According to at least one recent poll, the most frequent preaching length is 20 to 28 minutes. If that is true, it is a telling indicator about the spiritual shallowness of churches today. Many churches have already done away with their evening services and if the popular trend is to reduce the sermon time on a Sunday morning, our generation is receiving less than half of the biblical teaching our parents received.
How is it that we think we can grow more with less preaching of God’s Word? I don’t buy it, that pastors today can preach with greater depth in 20 minutes compared to the 80 minutes (or more) pastors used to be given (between the morning and evening services).
Not too long ago, someone in my church told me they thought my sermons were too long. I was thankful for their honest desire to help me better shepherd our flock. And as I thought about the reasons they may have come to that conclusion, I considered 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 a preaching rut that is heavy on the 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 incredible connection with their audience but who are weak in their biblical content. Both extremes ought to be avoided.
Obviously, connection without content produces nothing more than an emotion-inducing pep rally. On the flip side, dry content that fails to connect can be downright boring.
On a practical note, whenever I am alerted to an imbalance between my content and connection I try to preach with fewer notes. Doing so helps me to engage more directly 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. If I am losing the attention of believers who desire to be taught, part of the problem might be that I need to study longer.
For me, the difference between a good sermon and an excellent sermon is often about three more hours of study. If I can take a message I think is ready to preach, and then spend three more hours in preparation, it almost always makes a huge difference.
— I might not be praying enough. I typically pray throughout my study time. But again, a rushed study time often results in reduced prayer. Paul frequently prayed for those to whom he ministered (Phil. 1:9; Eph. 1:16-19). It just seems wrong for me to complain about those who are bored during my sermons 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 important for me to keep in mind because this might be a good 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 in this area can be a great solution to the problem.
— 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 God’s truth like believers are (1 Cor. 2:14), it is possible that someone who thinks the sermons are too long doesn’t know Christ. I might miss out on an excellent opportunity for evangelism if I do not care enough for this person’s soul to talk to them 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, who 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. (John MacArthur, Rediscovering Expository Preaching, 339)
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’s difficult to imagine that being possible in only 20 minutes.
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). That is a basic principle of Christian living but it is ignored by so many.
I understand that the brain can only take in 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 God’s truth. 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).
At the end of the day, the key question is not “how long do you preach?” The key question is “how well are you helping others to behold God’s glory in your preaching?” To do that well, it takes a lot of preparation, a significant amount of time during the worship service, much prayer, and God’s grace.
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.”
Brian Biedebach is a graduate of The Master’s Seminary. He is currently a missionary in Lilongwe Malawi where he serves as pastor of the International Bible Fellowship Church and teaches at African Bible College as well as the Central African Preaching Academy. Brian and his wife, Anita, have four children.