Three Major Trends in Sermon Length

January 26, 2015
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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

  • I have pastored for 30 years and now serve in a denominational role. The three pastors of the church I attend are millennials and each are expository and preach between 30 and 45 minutes. All three are amazing preachers. It has been so encouraging to see young men handle the Word so well. No one ever complains about the length of the sermons.

  • On the podcast ?, I wonder how many are listening to/watching the lengthier sermons in one sitting or pausing and picking it up later. I tend to listen to the longer ones on a long bike ride or run; or maybe here in Houston in traffic…

    This is a completely different experience than in the context of worship which should be about more than the preaching, but effective gospel centered preaching in the context of the whole worship experience.

  • Well I’m 75, have been saved for 43 of those years and have heard many different messages from different pastors. My thoughts on this is what is my responsibility here? I feel that if a person has spent time reading a portion of Scripture and has prayed before coming to church, then their heart would be ready for any message. If the Lord can use a donkey to talk, then my responsibility is to be prepared, not just filling a pew and looking at my watch. The Holy Spirit has its responsibility and I have mine. Naturally we expect the pastor to be in tune with the Holy Spirit as well. I quit attending a church that had to be done by noon so we would not miss a football game.

  • So is there a better length sermon that is more effective than another? Also, is this trend of shorter sermon a good thing? I am a new pastor (18 months at my first church), and I have found that a less than a year ago I was preaching 25-30 minutes. Within the last three months I have found my sermons to be between 40 and 47 minutes. I know the major change in my prayer and preparation is a heavy burden for the lost and an urgent desire to motivate and equip the church to get off the pew and spread the gospel. I wonder and struggle every Sunday with sermon length.

  • Mark Dance says on

    I am encouraged somewhat by this trend. Length and depth are not always related.

  • I believe that as a rule it it is very difficult to deliver any biblical truths in context in less than a half-hour. As a church building and capital campaign consultant, I see and hear a lot of sermons across a broad spectrum of churches. In my experience, the shorter sermons are much more common in the mainline churches. Personally, 35-45 minutes is my sweet spot. On the other hand, I know of pastors that deliver a great 15-20 minute sermon, they just take nearly an hour to do it. Length is by no means a guarantee of quality.

  • It has been my experience that “the brain goes dumb when the tail goes numb.”

  • Jeffrey Parker says on

    I was told at one church if you did not let the people out by 11:30, you will never be invited back. I find that
    the attention span of the people is becoming shorter. I preach about 20-25 minutes and place pictures on the screen to keep the people focus on what is being said. I would rather say a little and have them remember it than say a lot and lose their focus.

  • I’d be interested to see if there’s a correlation between congregation size and sermon length.

    I also find the “expository preaching” discussion interesting. Most people talk about expository vs topical preaching, which are not at all mutually exclusive. It’s like saying “do you like red cars, or Ford cars?”

    Anyone who thinks you can “do justice” to the text in 1 hour doesn’t know much.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      That would be interesting indeed.

    • i think you are right when you say that anyone who thinks they can do justice to a text in 1 hour doesn’t know much. I may even say they are crazy.

      I preach a topical exegesis sermon in the 20-28 minute time span, I leave out filler stories for the most part and try to have one overarching illustration follow through the sermon when possible.

      But out Bible studies are different. They are long and drawn out dissection of the text. Some chapters take 2-4 sessions of an hour long. And there are days that does not even begin to scratch the surface.

  • I don’t remember who said it but it was something to the effect: “If you can’t preach a great sermon in 25-30 minutes you didn’t prepare hard enough. Someone will suffer for the sermon…the preacher as he studies or the congregation as they listen.”

    I do believe sermon length is largely based on ministry context and the culture the “preacher” has created during his tenure. Regardless of length, sermons should be thoroughly captivating and soundly exegetical. I think it is a sin to preach a boring sermon!

    Thanks as always for an insightful post!

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Thanks, Michael.

    • You can certainly preach a good sermon in 25-30 minutes, but another 15 minutes might make it a great sermon. I doubt Jesus squeezed the sermon on the mount into 30 minutes. 😉

      I’ve suffered through 25 minutes sermons that seemed much longer, and I have been blessed by sermons lasing an hour in which you wonder where the time went. Content and delivery can make a short sermon seem long, and vice versa.

