Bryan Thompson
0 days ago
Someone who has a calling to preach the word would never approach a sermon with the idea of simply filling the allotted time with words. I love to preach. I still believe most pastors do. We just need to take that desire to impact people's lives through the Word of God and channel it in a Spirit-led and thoughtful way. Put the needs of God's people ahead of our own desire to communicate effectively, sure, but I think those two things have the capacity to compliment more than they do conflict.
Reginald Gabel avatar
Reginald Gabel
0 days ago
And Jesus walked almost everywhere... he wore sandles... we get so caught up in "Preaching Laws" that we forget about the shepherding. And he was paid full-time right. The message here is to meet the need of the flock and let the focus be on as Jesus said, "feed my sheep." If the church is growing spiritual and modeling Christ we are doing the right thing. We will not all agree on the way to do things, neither did Paul and Peter, but we are all serving the same Lord, sharing the same love, so let's focus on helping each other instead of judging each other... praying each day that people is Jesus in me.
Steven Huddleston avatar
Steven Huddleston
0 days ago
In regard to Rev. West's comments, I don't think anyone needs to worry about Mr. Schultz replacing effective methods with laziness or apathy. Thom Schultz has been on the cutting edge of effectively communicating the Gospel for years. If you will consider his suggestions with an open mind, you may find that there are some things many ministers can do to better impact their congregations with their preaching. I employed more of Thom's ideas as a youth minister than I do now as a Sr. Pastor, and my sermons are usually about 30 minutes in length, but I am still trying to think outside the box and make sure I am doing everything I can to connect the Bible to the hearts of my people, rather than just doing the same thing week after week. I think this makes me a better preacher, and I owe this mindset to things I learned personally from Thom Schultz. I also think I still have much room for improvement and welcome new ideas that challenge me to consider what I may be able to do better.
Dean Johnson avatar
Dean Johnson
0 days ago
@Bill Williams do you have some material you use to train your elders and lay people to preach?
Rj Watford avatar
Rj Watford
0 days ago
I agree with your comments on sermon length but I also know that depending on the denomination and the leadership at the church, many people want the pastor/speakers sermon to be 20-30 mins long and if it is not, the pastor will hear about it. I also would not want to be the pastor/speaker who had to have leadership/membership bring this up repeatedly.
Prescott Jay Erwin avatar
Prescott Jay Erwin
0 days ago
Having commented on this article in another forum, I would reflect back to the author the caution he gives the denominational executive: be careful of your condemnations. I know that sounds stern, but consider this: 1) Yes, folks seem to be "drowning in information," but it's useless or false information that isn't life-giving. They need information they can drink-in, rather than drown in. Part of the job of the sermon IS, indeed, to dispense information. We obviously DO, in fact, need "information middlemen" who get between what the world and false teachers say and our flock, but it's information for transformation, not information for information's sake. 2) While the sermon is not a showcase for oratory skills, skillful oratory may be what some of our folk need, since not everyone learns in the same way. Skillful oratory helps to hold the attention of people who would otherwise not be able to concentrate for an extended period. 3) The preacher DOES need to demonstrate in the sermon that he or she HAS adequately prepared, that he or she HAS studied to show him or herself approved unto God. 4) If the lecture method is the least fruitful, why is it still THE primary method of teaching in our colleges and universities? Don?t throw it out or condemn it; after all, SOME people DO learn that way. What people retain from a lecture has a good deal to do with the lecturer's oratory skill and engagement with his congregation/class/audience. 5) Yes, people have developed finite attention spans thanks to the American culture, but rather than simply conforming to it, the Church needs to work to expand people's attention spans. 6) And let's be honest, both the preacher and the congregant employ a passive stance with regard to the sermon. I agree that preacher needs to engage, but so does the congregation. 7) The author observes, "Our society and our congregations may be suffering from some spiritual starvation." Some? SOME? They're either starving to death or eating themselves into oblivion on empty calories.
Jose Menchaca avatar
Jose Menchaca
0 days ago
Thanks Thom! Very good and insightful. Much appreciated!
Bill Williams avatar
Bill Williams
0 days ago
@Dean, I'm not the pastor at our church. I'm a high school teacher, but I do help out with the preaching about once or twice a year. As far as training, our pastor uses Living by the Book by Howard Hendricks to teach us how to do our own inductive Bible study; and Biblical Preaching by Haddon Robinson, for the actual preaching. He had us read the books, and then met with us one-on-one to discuss the books, answer any questions, and help us practice the skills. Once a person completes the one-on-one training, the pastor meets with us once a month where we discuss the sermons we're working on and we get feedback from each other. Currently, this group includes our three elders, myself, and two other lay members. One thing to point out is that this is a continual process. Our pastor began first with the elders, and then trained the others one by one, myself being the latest addition to the team. He is always prayerfully looking out for the next person he can train and bring in to our group!
Bill Williams avatar
Bill Williams
0 days ago
@Prescott, I agree with you that information, oratorical skill, and preparation are important for preaching. However, the point that the author is making is that these things are not the GOAL of preaching. I.e., information, skill, and preparation are servants; and the author is simply cautioning against making these the master. Also, you asked why are lectures still the primary method of teaching in higher education. My own experience is because that is the primary learning style of those who teach in institutions of higher learning. That doesn't mean that the "lecture method" is the best way of teaching. It's just that most people who teach in colleges and universities are wired that way. Now, don't misunderstand. You are right that we shouldn't just abandon that method. Lecturing has its place. Some DO learn better that way. But it's not as many as one would think if you are looking only at the sample present in colleges and universities. The truly effective teacher (and preacher) will supplement the "lecture method" with other forms of communication.
Prescott Jay Erwin avatar
Prescott Jay Erwin
0 days ago
Bill: I agree with many of your observations, but I also believe that in order to avoid some mistakes, Schultz oversteers and makes others. He cautions one fellow for his condemnations and then errs with some condemnations of his own. There's some truth to what the denominational exec said, and there's some truth to what Schultz said, but neither has it all right.
  avatar
0 days ago
If a person truly has a desire and thirst for the Word, 30 mins would not be enough.. The problem of today's christianity when it comes to preaching, it centers now to man. Preferences of man is being considered instead of what God truly desires for His children. Tho I believe spiritual feeding should not be dependent on a Sunday sermon but the congregation should be encouraged to dig in deeper, know more, and Sunday is a best platform for it.
Bill Williams avatar
Bill Williams
0 days ago
@Prescott, you're point is well taken. Thanks for your input!
Bill Williams avatar
Bill Williams
0 days ago
@Anonymous (#26), I agree with the idea that if a person truly has a desire and thirst for the Word 30 minutes would not be enough, and I'm glad that you recognize that the spiritual feeding should not be dependent on the sermon. But I disagree that the weekly sermon is the best platform for the spiritual feeding of the flock. The sermon should supplement the study that the church members do during the week, not the other way around. If a person really does desire and thirst for the word, then one sermon a week will not be enough, no matter how long or short it is. A person who truly desires and thirsts for the word will be studying it for themselves during the week. I've been a Christian my whole life, and I've been a member of various churches. My own personal experience is that the churches I've been in that had longer sermons (45 minutes) had members who depended on the pastor's sermon for the spiritual feeding more, and studied the bible for themselves less. The churches I've been in that had shorter sermons (the one I currently attend averages 30-35 minutes for the sermon) had members who are less dependent on the pastor, and who study the Bible for themselves more.
  avatar
0 days ago
Yes sir Bill, I agree on what you said, yet the Pastor could exemplify it and so yes encourage the members to join him in studying and digging God's Word the more.
Prescott Jay Erwin avatar
Prescott Jay Erwin
0 days ago
Bill: You say, "I've been a Christian my whole life..." Really? Ever since you were born? :-)
Mike Brenneman avatar
Mike Brenneman
0 days ago
Great Topic! gauging by the feedback. Someone below cautioned something about short sermons and laziness. I am guilty of longer sermons, 35 to 38 minutes. That's after I cut out the fluff and unneeded info. Nonetheless, I admire those who can make their point in less time. Short sermons take much more effort and time to construct, at least for me. Laziness has nothing to do with sermon length, it is a condition of the heart and mind. A lazy person can easily deliver a long sermon. I've seen it. Blessing to all.
Prescott Jay Erwin avatar
Prescott Jay Erwin
0 days ago
Great observation, Bro. Mike.
Bill Williams avatar
Bill Williams
0 days ago
@Anonymous, I agree with you as well. I think that a pastor who shows passion when preaching greatly encourages the members to dig in for themselves.
Bill Williams avatar
Bill Williams
0 days ago
@Prescott, yes, since I was born! :) I had the fortune to be born in a Christian family. I made my own decision to follow Christ and was baptized at the age of nine.

So, what did you think?


Thank you.