Let me get my caveats out of the way first.
Yes, I have preached my share of long sermons (more on that in a moment). I don’t do many 15-minute homilies. My last four sermons on the Christ Covenant website (as of Monday) were 43 minutes, 46 minutes, 46 minutes, and 36 minutes. I aim for 40 minutes, but I bet my average is closer to 45 minutes (as the small sample size suggests). So my own congregation may read this post and say, “Physician, heal thyself!”
Moreover, I realize that in some contexts, cutting five minutes would bring the sermon from 25 minutes to 20 minutes, or from 18 minutes to 13 minutes. That feels far too light a meal to feed God’s people a healthy diet of Scriptural truth. As John Stott famously quipped, “Sermonettes make Christianettes.”
I also understand that the “proper” length of a sermon is culturally conditioned. In some churches, it may take years to get them accustomed to 30 minutes, while other churches have plenty of practice with two-hour services and 60-minute messages. I’m not laying down an ironclad law.
Having said all that, I feel comfortable making the assertion that the majority of preachers in our conservative, Reformedish circles could safely cut their sermon length by five or ten minutes (or more) and be more effective because of it.
While guest preaching in a church several years ago I asked the senior pastor how long I should preach. He replied, “Five minutes shorter than you think.” He wasn’t trying to be mean. His advice was tongue-in-cheek. But it was also partly serious. He went on to add that he’d rarely heard a sermon that couldn’t have been better by being five minutes shorter.
That got me thinking: did my sermons really need to be 50 or 55 minutes? When I look back at old sermons I’m almost always amazed by how much I tried to cram into the sermon. That’s always been a weakness of mine. I try to give people the whole elephant. It’s not necessary. The good thing about preaching for many years to the same people is that eventually you’ll get to say the important things that need to be said. There’s no need to make a single sermon touch on anger and membership and the regulative principle and the glory of God and the atonement, even if the passage fairly applies to all those areas.
We honor good preaching in our circles. And we should. Preaching is the lifeblood of the church. There is no greater calling than to herald the riches of Christ. But good preaching is not the same as long preaching. We love to hear of the Puritan preachers who turned over the hourglass and settled in for a second hour of sermonizing. Many of our heroes from ages past preached long, dense, wonderful messages. What we forget is that those congregations often complained about those sermons too! The Dutch Reformed in the colonies tried (usually in vain) to restrict the Domine to only one hour in the pulpit.
More importantly, we overlook the fact that today’s congregations have books and podcasts and small groups and Sunday school classes and book studies and a host of opportunities to be instructed in the Word. The Puritans were preaching to many people who couldn’t read and who received all their Bible teaching from Sunday services (or pastoral catechizing). So a 30-minute sermon is not necessarily a capitulation to short attention spans. We live in a different time with different avenues for good Bible teaching.
Of course, there is no absolute rule to any of this. Like I said, earlier in my ministry I was drifting toward an hour. Now I’m around 45 minutes, aiming for slightly less. I think my preaching is better as a result. This isn’t about cutting corners in the study. Almost every pastor can testify that preaching for 35 minutes is harder than preaching for 50 minutes. Just like in writing, it takes more work to be concise. The sermons I usually feel the worst about are the ones that went too long. And normally they went too long because I didn’t do the necessary work ahead of time to prune, to focus, to cut out unnecessary repetitions, to scuttle dispensable digressions.
The hard reality is that I don’t think I’m good enough for 60-minute sermons every week. The freeing reality, however, is that I don’t have to go 60 minutes to preach an exegetically responsible, theologically rich, personally relevant, doxologically powerful sermon.
Here’s the bottom line: there’s no need to preach for an hour when 40 minutes will do. The truth is most people will be glad for a shorter sermon. The parents with children in the pew certainly will be. Your wife just might be too. And the nursery workers will rise up and call you blessed.