Tuesday, May 16, 2006

how long should a sermon be?

I've been thinking a lot lately about what the appropriate length of a sermon should be.

In seminary we were taught that 12-18 minutes was a good length, and anything longer than that was pushing it. The style that I was taught in seminary usually involved the Scripture being read before the sermon. The preacher had selected one thought from the Scripture and then developed a manuscript which he or she read from the pulpit.

The style that I like the best is more of a teaching style sermon. I like to have people open their Bibles and follow along and turn to different passages. This style seems to take a little longer, at least 20 minutes, maybe up to 35-40. I know some people that use this style preach 50-60 minutes.

The preaching style of most growing churches that I'm aware of is the teaching style even though it takes longer. I don't know of any growing church where the sermon is less than 20 minutes long.

I'm also finding that most mainline churches are acclamated to the style of preaching that I learned in seminary. I'm praying about my approach to preaching and trying to listen to how God is calling me to shape my sermons based on the needs of my congregation.

I'd be interested to get other people's feedback about appropriate sermon length.


Anonymous said...

um. how bout 5.381923 minutes.

bandlady said...

You know, you could make your sermon like that 20th century music piece called 4 minutes and 31 seconds. Are you familiar with that one? The musician stands in front of the audience for 4 minutes and 31 seconds and does absolutely nothing. The actual music is the sounds of a confused and frustrated audience. (Except those of us who are familiar with the piece!) Wouldn't that make a cool sermon some day?

Jason Woolever said...

ha ha, that would be cool; except i could do it like 18 minutes an 31 seconds.

kara said...

Remember when you said you appreciated the honesty about your foot washing sermon? Here's my attempt at honesty.

It's hard to keep me and my children on task for more than one hour. How much of the hour is taken by the sermon is up to you. I'm sure there are many great things that could be said with a longer sermon but could the needs of the congregation be served better with two sermons instead? Keep in mind that some adults and children have just been in Sunday School for one hour too. I want my kids to enjoy coming to church but when they have to sit quietly for over one hour, they begin to feel bored with church at an early age. I'm learning that it's difficult to convince young children that church is an exciting place to learn. If I didn't attend church as a parent who needs to keep three kids quiet while you're talking, I'm sure I'd have a different perspective. I don't think there is a time that will please everyone!

Jason Woolever said...

beautiful feedback, kara. thanks so much for your honesty. that's exactly what i'm looking for.

my goal for third service for the summer is to try to get it down to a 50 minute service for that very reason you described. i hope to shorten sermon and singing into a more concise format. hopefully that will suit your family needs better.

Greg Hazelrig said...

All I was taught before I went to seminary and while I was in seminary is what you said. The sermon should be 15-20 minutes tops. I've been told that the brain can only endure what the bottom can stand.

But I have a problem with this thinking. I think that you were right when you said that the churches that are growing have longer sermons. Is it that the service is centered around the sermon? Is it that the preacher has a gift of bringing the Word in 30-45 minutes in a way that makes the congregation's bottoms feel like only 20? Maybe so.

I find myself in a position at times trying to make a sermon shorter because of Holy Communion or a Baptism or something else. But in my opinion I think we focus much more on what we want (shorter boring sermons or shorter worship times) and less time on what God would want out of us.

And for the record, I don't go trying to preach for 30-45 minutes. I don't know if I'd have that much to say anyway (ha ha). I preach for about 20 to at the most 25-26 minutes.

gmw said...

Hi, Jason. I think it truly depends on the church's culture. I've listened to fantastic 12 minute sermons that actually did teach (though I'm with you on your observations!) and excellent and engaging 35-45 minute sermons. And no one revolted at the longer sermon b/c that was "normal" to them--it was at a bible church I attended for a little while in college.

In my view, it depends on two things: (1) What people view as "normal" (the church culture), and (2) How engaging the teaching/speaker is. We might add a 3rd, since communication is a 2-way street, which would be how actively engaged and interested the listeners are.

My usual range is 18-25 minutes. I think in the 20 minute range is usually about right for an average UM church b/c of the culture.

I heard a joke I shared with a church on my first Sunday: A young pastor had recently been assigned/hired at a new church. He met with a few folks early in the week and asked them, "What should I preach about on Sunday?" An older gentleman replied, "Preach about God, and preach about 20 minutes."

Jason Woolever said...

good points. i think i agree with the idea of the culture of the church idea. the conflict with the idea that people only have 15-20 minute attention spans is that growing churches all over the world violate that rule every week. but they also have the culture that allows it and most likely speakers that keep it engaging.

gmw said...

Yep, I think it applies both to "culture" in the broad, global sense (Western, African, Asian, Latin, etc), as well as in the organizational sense, which has relevance for things like businesses, non-profits, and churches. Our UM church tends towards 20 minutes and has reasons that sound like it should be universally true (like, "that's about how long people can pay attention," etc). But really, it isn't universal, it's part of UM organizational culture.

The Baptists, Assemblies, and Bible Churches near me all go longer than 20 minutes. In the human cultural difference arena, most African-American churches I know of preach much longer than 20 minutes, but that's perfectly acceptable.

In thinking about what you've said of the trends of growing churches related to preaching, perhaps we can tentatively propose than one "organizational culture" difference between regular churches and growing ones is that the sermon time tends to (a) last longer, and (b) have more of a teaching (are you thinking expository?) focus. Off the cuff, that seems to me a pretty solid proposition from what I've observed.

Jason Woolever said...

yeah, when i say teaching, i'm thinking either expository in nature, or extensive treatment of relevant concepts and principles.

i hate to propose it, but i'm afraid that it may be our organizational culture that stands in the way of the normal churches becoming the growing churches.

Betty Newman said...

As a Lay Speaker - I approach this from "both" sides of the pulpit.

We belong to a 3-point charge which means we preach 3 times on Sunday morning - 9:00, 10:00, and 11:00. Therefore, not only must we "do" the service, we have to allow travel time.

Our service runs about 40-45 minutes, with the sermon running about 20-25 minutes. No choices, it just has to be. And that really doesn't leave much time for visiting with the folks.

I use a teaching style, and I could go much longer than 20 minutes because I think it's very important to teach BOTH the interpretation AND application of the scripture. (What's the good of knowing it, if you don't know "what" to do with it?)

AND, I'm a mother! Although our boys are grown now, we had the times when I tried to keep them quiet during the worship service. (Plus, we sat on the second pew - my husband is the music leader...) Seemed like the sermons were much longer back then...

I heard our Bishop preach the other day (man! can this guy preach!) He preached for nearly an hour, and I could have listened for another hour.

If the sermon is interesting and you're learning something - the time seems nothing. If you're bored - it seems forever!

gmw said...

Betty said:
"I use a teaching style, and I could go much longer than 20 minutes because I think it's very important to teach BOTH the interpretation AND application of the scripture. (What's the good of knowing it, if you don't know "what" to do with it?)"

I think this is an important part of preaching--modeling both intrepretation and application. Many preachers do either one or the other--lecturing on biblical study or speaking on life applications without a lot of obvious reference to the text. The applications may very well be grounded in the textual study, but that's not clear from the sermon itself.

But finding an engaging way to draw out both study and application of the text is really important to me because I want to help people read their bibles well by modeling that in the sermon. Don't know how successful I am, but one of my aims is to help shape the way people read their bibles so they can ask good questions, wrestle well, and listen deeply to what's really being said.

Also, thanks Betty for another truth: "If the sermon is interesting and you're learning something - the time seems nothing. If you're bored - it seems forever!"

This is absolutely the case for 95% of people.

Thanks for this discussion, Jason. I've enjoyed thinking through this both here and at Wesley Daily.

Jason Woolever said...

Hey Guy,
Thank you. Its been a helpful discussion, and to everyone else as well.

Jennice said...

Another aspect to sermon length and church culture is what kind of teachings are provided for the children? It seems like most "growing" churches I have visited provide alternative learning opportunities for the children during the sermon. This allow the adults to hopefully sit back and listen to sermons of longer lengths without worrying about trying to keep their children quiet. It also provides the children with a stimulating and fun learning environment to associate with church. This allows for the evident fact that children and adults have different learning styles and attention spans. Many churches do not provide programing for children, thus the pastor is expected to find a teaching style and worship format that can interest both the adults and the children. Oftentimes I am afraid that the sad result is neither party gets much meat.

Jason Woolever said...

i think you've got an good point there, jennice

Christopher Drew said...

Regardless of length, thou shalt not be boring. It's hard to avoid boredom if you exceed 20 minutes, but good preachers can run long if they focus on word choices that will retain audience attention.

Jason Woolever said...

true. very true. if someone is truly boring, 1-2 minutes can be painful!

Brian said...

I think another thing to consider is the ability for adults to pay attention and stay engaged. From what I've read, most research into how adults learn suggests that we can stay engaged for 15-20 minutes. After that we start to lose focus...

Obviously some people can stay engaged for longer, but people come to church for all sorts of reasons. If you preached for longer you will probably lose a substantial portion of the congregation.

On the other hand, when I've preached, I've felt limited by our church's tradition of under 20 minute sermons. That isn't a lot of time to convey information.