Saturday, January 18, 2020

How Long is a Sermon?

In every church I have served, there have been a couple of people who appointed themselves as unofficial timekeepers of the pastor’s sermon. You know who you are. They would inform me after the service how long my sermon went. I never got the feeling that they wished the sermon had lasted longer. In fact they seem to believe that a sermon can never be too short.

For you “sermon timers” there is good news. There is a new study by the Pew Research Center that explores the length of sermons. They examined 49,719 sermons delivered in April and May of 2019 that were shared online by 6,431 churches. Pew described its research as “the most exhaustive attempt to date to catalogue and analyze American religious sermons.” It exhausts me just to imagine that many sermons!

Their findings were interesting. The median length of a sermon is 37 minutes. Catholic homilies were the shortest – only 14 minutes. Mainline Protestant pastors preach for 25 minutes. Evangelicals go for 39 minutes. Black Protestant preachers clocked in the longest at 54 minutes. Personally I aim for 20 minutes. I figure that if I can’t say it in twenty minutes, an extra ten or fifteen won’t help.

Pope Francis recommends that priests preach for no longer than eight minutes. TED Talks, which have become an unofficial standard for public speaking, have a limit of 18 minutes, a length based on neuroscience. TED organizers say that 18 minutes is long enough for a speaker to flesh out an idea, but short enough for a listener to understand all the important information.

I have a good friend, Dwight Moody, founder of the Academy of Preachers, who puts a limit of fifteen minutes on preachers at their annual National Festival of Young Preachers. But when I asked him about this subject on the phone the other day, he said the length of a sermon is not so important. What is important is whether the preacher has something to say.

What is the best length for a sermon? Just long enough and no longer. Long enough to get across your point, but not so long that people forget what your point is. I have suffered through many sermons that appeared pointless. The most famous sermon in the Bible, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, can be read aloud in under fifteen minutes. If that was long enough for Jesus….

As a retired pastor, I now listen to more sermons than I preach, and consequently my perspective on preaching has changed. For me it doesn’t matter (usually) how long a sermon lasts. I never look at my watch. (It helps that I recently stopped wearing a watch.) What matters is how well crafted and delivered it is. Fifteen minutes can be agony when listening to a poorly researched, written and executed sermon. On the other hand, a half hour goes by in a flash when I am engaged in what is being said.

For me the sermon is one of the most important parts of a worship service. I need a good pastoral message on a weekly basis, and I am blessed to attend a church with an excellent preacher. I also know that sermonizing depends as much upon the listener as the preacher. I can’t just sit back and be passive. I need to be an active participant in the process of communication.

For me that starts with carefully listening to (and usually following along in the pew Bible) the scripture when it is read aloud. Then I relate everything that the preacher says back to the text that is being expounded. It means looking for how the exposition is relevant to my life. It means being willing to travel with the preacher down the road that the preacher is taking me – at least for these few minutes. I do not need to agree with every twist and turn of the hermeneutical journey, but the preacher needs to make a good case for bringing me along.

A good sermon can be an opening to the divine, a stairway to heaven, a temporary parting of the veil so we glimpse the Holy. At its best it is a door into our own soul and into the heart of God. If the preacher does not know the Eternal firsthand, it becomes painfully evident very quickly. In that case no amount of time is enough. For a preacher with a foot in Eternity, that grace can be communicated in any amount of time. How long is a good sermon? Long enough to usher us into the Presence of God.

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