HOW LONG IS THE SERMON?
BY LYLE E. SCHALLER
For decades preachers have asked about the appropriate length for the sermon in that principal weekly worship experience. The answers vary tremendously and provide little guidance. “The mind can absorb no more than the seat can endure.” “Twenty minutes.” “Long enough to cover the subject.” “Twelve minutes.” “Radio uses 15-minute time slots, so the sermon should be 14 to 16 minutes.” (That was in the pretelevision era of the 1930s and 1940s.) “No more than 30 minutes.” “Stop when you have lost the attention of one-fourth of the congregation.” “If you can’t say what you have to say in 12 to 18 minutes, go back and complete your preparation.” “Fifty minutes. That’s the length of the class period in most colleges and universities.”
The only reason to cite those responses is to illustrate how varied and irrelevant they are. To be more precise, those responses illustrate the temptation to offer simplistic answers to complex questions. The only good simple two-word response to that question about the appropriate length for a sermon is, “It depends…” A good answer must recognize the existence of many variables. What are those variables? Here are a dozen that merit consideration.
What Are the Variables?
1. What year is it? If it is 1855, the answer may be 45 to 120 minutes. In the middle of the nineteenth century, adults would come
and stand for an hour or two or three to listen to a traveling evangelist or a candidate for political office. That was back in an era when communication of the Gospel, candidacy for public office, entertainment of crowds, appreciation of music, and persuasion of the undecided depended heavily on oral communication.
Television has transformed our culture, and today visual communication is more influential in the sending and receiving of messages. The weather forecast on television may be the best illustration of this. MTV may be the second best.
Thus back in 1855 it was relatively easy for public speakers to grab and hold people’s attention for a long period of time. Today that requires a far greater reliance on visual images, humor, pace, and a high level of competence in oral communication.
2. What kind of sermon is being preached? In broad general terms, the traditional three-point textual sermon should not exceed 15 to 20 minutes, an expository sermon may hold people’s attention for 25 to 45 minutes, a carefully prepared doctrinal sermon may require 25 to 75 minutes, an excellent Bible teaching sermon usually will run for 35 to 70 minutes, and a topical sermon probably will lose many in the audience after 12 to 15 minutes.
3. What is the level of communication skill of the speaker? What is the difference between a 25-minute and a 75-minute doctrinal sermon? For most listeners, the crucial difference is in the level of competence of the preacher as an oral communicator. The best oral communicators can hold an audience’s attention for 75 to 90 minutes. For the speaker with a slightly above average skill in oral communication, the ceiling is closer to 25 minutes.
4. What is the design? It is not easy to prepare and preach a doctrinal sermon that will hold the listener’s attention for an hour or
longer! How can that be accomplished? The number-one factor, as emphasized earlier, is in the preacher’s skill in oral communication. The next key variable is in the design of the sermon. Was that sermon designed to communicate what the preacher believes people should know and believe? Or is this a doctrinal sermon that speaks clearly and meaningfully to the questions and concerns people bring with them?
5. What motivated these people to come here today? If most were motivated largely out of institutional loyalties, friendship ties,
guilt, social pressures, habit, inherited loyalties, family ties, a sense of obligation, and/or parental influence, the sermon probably
should not exceed 15 minutes.
If, however, most came expecting their religious needs would be addressed, their spirit would be nurtured, and their lives would be enriched, 35 to 75 minutes may be the appropriate length for the sermon – but only if the sermon accomplishes that!
6. What proportion of today’s congregation came to this church after years of no active participation in the life of any worshiping
community? The larger that proportion, the longer the sermon.
7. What proportion of today’s congregation came to this church within the past three years? If (a) that proportion is over 50 percent and (b) today’s preacher has been here for more than three years, at least 35 to 50 minutes can be devoted to the sermon. If the majority of today’s congregation have been regular attenders here for at least a dozen years, 12 to 20 minutes, and if today’s preacher has been here for at least five years, 12 to 18 minutes may be the appropriate length of the sermon.
