Three Major Trends in Sermon Length

January 26, 2015

The opinions about the “right” sermon length are varied, but they are typically intense. Several months ago, I conducted a social media poll to find out the preferred sermon length of preachers. Since that time, I have been observing pastors’ preaching on podcasts and in person. I have also been asking them directly about their sermon length.

I found three dominant schools of thought about this issue. I have also been able to see some specific parameters that were not as clear in my previous post. Allow me to list them in order of their magnitude

  1. The most frequent preaching length is 20 to 28 minutes. This preaching preference is not only noted among the greatest number of pastors (and church members as well), it appears to be the fastest growing segment. A number of pastors who were preaching longer sermons are now in this category. The most frequent rationale for this length is that it is received best by our culture of shorter attention spans. I find it interesting that 30 minutes as a sermon length is rarely mentioned. Many pastors are fastidious about keeping their sermons at least a couple of minutes shy of 30 minutes.
  2. The second most frequent length is 45 to 55 minutes, but the number of pastors preaching this long is diminishing. Indeed, I wish I had considered this issue as one of my 15 trends for 2015. The longer sermon is still advocated by many pastors, but there are fewer of these pastors every year. The most common rationale for this longer sermon is that good exposition cannot take place in 30 minutes or less. One needs at least 45 minutes to do justice to the text.
  3. The third most frequent length is one of no time constraints. This category of preaching is relatively small compared to the first two, but it has some strong advocates. Indeed the number of preachers and church members who are proponents of this view has held steady around 10 percent. The rationale for the “no time constraints” position is that we should not dictate how God might work in a sermon. If God leads the preacher to preach 10 minutes, so be it. If the sermon is over an hour, that is fine too.

I am watching these trends in sermon length carefully. A lot of my input and feedback comes from you readers of this blog. I look forward to hearing from you for a lively discussion!

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155 Comments

  • Thom, and everyone,

    There are 1189 chapters and psalms in the Bible with over 31,000 verses. I don’t think of myself as either and “older” or “preacher” at 45 years old, but I have been preaching for nearly thirty years and I find myself at a serious crisis point over this issue. My commission from God is both to “feed the flock” and to “preach the whole counsel of God”. When I started in Pastoral ministry in 1995 I could reasonably expect that I would have Sunday School, Morning Worship, Bible Class and Evening Worship along with Wednesday nights to feed the sheep a well balanced spiritual diet and over the course of a few years preach through the whole of God’s word. That literally afforded me five opportunities each week to preach or teach for 30-45 minutes. Now, I find myself struggling with how to proceed forward. We are likely to drop adult Sunday School shortly for lack of participation, and Sunday afternoon/evening is on it’s way out too. The midweek prayer-service message has a larger Youtube following than attendance. I preached on Stephen Sunday morning for an hour and ten minutes. (a remodel in the auditorium caused the clock to be removed from the back wall for painting, it was unintentional.). Several people told me that they didn’t notice the time until they were heading to lunch. But, I’m certain that such a length is too long to be a regular thing if I want people to remember the message. I understand the problem that preaching to myself is pointless. But, I also as a shepherd have to consider both the preferences of the sheep with the healthiness of the sheep. Here’s what I’m contemplating. Help and critique is not only “welcome” I’m begging for it.

    Sunday Early Service: 9am (with children’s classes)
    Sunday 2nd Service: 10:30am (family integrated worship for all ages)

    Sunday 2pm Teen Ministry

    Wednesday 6pm Kidz-Club (ages twelve and under)

    Small Groups meet weekly at various times in coffee shops, libraries, restaurants, each small group participates in a GROW outreach group one night a month.

    To “supplement” the lack of preaching/Teaching time, I will drop daily podcasts from me, their senior pastor, through our church app (as well as apple/google podcast apps) and have myself and my associate pastor drop a midweek YouTube Message. In this way, we can provide a 21st century approach to a well-balanced biblical diet. My concern is that I don’t want the church to become a “virtual body of Christ” but remain a “real-life faith community”.

    What I thought about doing was dropping 2 different podcasts daily. One is “Join Me for Daily Bible Reading”, about 15 minutes of reading the Bible, they can follow along or listen in the car. The second is essentially two forty-five minute sermons broken into daily 15 minute “homilies”. Not everyone will watch or listen to everything we “put out”, but then, not everyone every showed up for Sunday night and Wednesday night either.

    Have I lost my mind?

    • Philip Caldwell says on

      I was raised as a preachers kid back in the early 1960’s. My dad went on to get his Doctorate in Theology degree and subsequently taught bible and religion in a Christian University. I endured many a sermon growing up as a kid as we had Sunday morning, Sunday evening and Wednesday evening services, not including week-long revival services at least twice yearly.

      We also went to camp meeting services which were week-long Sunday to Sunday morning and weekday evening services that were including as part of the denomination meetings to conduct church business across the US.

