Time for God? – Thoughts on sermon length

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Every so often a little controversy will brew over how long exactly a sermon should last. This seems generally seeking to split between three precise and seemingly arbitrary times, 10 minutes, 20 minutes and 30 40 minutes (nothing under 10, over 40 or anything in between the options). The latest controversy seems to have been kicked off by this TGC article.

So how long should your sermon take? My answer is that “it takes as long as it takes.”  It seems that there are only two situations in life where we give someone an arbitrary limit on how long they can speak to us for, sermons and double glazing sales people (not the cold caller but the person you’ve genuinely asked for  a quote and as they launch into their pitch you say “you have 5 minutes to tell me how much they will cost and when you can do it by”). That’s not to say that we don’t put time limits on news broadcasts, school assemblies and lessons. However, those times are set by a schedule of what we have to fit into a day. Even still, should a sermon be placed in a category alongside those.

I say that a sermon takes as long as it takes for a few reasons. Here’s the first.  You have to look at the context. This includes what the congregation can take and that will be determined by circumstances (don’t insist on preaching for 50 minutes to a group of parents trying to keep their  two year olds settled), don’t short change people who have carved out the time and walked a few miles to hear God’s Word preached.  Different people will have different concentration spans but don’t assume for example that working class people have shorter attention spans than the middle classes/university educated (I increasingly suspect the opposite to be the case). Another factor is the preacher themselves.  Now, we pray for the Holy Spirit to supernaturally take over these factors but he tends to use normal providence and our natural gifting. Some people can talk for 50 minutes and it feels like 10 for others the reverse is true.  Most of us can probably hold the attention of others for about 10 minutes less than we think we can! 

However, more important than those factors is the context of content. It is possible to say something in one or two sentences but we may also need anything between 20 minutes and 1 hour to really do the content justice. This might be because we need a lot of time to dig into our exegesis to show our working out. We may need, Tim Keller style to do some heavy apologetic lifting to show why this is worthy of attention. We may need to spend time working on and illustrating the application.

And so, to my second reason.  The sermon takes what it takes because if we believe that God speaks through his word at these times then we should see it as something akin to a conversation.  We want to allow God the time that he desires. A conversation can be 3 minutes in the coffee queue or a whole evening, long into the night.  I recognise the difference between monologue and dialogue here. Good sermons, whether or not they include literal and planned interruptions for discussion will feel more like a conversation than a monologue.

Arising out of this sense of having a conversation with God is my concern that for two long, we have simply not been willing to give time and space for God to work. This is not just true of the sermon but also of the whole service. We set aside 20 minutes to sing 3 songs with lengthy introductions to each, 5 minutes for notices, 5 minutes for intercession, 25 minutes for sermon (including bible reading time) and then another 5 minutes for additional notices and an inane joke to ensure we lose whatever was said in the talk. Then we wonder why our services feel dry and people go home famished. So, my challenge is “are we allowing time for God to move in our meetings and for people to respond.”

 On one practical level, sometimes I’ll “go long” in a sermon because there needs to be time for people to work through what is being said emotionally as well as intellectually.

Which takes me to my final reason. It’s about heart attitude not clock watching.  What disappoints me so much about the debates I’ve witnessed about sermon length is the way that the different sides come across.  At times, it feels like there is some kind of wrestling struggle between preachers who have an over confidence in their ability to hold attention and others who come across as begrudging the inconvenience of having to give the preacher any of their time.[1]  It seems that the preacher has to somehow win an audience with the church. I don’t think that can be a healthy situation at all.  Preachers would do well to remember that those they are preaching to turn up exhausted from the week and sadly, too often bruised and battered by the church. They may not feel that much like listening.  Hearers would do well to remember that their pastor/preacher has laboured long in the word through the week as well as offering pastoral care, looking after their own family and maybe doing another job to make ends meet.  They’ve poured their heart out, not merely into the text but into the congregation out of a deep love for Christ and his church.   Remembering those things may help us to talk better about and to each other.

What it might do is lead us away from snarky social media conversations and encourage us to pray.  Preacher, love the congregation and pray for them. Pray for the corporate body as a whole, pray for the individuals.  Congregation, love your preacher and pray for them.  Pray that all involved in the service will come with a deep hunger for Christ.  Pray that the word brought will be God glorifying and life changing. Pray for the Holy Spirit to work.

How long should a sermon be? I stick with my answer. It takes as long as it takes.  Don’t put an arbitrary time limit on it.  40 minute sermons are not more holy/doctrinally sound than 10 minute ones nor 10 minute ones more accessible than 50 minute ones. Instead of setting a magic number, we should allow God to take the time with us that he desires.

[1] And sometimes you sense that it isn’t just about the length of the sermon, that any sermon would be too long because it reflects a loss of trust in who some preachers are and what they have to say.

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