8. What is the frequency of attendance? If at least three-quarters of the members worship here on at least forty-two weekends every year, the sermon usually can be at least 25 to 35 minutes. If only one-third or less of today’s resident members, age 18 and over, worship here on at least forty-two weekends annually, the sermon probably should be under 20 minutes.
9. Do you read the sermon or preach with few or no notes? With one exception, the preacher who reads from a manuscript probably will be well advised not to exceed 15 to 20 minutes. That exception consists of those rare public speakers who (a) preach from a manuscript that was prepared for oral communication, rather than for silent reading, and (b) are exceptionally competent oral communicators when reading from a manuscript.
The minister who preaches with few or no notes may allocate 20 to 40 minutes for the sermon.
10. How far is the preacher from the people?
The basic generalization is the more distant the speaker from the audience, the more difficult it is for a speaker to capture and hold the attention of the audience. Physical distance, even with a superb public address system, is a powerful diversion and distraction. The greater that distance, the greater the competition for the listener’s attention.
Thus the minister who comes down out of the chancel and delivers the sermon while walking among the people has a substantial advantage over the preacher in a pulpit that is at least fifteen feet from the closest parishioners.
11. What about the preacher’s voice and oratorical skills? This may be the most obvious variable. The minister with a tiny voice that cannot be heard easily by those listeners thirty feet away or who would receive a “D” on oratorical skills probably would be well advised to concentrate on 8- to 12-minute sermons.
By contrast, the speaker with a loud booming voice and superb oratorical skills may be able to spread a 15-minute sermon over a half hour and leave everyone well satisfied.
12. Is radio or television the model?
If the minister assumes the spoken word can carry the message without visual support, the sermon probably should not exceed 15 minutes.
If the minister is both an excellent oral communicator and can reinforce that with powerful visual imagery, a relevant, meaningful, memorable sermon that speaks to the hearts and souls of the listeners may run for 35 to 75 minutes – and cause many to leave feeling it was too brief.
What are the other variables that should be added to this list as you reflect on the appropriate length for the sermons in your church? One obvious variable is the local tradition for the length of the worship experience. Does local tradition call for worship services that are one hour in length? 75 minutes? 45 minutes? 30 minutes? 90 minutes? 105 minutes? Two hours? The length of the service usually will influence the length of the sermon.
What is the local tradition? Can and should it be changed? Or should it be perpetuated?
A critical local variable often is the room. If the acoustics are poor and/or if the pews or chairs are uncomfortable and/or if the pulpit is a long distance from most of the listeners and/or if the room offers many distracting visual attractions, that can be an argument for shorter sermons.
Perhaps the most critical local variable is the impact of television on your people. For a useful and provocative introduction to that, read Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Eloquence in an Electronic Age (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988) and Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death (New York: Penguin Press, 1986). The basic generalization is the younger the listeners, the more likely that television has shaped their listening skills. This means that a 1955 preaching style may still be effective if most of the listeners were born before 1925. If, however, most of today’s worshipers were born after 1945, a 1955 preaching style may be inappropriate. The generations born before 1940 usually are comfortable with a minister who preaches to the crowd. The generations born after 1955 usually respond better to the preacher who speaks to people in a one-tone style.
Finally, if the size of the congregation and/or the frequency of attendance among the members is declining, it may be wise to reduce the time allocated to the sermon and increase the time given to drama, music, and intercessory prayer – or improve the quality of the preaching.
THE ABOVE MATERIAL WAS PUBLISHED BY INFORM, 1994. INFORM IS REPRINTED FROM THE PARISH PAPER, WRITTEN BY LYLE E. SCHALLER AND PUBLISHED MONTHLY BY YOKEFELLOW INSTITUTE. CHRISTIAN REFORMED HOME MISSIONS, WITH PERMISSION, REPRINTS ISSUES WHICH CONTAIN HELPFUL OR THOUGHT-PROVOKING INFORMATION ABOUT THE CHURCH. CHURCH LEADERSHIP PROFITS FROM THE JUDICIOUS USE OF THIS MATERIAL, AND IT IS THEREFORE PROVIDED AS A SERVICE OF HOME MISSIONS.
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