How Long Should You Preach?

April 25th, 2012

If you preach on a regular basis, you probably have guidelines for how long your sermons should be. You may not always have a choice in the matter—sometimes, especially when you’re speaking somewhere else, you’re given a time slot and you have to fill it. But if you’re a senior pastor or regular preaching pastor, you likely have major influence over the structure and length of your church’s worship services. That means you decide how long you’re going to speak and what needs to be cut or added to the rest of the service to make it happen.

When it comes to sermon length, I’ve observed three kinds of preachers:

Short and sweet: These are the preachers who never go beyond the fifteen minute mark. Ever. Perhaps it’s because they’re from traditions that don’t encourage lengthy preaching. Maybe it's the way their homiletics professors taught them in seminary. Or it’s possible they realize that preaching isn’t their strong suit and they’re trying to spare everyone the agony of a long sermon. Whatever the reason, listeners who aren’t used to such short sermons will probably be in denial that they’ve just heard a real sermon. (If a visitor’s face lights up with delight as they exclaim, “That’s it?”, it’s a bad sign.)

Half hour or less: Preachers who speak for 20 to 30 minutes are fairly common. That’s because really good speakers will find that a 20 or 25 minute sermon leaves the audience wanting more. Not so good speakers will realize that they probably couldn’t keep the congregation awake longer than 20 or 25 minutes anyway, so they don’t dare venture into second half hour territory. Some probably shouldn’t even go into second quarter hour territory.

Half hour plus: Back in the 80’s and 90’s, Domino’s Pizza had a guarantee on pizza delivery that went something like this: If you don’t get your pizza within thirty minutes, it’s free. Domino’s discontinued the guarantee when drivers were having too many car accidents trying to make the half hour deadline. Sometimes I think churches should have a similar guarantee: If the sermon stinks and goes over a half hour, you get your tithe back. I kid, of course, but in all seriousness, only the most gifted and interesting preachers should preach over 30 minutes. And even they should proceed with much caution. Are you one of those preachers? If you have to ask, probably not yet.

So how long should your sermons be? It depends.

Do you preach from a manuscript? You should keep it to 15 minutes or less. Seriously, if people can tell you are reading (even if you only look down every few seconds), they will get bored quickly. Unless you’re really good at delivering a manuscript sermon (and I’ve met few preachers who are) keep it short. If you want to go longer, preach from an outline or train yourself to speak without notes.

Does your sermon have one big idea? (Not three—one!) If you had to condense your sermon down to a Tweet (140 characters or less) or an elevator pitch, could you do it? Is there one main thing people should get from it? Then you should feel free to take 20 or 25 minutes. If not, keep your sermon to 15 minutes or less, because it’s probably too complicated. Taking more time is just going to confuse everyone.

Are there a lot of young people in your audience? Unless you’re a crackerjack speaker (worthy of an HBO special or a gig at a Christian conference), keep your sermon to 15 or 20 minutes tops. Hint: Watch the teenagers while you’re preaching to see how you’re doing. They’ll be more honest with their body language than their parents will be. Some will even tell you to your face later if you were boring.

Do you spend a lot of time planning your sermon but speak with a minimum amount of notes? Then by all means, approach the 25-30 minute mark. If you walk around and make eye contact and experiment with voice inflection for effect, you’re probably one of those preachers who can pull it off. I’ve observed that people generally prefer hearing a well-prepared sermon, but they want it to be delivered as if it were being preached extemporaneously. It’s one of the great paradoxes of church life.

Do you use PowerPoint for every sermon and have slides for nearly everything, including your jokes? If you do, stop it. You don’t even get 15 minutes. Powerpoint is most effective when used sparingly. It’s not meant to carry the whole sermon or serve as a teleprompter for the speaker. PowerPoint isn’t what it used to be. Boring teachers and college professors have truly killed it for the rest of us.

So should you ever go over 30 minutes? Sure, but only if you’re already preaching for 25-30 minutes and people are regularly showering you with compliments like, “I don’t know where the time goes when you preach!” or “You have me on the edge of my seat every week with your sermons!” Or if you’re in a church tradition that has trained the congregation to expect longer discourses. But even then, you’d better learn how to deliver the goods. Otherwise, keep it shorter.

With most preachers, less is more. Even the best speakers should constantly be working to learn how to say more in less time. We’re in a short attention span world now whether we want to admit it or not.

Questions: Are you coasting with your preaching or are you spending time regularly learning how to make more efficient use of time in your sermons? Are you preaching the right amount of time or are you speaking past your ability to hold the attention of your congregation?

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