Tag Archives: sermons

How long should church sermons be? – 2/7/15

One of the key reasons people attend church is to receive pastoral words of biblical wisdom or instruction. In visiting area churches, I notice huge variations in sermon lengths. As I note sermon lengths from time to time, commenters on my observations sometimes take me to task for even mentioning the topic. However, I feel those who attend any church should understand what to expect in sermon lengths as well as in the length of the entire service. Often there are practical considerations driving these expectations; child care, social engagements, or work commitments.

Historically, major Christian preachers have varied their sermon lengths, but it’s safe to say that yesterday’s sermon was much longer than the majority of today’s sermons. However, noted 19th century British preacher Charles Spurgeon, in “Lectures to my Students,” wrote, “In order to maintain attention, AVOID BEING TOO LONG. An old preacher used to say to a young man who preached an hour, ‘My dear friend, I do not care what else you preach about, but I wish you would always preach about forty minutes.’ We ought seldom to go much beyond that — forty minutes, or say, three-quarters of an hour. If a fellow cannot say all he has to say in that time, when will he say it?”

Last week, church researcher Thom Rainer published his observations on this topic in an article titled “Three Major Trends in Sermon Length.” In his article, Rainer classified sermon length in three groupings. I’ve chosen to use his groupings, but will comment upon my own experiences with each locally.

The most frequent preaching length is 20 to 28 minutes.

This is fairly close to what I see in Anchorage on the average. Many preachers wisely stay just under 30 minutes. The perception is important. One Anchorage pastor told me his timing was 17 minutes. He also selected guest pastors based on their ability to deliver this time commitment. Combined with other service elements, his church’s services were exactly one hour in length. With a 20-28 minute pulpit time, and a one-hour service-length expectation, a church must complete its music, offering, prayers, and announcements within the remaining time. Most of the local Catholic, Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, and Episcopal churches fall within this timeframe.

However, I’ve seen preaching times of 15 minutes coupled with more than an hour of liturgy. A particular 15-minute homily I heard last year was outstanding, not for its brevity, but by the practical thoughts shared by the pastor. I frequently turn them over in my mind as I go about my daily routine. Culturally we have become accustomed to sound bites, factoids, and talking heads. Our media, especially TV and Internet, are key contributors to this change.

The second most frequent length is 45 to 55 minutes, but the number of pastors preaching this long is diminishing.

This is a number seen frequently here in many churches. To work within an hour to an hour and 15-minute timeframe, often the music service will be shorter, and the basics, such as hymns, corporate prayer, and offering will be shortened. My favorite theologian, Walter Brueggemann, delivers brilliant sermons digging into the biblical material and offering more incredible insights than anyone else I’ve ever listened to in a timeframe of less than an hour (including answering questions from the audience). During my Anchorage years I’ve only seen preachers take questions from the audience twice, and they were texted and selected by someone (not the preacher). I’m quite passionate about what’s missing during sermons, homilies, messages or whatever you call them in your church: It’s dialogue closure. This way preachers can definitively know if they hit the mark, and if not, clarify. Sermons now tend to be one-way, downward flows of information, not two-way conversations. It’s sad.

I attended the Diana Butler Bass lectures at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church and St. John United Methodist Church last weekend, and she concluded her talks early to include dialogue with the audience. Preachers with longer sermon times claim they need the extra time for “good exposition” as Rainer terms it. Spurgeon wrote: “If you ask me how you may shorten your sermons, I should say, STUDY THEM BETTER. Spend more time in the study that you may need less in the pulpit.” I believe that advice is needed more today than in Spurgeon’s time as there are many more distractions now than then.

The third most frequent length is one of no time constraints.

Fortunately, I’ve only been to a few churches locally where this is regularly the case. Some clergy love to pontificate or seem to love the sound of their own voice. It’s a patient congregation that endures no time constraint for a sermon. Most love to have some degree of predictability in their time requirements. Some preachers I follow I could listen to all day if they had valuable information to share with me in an interesting and informative manner. The rationale given for this approach is that the preacher needs to allow time for God and the spirit to work, without a time constraint. That makes sense, but I’ve seen shorter sermons where God certainly worked mightily in my heart.

Conclusion

Trends are just trends. Benjamin Franklin said, “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” Paul Scherer, former homiletics professor at Union Theological Seminary, said it took him 18-20 hours of preparation time for each sermon. In blogging my church visits I’ve always stated I look for biblical sermons, delivered well. It’s often difficult for me to find that combination. Today’s topic won’t change anything, as it’s merely tracking a developing trend. Please share your thoughts and conclusions with other readers.

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog, Church Visits.

Thanksgiving Sermons – Will Preachers Upset or Avoid?

Thanksgiving sermons are interesting. The Sunday before Thanksgiving is an ideal time for preachers to remind parishioners about the dangers of Christians shopping on our national holiday, a day for family and friends to give thanks. Our consumer-driven economy is an antithesis to the vision Christ painted over 2,000 years ago. In that spirit, true Christians would not “shop ‘til they drop” at this time of year because “It’s not your birthday…” as Pastor Bob Mather noted in his Advent thought last year. (Click HERE and HERE) (Hyplerlinks unavailable at the moment)

However, the merchants of America keep pushing forward the dates of the Christmas selling season. First it was Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving. Now the big sell has intruded into the hours of Thanksgiving itself. Thanksgiving was symbolic of family and friends meeting once a year to break bread together, and give thanks for what we have.

The Bible is chock full of counsel to Christians against accumulation, consumerism, and love for the things of the world. When I grew up, and as recent as a few years ago in Texas, if you needed a last minute item at Safeway on Thanksgiving Day, it was closed. It is rapidly becoming business as usual. You might say, what about the Jews, Muslims, Buddists, etc? Thanksgiving is not a religious holiday. It’s a national holiday, advocated by presidents and signed into law, to set aside and recognize a day of thanks.

Matt Walsh, a Huffington Post blogger posted his thoughts on this issue November 20 entitled “If You Shop on Thanksgiving, You Are Part of the Problem”. I am shocked by the number of commentators who were vehemently opposed to his thoughts and supported treating Thanksgiving like any other day.

I’m curious how many Alaskan pastors will actually tell it like it is, this Sunday before Thanksgiving, in a sermon denouncing the spirit of acquisition and consumerism. Their parishioners might not be happy with such a sermon, but it is the right spirit of religion. I do note that while many churches do not celebrate Thanksgiving as a religious holiday, they do use it as a springboard to extend help to those less fortunate in our community. They do this by having Thanksgiving dinners where all are invited, giving generously to food banks for distribution, and volunteer to work in the many non-profits who actually feed the less fortunate, and give money to support these causes. One such cause is the Thanksgiving Blessing which I’ll be writing about tomorrow.

Finally I applaud those merchants who are courageously standing firm and not opening on Thanksgiving Day to honor our country’s national holiday. This Huffington Post article honors those merchants “Costco, Nordstrom Refuse To Ruin Thanksgiving”.