The average sermon length, according to one poll, ranges 20 to 28 minutes. If this statistic is accurate, it is a telling indicator of the spiritual depth of today's churches. Many churches have already discontinued their evening services. With the trend of reducing the length of Sunday morning sermons, our generation is receiving less than half the biblical teaching our parents sat under.
The better a person understands the Word of God, the more they will grow spiritually. How is it then that we think we can grow more with a decreased appetite for God’s Word? I find it difficult to believe that current pastors and their 20 minute sermon-ettes can reach any level of comparable depth to the 80 minutes (or more) pastors used to be given (between the morning and evening services).
Someone in my church recently told me my sermons were too long. I was thankful for their honest desire to help me better shepherd the flock. And as I considered how they may have come to their conclusion, I arrived at the following possibilities:
I might be in a preaching rut.
Every preacher wrestles to maintain a proper balance between content and connection. There have been times over the years where I have recognized personal preaching ruts. These ruts are commonly the result of heavy explanation of biblical content at the expense of connecting my congregation with the biblical implications of the text. At the same time, we have all seen TV preachers who have an incredible connection with their audience, but who are weak in their biblical content. Both extremes ought to be avoided.
For me, the difference between a good sermon
and an excellent sermon is three hours of study
Obviously, connection without content produces nothing more than an emotion-induced pep rally. Content, however, that fails to connect with the congregation can be downright boring.
Whenever I am alerted to an imbalance between my content and connection, I bring fewer notes to the pulpit. Doing so forces me to engage more with the congregation.
I might not be studying the passage long enough.
Let’s face it, the pastorate is busy. There are weeks when my study time is compromised by other demands on my time. If I am losing the attention of earnest believers, part of the problem might be that I need to spend more time in the study.
For me, the difference between a good sermon and an excellent sermon is three hours of study. If I can take a message I think is ready to preach, and then spend three more hours in preparation, it makes a difference.
I might not be praying enough.
I typically pray throughout my study time. But rushed preparation often results in reduced prayer. Paul frequently prayed for those to whom he ministered (Phil. 1:9; Eph. 1:16-19). It is wrong for me to complain about bored listeners if I am not praying for them to grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ.
They may not be used to expository preaching.
Some believers have not yet gained an appetite for “solid food” preaching (1 Cor. 3:10). This is critical for me to keep in mind, because this is a prime opportunity to find out if they desire more discipleship. Are they willing to be individually discipled in the Word by me or another mature Christian from our church? If so, pairing them with someone who can disciple them can be a great solution.
They might not be saved.
Obviously, not everyone who thinks their pastor’s sermons are too long is showing signs of an unregenerate heart. (Wouldn’t that be nice, to have an indicator like that?) But since spiritually dead people are unable to grasp the truth of God like believers are (1 Cor. 2:14), it is possible that someone who continually complains of long sermons does not know Christ. I might miss an excellent opportunity for evangelism if I do not care enough for this person’s soul to ask more about their relationship with Christ.
There may be other reasons why some people think a sermon is too long, but to get back to our original question:
How long should a sermon be?
One of the best answers to this question was given by John MacArthur in his book Rediscovering Expository Preaching. He explained that a sermon should last:
As long as it takes to cover the passage adequately! I do not think the length of the sermon is as important as its content. . . .The important thing is to cover the main points so that people are convinced of its truth and comprehend its requirements. If you have nothing worthwhile to say, even twenty minutes will seem like an eternity to your people.
The message must last long enough for the text to be rightly explained and the practical implications properly developed. Depending on the length of the passage, it is difficult to imagine this being done well in 20 minutes.
The more believers understand His Word, the more they will see how glorious He truly is.
Here is the simple reason I believe churches should not constrain their pastors to preach short sermons—the better a person understands the Word of God, the more they will grow spiritually (1 Pet. 2:2). This is a basic principle of Christian living, but it is ignored by many.
I understand that the brain can only absorb what the seat can endure. But if you are able to maintain the congregation’s attention longer with excellent exposition, they will gain a better understanding of the truth of God. The more they understand His Word, the more they will see how glorious He truly is. And the more they behold His glory, the more they will be transformed into His image (2 Cor. 3:13).
Ultimately, the question is not, “How long do you preach?” The question is, “How well are you helping others to behold God’s glory in your preaching?” To do that, it requires a significant amount of preparation, prioritized time during the worship service, much prayer, and the grace of God.
How long can your sermon be without losing the attention of the congregation? Some of that depends on who the preacher is, some of it depends on how long the passage is, but most of it depends on how well the preacher knows the text.
In short, if the preacher knows the text well and can hold the attention of his flock, he can preach for as long as he likes.
Or, as John Stott said, “It doesn’t matter how long you preach, it should feel like twenty minutes.”
To learn more about everything from hermeneutics to homiletics, see our guide: Handling Scripture.