the shape of leadership

How Long Should It Take to Preach a Sermon?

Finding the right balance for your message

Chris Colvin on March 15, 2018

I recently wrote about how long it should take to prepare a sermon. This week, I want to cover the next logical question: How long should your sermon be?

Preachers want their sermons to be long enough to get their point across, but not so long that they lose their audience. It’s a balancing act, really.

So, how do you know whether your sermon length achieves the right balance? Let’s look at how long other preachers are talking.

In an online poll by Thom S. Rainer, the most common sermon length reported was 20 to 28 minutes, and the second most common was 45 to 55 minutes. These figures suggest two things.

First, it seems preachers generally either go long or short — with fewer sermons falling somewhere in the middle. Second, less than 30 minutes is more popular than more than 30 minutes in length.

However, these statistics may be a bit misleading. Justin Trapp researched the average sermon length of 10 well-known pastors. It’s interesting that none of them preached less than 30 minutes.

The shortest sermon length was John Ortberg (32 minutes), and the longest was Rick Warren (57 minutes). With such wide variances, it’s impossible to objectively find a length that is just right for every pastor.

Go Deep, Not Long

There is no magic number when it comes to sermon length. But there is one rule that applies in all situations: The measure of effective preaching is not length but depth.

Some people think it always takes a long time to explain and express the rich theology of a text. Proponents of exegetical preaching are especially prone to favor longer sermons. If it takes an hour to get to the depth of your passage, fine. Take all the time you need. But remember that length does not always equal depth.

Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount contains some of the deepest theological content in all of Scripture. Yet it takes less than 15 minutes to read out loud. You can go deep without going long.

Instead of putting a timer on the length of your sermon, consider how you will get your audience to the bottom line of the text you’re preaching. First, determine what the bottom line is. Then chart the best course to get them there — through exposition and illustration, to the final arrival at your main application.

For some, this may be a short trip. Others may need a longer path.

No matter how long or short you preach, always leave room for the Holy Spirit.

Four Important Considerations

As you plan through each week’s worship service, take the time to consider your sermon length. In our modern church world, the sermon is often the centerpiece of the weekend’s events. That’s not always the case, but the sermon is usually the longest element, and the preacher has the final say. So, it’s deserving of much consideration.

Here are a few things to consider as you plan your sermon:

Consider your audience. To whom are you preaching? What are the demographics of your church? This may determine how long you should preach. Older congregations, especially those with college degrees, often enjoy longer sermons.

There is some research to indicate that younger crowds have shorter attention spans today, so a briefer message may be optimal in that setting. Of course, that’s not always the case. Individual tastes and the culture of your church matter.

Get to know your audience. Ask some people you trust about your sermon length. Poll a wide range of individuals who represent all corners of your church and city.

Consider your level of creativity. Some pastors like to incorporate videos, graphics, skits or even objects in their preaching. You may lean on humor in your message, or you may be more serious. There’s no right or wrong way to present the gospel. But your style may affect your sermon length.

An audience will likely endure a longer sermon if there are breaks for humor along the way or creative interaction that holds their attention. You don’t need to change your preaching style, but you do need to be honest about it when deciding how long to speak.

Consider your intent. What is the purpose of your sermon? I’m not talking about vague goals, such as bringing glory to God. Consider what you want your audience to get out of the message.

Each sermon will have an overarching application. It could be a discipleship message to help believers go deeper in their relationship with God, or it may be more evangelistic in nature. Knowing the intent of your sermon can help you decide the length.

If you’re trying to reach a non-churched audience with a compelling message, it may be a good idea to keep it shorter. They may not be used to sitting through a long church service, so meet them where they are. Conversely, if you’re speaking to the home crowd, it’s probably OK to go a bit longer.

Consider the Spirit’s leading. No matter how long or short you preach, always leave room for the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Preachers who go long often say the Spirit moved them to do so. Yet few pastors report cutting a sermon in half at the Spirit’s prompting.

Planning ahead and having a clear idea of how long you should preach won’t hinder the Spirit’s work in your church. In fact, having a dedicated order of service can release you to hear God’s voice and be more in the moment.

You can trust the Holy Spirit to use your words, whether long or short, to turn the hearts of people to Jesus.

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