the shape of leadership

How Long, O Lord? Sermon Length for Growing Churches

How long is too long?

Ed Stetzer on April 11, 2017

No one likes sermons that are too long, but how long is too long?

From my experience, and some anecdotal observation, I believe the answer depends on the content of the message, the context in which it is preached, and the capability of the preacher.

According to an old adage, preachers can either use the Bible as a diving board — spending the majority of their preaching time swimming in a pool of their own ideas — or ensure that the text is their pool, diving into the Bible and spending their preaching time expounding the Holy Scriptures that the Early Church handed down to us.

I believe churches that are growing, at least in a biblical sense, are pastored by those who follow the second pattern — pastors who dive into a text and spend the preaching time helping their congregations better understand the Bible, grow in holiness and become more mature in the faith.

Sure, it is true some churches that do not focus on biblical preaching grow; however, I believe it is in spite of (not because of) their model of preaching. I want to outline three aspects of preaching that I think are crucial as we consider our preaching: content, context and capability. Each of these ingredients can help us determine how long our sermons should be.

Content is paramount. Scripture is a lamp for our feet and a light on our path (Psalm 119:105). The apostle Paul teaches that all Scripture is God-breathed (2 Timothy 3:16). We should not shy away from teaching theological topics directly from the Bible.

Everyone is a theologian. The question is whether our thoughts about God arise from Bible teachings or from something else. Pastors who teach on God’s holiness, our sinfulness, Jesus’ work of redemption, the place of the Spirit in the lives of believers, etc. are building a people who can speak truth to their neighbors. When we continually explain the gospel to our audience, we remind them of God’s covenant goodness in a world that is anything but good.

A mature pastor learns the context of the community and lays down his or her personal preferences to preach sacrificially to the congregation.

Additionally, 2 Timothy 3:17 teaches us that biblically informed sermons rich in theology help equip God’s people for good works.

Theology should influence sermon length. The message needs to be long enough to communicate the key content.

Effective preaching must understand the culture of the congregation and the region. Sermons that are applicable to working-class families living paycheck to paycheck probably won’t be identical to those delivered to white-collar congregations, where most listeners are college educated.

As preachers, we must always exegete Scripture properly, but we can still tailor the delivery so the audience can understand and relate to it. Knowing whether we’re addressing mostly singles, young married couples or retirees can make a difference.

A preacher who is unaware of the congregation’s needs is not serving the people well. We must look around and ask, Can I communicate the text in such a way that it meets the needs of this congregation well? Addressing needs will help you reach hearts. We must speak truth in a manner that will transform lives. We must also be able to understand and reach out to those who are lost and without Jesus.

A mature pastor learns the context of the community and lays down his or her personal preferences to preach sacrificially to the congregation.

Some preachers have the aptitude to compose an hour-long treatise that flows well and makes logical arguments that support a primary thesis. Others find their gifts are in other areas of pastoral ministry, and sermon composition and delivery are a weekly struggle. Churches are best served when pastors play to their strengths.

Instead of struggling to compose a 45-minute sermon, many pastors can better assist their congregations with a 20- to 25-minute sermon that helps their congregants grow in godliness. Getting good feedback on a regular basis from fellow pastors or select congregants can help establish the best sermon length. Most preachers are not capable of preaching as long as they think!

So what, exactly, is a good sermon length? According to informal research from my friend and former boss, Thom Rainer, most sermons in evangelical churches are between 25 and 45 minutes, with the average sermon lasting 36 minutes. Although this informal data is important to consider, sermon length decisions in growing churches need to focus more on communicating the most important content, within an understanding of the context, and in consideration of the capability of the pastor.

This article originally appeared in the April/May 2017 edition of Influence magazine.


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