      I recall one camp meeting where the Sunday morning service was the last event after a long week of meetings. My dad was on the agenda to preach the final message. There was music and music and more music followed by presentations and other conference business. Then there was the music minister that gave a special music number just before the message. The services usually last 90 minutes. On this particular Sunday, the preliminaries lasted 80 minutes and my dad got up to preach the message with only 10 minutes remaining. My dad wisely gave his 4 points to the message and sat down in 10 minutes! To his surprise he had more admirations that Sunday than ever before as many other ministers could not believe he didn’t give the congregation the entire spew of his message!

      My dad told me later, if you can’t say what you have to say in 20 minutes, then you need to spend more time on your sermon, as it is much harder to deliver a 20 minute sermon than a 45 minute sermon.

      I’ve never forgotten the wisdom of my dad who is still living at the age of 96.

      28 minutes is a perfect time for any sermon. I just wish more ministers would wise up to this practice!!

  • Kevin McNeely says on

    As a young Pastor and have listened to my elders for advice. They say most people’s attention span is around 25 -30.. i was told once after a longer 60 min. Sermon that I had lost the maturity of the congregation. I listen to a lot of preachers and I can listen to long sermons with no problem. But the ones that go for long periods. Seems like it take a while for them to get going. Just my input. Thanks great article.

  • Jennifer Cooper says on

    Late to this discussion, as well, but I’d be interested to know about other demographics in these churches and possible correlations, specifically whether the church is growing, stagnant (which never lasts long), or declining.

    It seems to be, from my very limited experience, that when I watch sermons from “popular” pastors or from large churches that are growing (and presumably healthy), the sermons are on the longer side, around 40-45 minutes. I also do freelance transcription through Rev and the sermons that come through where there was obviously a decent budget for sound/recording are around 40-45 minutes.

    However, in the churches that I’ve encountered the 20 minute sermon, or where my husband was encouraged to preach only a 20 minute sermon, those tend to have been unhealthy and/or they were at some stage of decline. The mentality of not just the people, but some of the leadership was kind of like one guy said up there, “People have other things to do outside of church.” As in, church is not the priority, “real life” is. As in, church isn’t real life, it’s a box that you check so you can “be a good Christian.”

    I may be drawing the connection too quickly here or painting with too broad a brush, but I’m wondering if a lot of this is not just linked to the short attention span of our culture, but the decline of Christianity in America even among Christians and a failure of those in discipling roles to raise the bar higher.

    I mean, we can binge watch Netflix for hours at a time without that silly “people stop listening when their backsides fall asleep” thing, right? Or we watch movies, go to concerts, sit in stadiums … multi-hour events. We’ll go to a conference or watch a string of TED talks. We value secular education, sit through webinars, etc., etc., etc.

    So, why the low value on teaching through the sermon? We see some dysfunction even in the early church as Paul addresses some congregational issues, but the New Testament also paints a picture of a very different church than we see today. “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, the breaking of bread and to prayer.” A lot of this devotion was a daily thing, we’re told.

    I get that times have changed as far as demands on our time (though I’d argue that they had to do a lot more than the typical church member to earn what would literally be a living) and we tend to live a lot farther apart; however, shouldn’t some of these changes (often caused by new conveniences) give us the ability to devote ourselves further to discipleship rather than just give us extra excuses why we see our leisure time as more important than worship/teaching/discipleship?

    I’m not saying that an excellent, thought-provoking, deeply-teaching sermon can’t be taught in less than 30 minutes. It can be! But I think it’s shameful when we in church leadership set a bar low and give our congregations nothing to rise to. We shouldn’t be encouraging/enabling spiritual or intellectual laziness when it comes to the most important thing in the world: knowing God. Treat it like boiling a frog: turn the heat up a little at a time and acclimate them to it. Or tell them you’re done insulting their intelligence and devotion to their spiritual formation and that you’re going to ask more of them. However. Just don’t continue the spiritually sick mentality that they don’t have the capacity to handle it or that they have other places to be that are more important.

  • So I realize I’m coming into this conversation a few years late, but here’s my 2 cents:

    Someone said, “However long a sermon is, it should FEEL like 20min”. I believe this is sage advice.

    Know your audience and context. Unmet expectations ruin opportunity. If they’re expecting it to be 15min and you go for 30, you’ve lost them. If they’re waiting for that 45min sermon and you stop at 20, again you’ve lost them.

    Realize that the sermon is part of a larger whole, usually including items like musical worship, giving, greeting, announcements, et cetera. It must fit.

    Church is changing, and not just sermon length. The church of our sons will look different than the church of our grandfathers. I personally think shorter sermons combined with more active expressions of spiritual exercises WITHIN the “service” could be a model that works with the next generation.

    My tone must fit the length. Difficult to explain, but I know when I preach if it doesn’t “feel” right, that the audience will feel it as well. The cadence and rhythm must carry strongly without ending abruptly or slowly and painfully fizzling out.

    I came here to do research for writing guest speaking-engagement messages, thanks for the post and the debate.

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