One of the outcomes of the COVID season has been that overall the length of sermons have become shorter. I think two main issues have driven this. One is the time limitations on streamed services. A 50 minute sermon just doesn’t fit into a one hour online service. The second is the multiplication of services in order to fit everyone in with the right spacing. Services can’t afford to go overtime because the next group will be lining up.
I have tended to be a longer preacher. I like to think I preach for about 30 minutes but podcasting has revealed that it’s more like 40 minutes. I don’t say that proudly, but I’ve always justified myself because I have so much good stuff to fit in. I’m not repetitive, I just have a lot of content.
So how do I cope when I’m told at the moment, “25 minutes max for the sermon please John.” Surprisingly I’ve done okay. That 8 minute long introduction probably wasn’t needed to build rapport. All that detailed teaching probably went over most people’s heads anyway – they certainly couldn’t remember it all. I possibly didn’t need to tell quite as many stories. Amazingly, I’ve found it relatively easy to cut my 40 minute sermons back without losing a lot (I think).
Reflecting biblically, I can’t see any clear instructions on the length of a sermon. Paul spoke all night to the Ephesian leaders. But one at least was falling asleep so not taking too much in. Jesus must have spoken for long periods (e.g. sermon on the mount), but probably there was a fair bit of interaction and questioning involved. Reading some of Paul’s letters in church services may have taken quite some time. (Some of Paul’s letters are by far the longest letters we have from that era.) However, in an oral culture I guess people were used to listening and remembering. But then some of Jesus’ stories were very short. So while Scripture emphasises the importance of regular preaching (e.g. 1 Tim. 4:13; 2 Tim. 4:2), it doesn’t indicate how long it should last.
I still appreciate John Stott’s advice: “Every sermon should feel like 20 minutes.” Maybe that is more true of my sermons at the moment. I guess I should ask. Will I return to preaching longer sermons when services become more flexible? I’m not sure. Hopefully, I’ll be a little more prudent about what I include.
It’s really weird. Most preachers are thinking (not wanting to short-change their congregation), “I hope I don’t go too short.” Most listeners are thinking, “I hope they don’t go too long.” I move between these two extremes depending on whether I’m preaching or listening.
Maybe shorter sermons will be good for all of us. As I get older and preach less and listen more, I will appreciate it!
As long as shorter doesn’t mean lighter or less thoughtful or less biblical. Please preach Scripture.
Bible Verses for Reference
1 Timothy 4:13 (NIV) - Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching.
2 Timothy 4:2 (NIV) - Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction