How Long is Too Long?


By: Carl A. Trapani


There’s a story about a preacher who stood up to preach on Sunday morning with a bandage on his face. “Excuse my appearance,” he said. “This morning I was thinking about my sermon while I was shaving, and I cut my face.”

After sitting through the sermon, one of his members said, “Next time, why not think about your face and cut your sermon?”

When it comes to sermon length remember this warning: It’s not too serious if people look at their watches while you preach. But if they begin to shake them, watch out! Actually, for a lot of ministers sermon length is no laughing matter.


Long sermons do more harm than good

It is practically impossible to end a long sermon with an effective conclusion and powerful altar call. Brother Billy Cole, in his message “How to Help People Receive the Holy Ghost,” given at the 1991 Because of the Times conference in Alexandria, Louisiana, said, “If you really want to see people receive the Holy Ghost at the end of your message don’t preach longer than twelve minutes!” He went on to say, “Many times people receive the Holy Ghost in spite of a long sermon, not because of it.” If you are long-winded, your audience is more than likely worn out listening long before you are worn out preaching. You may be “just getting warmed up” while your audience is totally worn out. If so, you need to ask yourself the question: For whose benefit am I preaching? My own, or my audience?


Listening curve

Remember that there is a listening curve. The benefits and effectiveness of what you are saying build up until the sermon gets to the top of that curve. Then they begin to fall off. Any part of your sermon that seems too long to your listeners detracts from the effectiveness of what went before We can actually preach so long that people will go to sleep like Eutychus (Acts 20:9) or go away worse off than when they came–angry, exhausted, or discouraged.


Sermons and lessons-how long is too long?

There is a big difference in a sermon and a lesson. A sermon is a message with a single point that calls for an immediate response. A lesson makes several points and calls for increased understanding, but not necessarily an immediate response. Sermons should be shorter than lessons. From my recent college experience I’ve learned that the mind can absorb only what the seat can endure. Classes that last fifty minutes usually go by quickly. The ones an hour and fifteen minutes long seem endless. The same rule
applies to lessons in church. There is an endurance limit–don’t exceed it.

There is also a big difference between school and church. A school is a teaching center–not a worship center. There are only lessons–no sermons. The lessons are progressive and structured to add to your knowledge. The professors expect you to learn. You are tested and graded. You can pass or fail, and you pay for the privilege of attending. A church is a worship center. Most people primarily come there to worship, not to learn. They are there for a religious experience not a theology degree They come to listen to the sermon, and react to it. You may disagree, but answer this: How many persons in your audience take notes on your sermons? Other than your wife, or an aspiring young minister, very few.

Floyd Breese, writing in Ministry, on “Sermon Length” asks the question, “When is a sermon too long? That’s a tough question, because sermons can be lengthy without being long. Sermons that seem long are too long–even if they’re short. Shallow, dawdling sermons seem long. Four minutes of the trite and obvious may seem to the audience like forty minutes. Good sermons seem short. They vary from reason to emotion, argument to illustration, and, in delivery, from intimate to enthusiastic All things considered, the
old rule of thumb still applies in most congregations and cultures: If you don’t strike oil in thirty minutes, stop boring.

Here are three ways to control the length of your sermon: Prepare ruthlessly. Preach empathically. Conclude precisely.


Prepare ruthlessly

Preparation is vital to any successful message Prayer, study, and organization are the three composites for a good sermon. m prepare ruthlessly means that you will pray for God’s direction and inspiration upon the message. Pray for understanding as you study and prepare the message, and pray for the anointing of the Holy Ghost as you deliver it. Prayer changes things. It will change you first and then your audience.

Study is exactly that–its work. It takes discipline and mental effort to study for a sermon. You have to allow time to prepare You can’t get all your sermons from sermon books and expect your audience to think you are original. Good preachers study the Good Book.

Organize your sermon so that you know exactly what points you intend to make. Make a written outline. This is an area where we have a big problem. We tend to cheat as we prepare. Most of us have too much material when we get up to preach. We say, “That is too important to leave out. Besides, it won’t take long.” And so we put things in, hoping they will add to our message but inwardly we know that they won’t. After a while, you can tell how much time a certain amount of material will fill in the pulpit. An excellent preacher is one who puts a knife to the sermon’s throat and eliminates every excess idea.

There are times when God will change a message at the last minute, but they are rare. If God truly gives you a replacement sermon it will be powerfully anointed and effective. Preachers who simply open the Bible and begin to cut loose with no outline no notes, and no idea of what they are going to talk about, may brag about the fact they never prepare. They may “just open their mouth and let God fill it,” but an audience knows the difference between anointing and rambling, even if the preachers don’t. Audiences are
painfully aware that these preachers usually take a long time to say very little.


Preach empathically

Empathy means feeling with. Be sensitive towards your audience–get your feelings in synch with theirs. Is the building warm? Has it been a long, dry service so far? Then be sensitive. Give your audience a brief,
enthusiastic, affirmation on the power of the Jesus Christ–not a long-winded diatribe.

An empathic preacher realizes that although the sermon is the most important thing in the world to him just now, he might feel very differently if someone else were preaching–and he was in the audience with
a squirming wet baby, or dead tired after having worked all day.

It has been observed that long-winded preachers tend to have a subconscious ego problem. They love the sound of their voice, and assume that everyone else does also. They obviously feel that listening to them preach is a great privilege for the people in their audience. They can’t understand why anyone would get tired hearing them go on and on. These are the same preachers who like to listen to their own sermon tapes, not to criticize, or seek ways to improve, but for the pure pleasure of hearing their own voice!

An empathic preacher is more concerned about his audience, their feelings, comfort, and reaction to the message than to the sound of his voice. Remember, the message is more important than the messenger, and the listener is the most important of all.


Conclude precisely

An old-timer advised, “When you’re done pumpin’, let loose the handle.” Sometimes preachers go on and on because they haven’t thought through just how, and when, they are going to stop. Breese says, “A precisely prepared conclusion protects you and your people from the frustration of a Magellan sermon-one that keeps circling the earth while people pray for land.” Brother Nathaniel A. Urshan told me, “I always think of what I want to have happen when I am done preaching, and build my message towards that goal.
Everything depends on the conclusion.” How true. The conclusion is more important than the beginning. So plan for it.

The final rule in sermon length must always be: Stop while your listeners wish there were more, rather than after they wish there had been less. Stop preaching before your people stop listening.


(The above material appeared in the April–June, 1992 issue of the Forward Magazine.)

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