How long is too long when preaching a sermon?

A recent post by pastor Brian Croft asks, “How long should my sermons be when I preach?” He listed three criteria: 1) Based on where your people are, not where you think they should be, 2) Based on how good and seasoned a preacher you are, and 3) To leave your people longing for more, not less.

A reader of his blog, Curt, suggested this humorous methodology he borrowed from another pastor:

1. The minister should rate themselves on a scale of 1 – 10 (with 10 being excellent).
2. Subtract one from that number (because most ministers/preachers have an inflated view of how good they really are).
3. Multiply that number by 5 (that’s the number of minutes a sermon should be).
Example: Rate myself a 7 – 1 = 6 x 5 = 30 minutes

I still like and would agree with that – but I’m also almost to the point that I think we should subtract 2 from the original number because it seems like the guys I listen to think they’re a lot better than they really are.

How long a pastor should preach is a pretty important subject for church goers. I’ve suffered along with many of you while attempting to listen to someone who has little to say but doesn’t seem to realize it. (There are probably some who would say the same of me.) I believe preachers/teachers are given time by their congregation as a trust, and it is a trust that should be respected. It’s an insult to a congregation and an abuse of my trust from God, to act as if people should listen just because I am talking.

Brian’s post got me to thinking about the subject of preaching, with which I have some experience. I’ll add these thoughts for your consideration.

1) Actually study enough to have something to say. Going into the pulpit (or onto the stage) week after week without being prepared is truly a sin. To preach God’s word is, as it always has been, a sacred trust to be taken with the utmost of seriousness.

2) Commit to only preach/speak as long as the Holy Spirit is using you in that moment. Simply because a pastor feels comfortable with the sermon he has prepared does not mean God intends to use all of it, most of it, or any of it.

3) Stop when you are done even if you have more notes. Sometimes it just isn’t happening. I believe it is better to be respectful of your people’s time. If you will stop when you have nothing to say, they will stay with you when you have more to say than normal.

4) Be willing to preach/teach the best you can do even if you “aren’t feeling it.” Some of the greatest affirmation I’ve ever received was after delivering a message I was sure had bombed. God’s Word is what has power. You’ve always been an instrument. Don’t live as if it depends primarily on your exceptionable abilities.

5) Don’t fake it. There is nothing wrong with saying to your congregation occasionally, “I had a very hectic week and did not have as much time a usual to prepare. I realize this will be much to your chagrin, but the message will only be about 20 minutes or so this morning.” Nobody ever leaves early from a 20 minute sermon. (It should be noted that recurring hectic weeks that interfere with sermon preparation indicate a need to create a different schedule.)

6) If you know the message will be longer than normal, let your people know at the beginning. “You all know that I try not to preach just to hear myself talk. After studying this week, I know this message will be a little longer than normal. If you’ll try and hang with it, I think you’ll be glad you did in the end.” When people begin to think, “I wonder if he knows how long he’s been talking?” you’ve quenched the Holy Spirit all by yourself.

7) If you are actively reaching lost, unchurched and de-churched people, you cannot only evaluate a sermons length based on the spiritual maturity of the believers. Some consideration must be given to whether you can connect with a newcomer after their butt has gone to sleep.

8) Be honest about your abilities as a communicator (from Brian’s #2 above). Some people are not gifted speakers, and, although it is a skill that can be honed and improved, care should be taken to accurately recognize one’s gift. If you are slowly developing or have reached a limit, then preach to that point and not further until your skills increase. God can use a short, Biblical, prayer drenched sermon on one or two verses just as good as He can use a 90 minute oration over a paragraph in the original languages.

The most vivid example of knowing giftedness came from a pastor I heard in Brazil. After preaching a powerful messsage, he reached the invitation portion and stopped. He then turned over the entire invitation/response to his associate pastor, who was obviously gifted to present the gospel. I’ve never seen any other pastor, in any church or continent stop a message at the beginning of the invitation and turn it over to another pastor. But this was his practice because his associate was gifted in this way.

9) Don’t chase rabbits; shoot’em.

10) Only use new, fresh illustrations at least 99.9% of the time. If your people have been saved any length of time at all, they’ve heard all the preacher stories. Using old worn out stories–especially theological urban legends–is a sure way to kill the power of the message. If you must use an oldie but goodie, let your congregation know that you know it: “I know this is an old illustration, but it perfectly shows the point.” Even then, make them a rarity. As soon as your listeners think, “He said this last Sunday/month/year” you’ve lost them.

Marty Duren

Just a guy writing some things.

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  • Larry Collins

    This should be mandatory by every preacher and every preaching class in America. Pastors need to realize the sermon isn’t about THEM in any respect. It’s not about their ability to read Greek, it’s not about their ability to be expository, it’s not about their ability to put nice phrases together, it’s not about their abiility to tell funny stories, it’s not about their ability to do ANYTHING except to communicated the message God has for his people under the power of the Holy Spirit. To do other wise is to offend the Holy Spirit and to cheat the people. And let it be said over and over again: Less is more. The mind can’t absorb more that the seat can endure. Studies have shown even college educated people have an attention span of only abou 15 minutes. Of you preach much longer than that, you are wasting everyone’s time. It took Paul less than 10 minutes to preach his Mars Hill sermon — take note! You can read the entire Sermon on the Mount in about that time. If you have more to say than Paul and Jesus, you must REALLY have lot to say. Save some for next Sunday, and they’ll come back. Give it all to them on one Sunday and they might skip a few.

    • Marty Duren

      Larry,
      Thanks for stopping by and for your thoughts. Blessings.

  • Jay

    Thanks for this excellent post! Did you see Carl Trueman’s post yesterday that I have now given the new title, “Preachers who don’t follow Marty Duren’s Ten Steps should be fired”? Here it is…
    http://www.reformation21.org/blog/2011/08/1-tim-1-part-1-doctrine-and-do.php

    • Marty Duren

      I didn’t, but I’ll check it out.

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