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.
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.