How Long Should a Sermon Be?

Article
03.31.2020

How long should you preach on Sunday? 

Pew Research Center recently analyzed 50,000 sermons preached between April 7 and June 1, 2019, in order to determine the median sermon length in the United States. Their answer? 37 minutes. 

In response, I asked a few pastors how long they thought a sermon should be. Timothy Keller, founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian, remarked, “In general I think for most Sunday congregations the sermon should be under 30 minutes. That’s safest. If you are a solid preacher but not very eloquent or interesting it should also be shorter.”

Mark Vroegop, pastor of College Park Church in Indianapolis, IN, thinks pastors should go a bit longer: “35 to 40 minutes. I think that is long enough to adequately explain the texts and sensitive to the shortened listening ability of most people.”

Pushing the envelope, Adam Sinnett, who pastors a young and vibrant congregation in Seattle, argues, “The sermon should be as long as needed to clearly communicate the point of the passage, apply it to the hearts of God’s people, while removing potential obstacles, and delivering with passionate persuasion. That typically takes 40 to 50 minutes, depending on the size of the passage.”

And then there is Mark Dever, who rarely preaches for less than sixty minutes at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, DC. His counsel is shorter than his sermons: “A sermon should be as long as a preacher can well preach and a congregation can well listen.”

CONTEXT MATTERS

Interestingly, the Pew survey also noticed that differences show up across Christian traditions. The median sermon length for

  • historically black Protestants was 54 minutes;
  • evangelicals: 39 minutes;
  • mainline Protestants: 25 minutes;
  • and Roman Catholics: 14 minutes.

Different social settings come with different expectations. People walking into a Roman Catholic parish generally expect a homily that’s three times shorter than what a member of a black church expects of their sermon.

Keller observes, “I’ve seen people in Asia sit and listen to an address—without anyone fidgeting or getting up—for two hours. In other times and centuries, a two to three hour address would not have been thought of as too long. I think our culture in general is habituating people for shorter presentations.”

And if expectations change from context to context, doesn’t that suggest pastors might work to change cultural expectations rather than treating them as fixed? 

FIVE PRINCIPLES

As you navigate how long a sermon should be for your context, let me offer five principles: 

1. Do justice to the text.

If the wisdom of God gives life to the dead, not the wisdom of man, the most important thing we do in any sermon is to adequately explain and apply the text. 

“A sermon should be long enough to explain, prove, and apply the main point of the passage,” said my own pastor John Joseph, “in such a way that the hearer is able to understand, appreciate, and begin digesting what God is saying to them.” 

Duke Kwon, pastor of Grace DC, Meridian Hill Church in Washington, DC, remarked, “A good sermon, like a healthy meal, should be nutritious, which is to say, it allows for ample time to do faithful exposition and application of the text.”

H. B. Charles, pastor of Shiloh Metropolitan Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Florida, also remarked, “The goal should be to preach long enough to faithfully treat the text and short enough to effectively communicate to the congregation.”

Kevin DeYoung, pastor of Christ Covenant in Charlotte, NC, said something similar: “A sermon should be long enough to adequately exegete and apply the main point of the passage, but short enough to leave mature Christians willing to listen a few minutes longer.”

2. Know your audience.

Yet it’s not enough to say we must do justice to a text. If I asked you to summarize a two-hour movie for me, you could do that in one minute or in twenty. So with any passage of Scripture, a sermon must be nutritious, said Kwon. He clarified: “By this I don’t mean long, as some of our best preaching will be the poignant one-pointer that cuts to the heart.”

A second principle must therefore be to know our audience. Just as we teach 5-year-olds differently than 25-year-olds, so different churches might be prepared for different lengths of sermons. The Pew survey reveals as much. 

“Any time range will be culturally conditioned,” said DeYoung. Putting these first two points together, therefore, DeYoung aims for 40 minutes: “I would say that consistently being limited to fewer than 25 minutes makes robust exegesis difficult, while normally preaching longer than 45-50 minutes should be reserved for the most mature congregations and the most experienced expositors. In most contexts I’ve been a part of, I’d say 40 minutes for regular congregational preaching is a good sweet spot.”

Kwon argues that adjusting your length to your audience is a requirement of love: “a good sermon will also be preached in light of cultural oratory norms, which is not to say captive to cultural norms (sound bite preaching), nor do I mean this in substitute of homiletical nutrition (see above). It’s simply a matter of loving our actual, rather than theoretical, flock—that is, you are not preaching to Jonathan Edwards’ flock, you are preaching to your beloved smartphone-addicted flock. Love the ‘weaker brother’ and his/her (your!) shorter attention span.” For Kwon, this means preaching 25 to 35 minutes. 

3. Know yourself.

Kwon also wisely encourages preachers to know themselves: “A sermon should also be attuned to the preacher’s giftedness. One of my preaching professors once said, ‘Some preach for forty-five minutes and it feels like fifteen; others preach for fifteen minutes and it feels like forty-five.’”

One time, I attended Charles Swindoll’s church in Frisco, Texas, and found myself absorbed in the sermon. I looked down at my watch in the middle and was shocked to discover that fifty minutes had gone by. I wouldn’t encourage preachers to preach like he did that day. It wasn’t a clear exposition of a text—just a lot of stories. Yet it occurred to me that a gifted communicator can talk for an hour, and people don’t mind. 

Yet most of us aren’t so gifted. Keller observes, “It is certainly possible to regularly preach 40+ minutes if (a) you train the congregation’s expectations . . . and (b) if you are a good enough speaker to maintain people’s interest.”

4. Aim for concision.

Let me model this point: most of your sermons could use an editor. Trust me. I’m an editor. I know. So many extraneous words and sentences could be cut, and nothing would be lost.   

Kwon again: “It still takes a singular sort of self-awareness and a humble embrace of limits for a preacher to acknowledge that he’d be more effective when preaching more concisely.

5. Push your audience because more is more.

Few pastors or books on preaching mention this point, yet I would like to press on it for just a bit. We need to be sensitive to cultural realities, yes, but there’s also a place to slowly push on our congregation’s time horizons. To ask for more. To strengthen their powers of listening. To risk callousing their backsides. I’ve seen it done. 

You’ve heard a brazen Reformed guy say it before, but to be that guy: They sit in movies for two hours. They watch baseball for three. Why not teach them to expect the Word of God for at least one? 

For the last sixty years, churches have done the opposite. Since at least the days of Robert Schuller, we’ve trained church goers to expect humor, entertainment, and punch from the pulpit. We’ve not trained them to expect good exegesis. Instead, a good preacher is one part smiley news anchor, one part late-night talk show host, and one part Sunday School teacher. 

Yet imagine an alternative world, where every gospel preacher offered sixty minutes of beefy exegesis and application. Where people expected that from churches just like they expected 60-minute lectures from a high school classroom. I dare say, they would become more capable of learning about the Bible and its applications to our lives. 

And might they be stronger for it? After all, more Bible is, well, more Bible. 

By:
Jonathan Leeman

Jonathan (@JonathanLeeman) edits the 9Marks series of books as well as the 9Marks Journal. He is also the author of several books on the church. Since his call to ministry, Jonathan has earned a master of divinity from Southern Seminary and a Ph.D. in Ecclesiology from the University of Wales. He lives with his wife and four daughters in Cheverly, Maryland, where he is an elder at Cheverly Baptist Church.