      • Much of it is reflective of our culture. In the nineteenth century it wasn’t uncommon for sermons to last an hour or two, so Dwight L. Moody’s habit of preaching 30-40 minutes was quite a novelty for his day. The famous Lincoln-Douglas debates lasted three hours apiece. Can you imagine anyone enduring a political debate that long today?

      • Thom Rainer says on

        True.

    • John Marsengill says on

      As a church member I have experienced several pastors who were weak in the pulpit but much loved for other strengths. One in particular comes to mind who “the spirit of God was upon him”. That’s the best personal and short way that I can describe him. I know of no one who thought of him as commiiting sin when he (and we) struggled Sunday after Sunday with his “boring” sermons. I think you are using to wide a brush when you paint every “boring” sermon as sinful.

      • Dan Norman says on

        I’ve noticed something like this in some of my own experience a few years ago. The pastors I know that are really strong in the pulpit struggle with the pastoring/shepherding aspect of being a pastor. The pastors that are great at pastors/shepherd struggle in the pulpit. Of course this is just my experience and there are exceptions.

    • I preach at two different churches which have two different ministry contexts and demographics. I preach the same sermon, mostly expository. Yet, in the one context, I purposefully shorten it by a good five minutes due to the audience makeup. The longer version is 30-35 and the short is about 25. It is not always easy to do but it is necessary due to the audience.

  • This is interesting. The most popular preachers on iTunes (podcasts) are almost exclusively preaching from 35-50 minutes. What do you think is the reason for that?

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Thanks, Scott. I am seeing these trends in the grassroots of local congregations. You are right about the popular podcasts.

    • One reason for this COULD be that people who are listening to podcast sermons, in addition to Sunday church attendance, may be interested in going a little deeper in their study. Plus, one is not confined to sitting in one place while listening to podcasts.

    • because that’s the length of an average commute

  • Steve Boon says on

    Thom,

    This article presents some interesting information. Points 1 and 2 in context of each other raise some questions.

    Is the decline in sermon length accounted for by a decline in expository preaching? Most expository preachers do tend to take at least 45 minutes to deliver a sermon.

    Does the decline in sermon length correspond with generational lines? I have noticed that many younger pastors seem to have shorter sermons (hardly a scientific study, I know). Also, younger preachers tend to eschew the “filler” stories that a lot of seasoned pastors use to break their sermons up into 10-12 minute chunks.

    I would love to read your opinion or some feedback from some of your readers. Your blog, as well as the responses of your readers continues to be a great resource for me.

    – Steve

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Thanks so much, Steve. I don’t have immediate answers to some of your questions. I would be surprised, however, if there is a decline in expository preaching.

      • Peter Mahoney says on

        Some questions that would need to be asked and answered to frame a healthy discussion:

        -What is is “exegesis”?
        -What is “expository”?
        -What is the goal of preaching in a public worship setting?

        There are probably others, but unless we have congruity in those things a discussion of sermon length will be little more than a discussion of personal preferences and possibly congregational influence on what a pastor does.

      • James P says on

        ex·e·ge·sis
        Critical explanation or interpretation of a text, especially of scripture.
        ex·pos·i·to·ry
        Intended to explain or describe something. – . A statement or rhetorical discourse intended to give information about or an explanation of difficult material

        Whatever ,may be sermon length, if the preacher can not prepare well for the sermon, keeping into consideration the attention span of the congregation he/she can not do justice for the time taken.

        Multiple short sermons are better than single long sermons . I think a sermon should not exceed 28 minutes. Attention span is reducing nowadays. A preacher should not be talking to himself

        If a detailed Expository preaching is required it should be split in to multiple sermons..

      • Harry Olson says on

        I recently read that the average person in America today has an attention span approximately the same length or less but I goldfish. My question is should we shorten our sermons to accommodate all these goldfish?

    • Steve,
      Interesting thoughts. I have been preaching for more than 20 years and am in my fifties. I am not sure that the eschewing of stories is necessarily a young preacher thing. I have found that I have moved away from those stories because they end up as entertainment and fillers for length rather than applicable illustrations. I have found myself focusing more on content and the few illustrations I use are short, to the point and relate to everyday life more so than the stories I used to use as illustrations. In turn it may have shortened my sermons somewhat but I also have noticed that it has maintained a better focus on the message without it getting lost on stories. Now instead of people remembering and recounting the stories they are remembering and reminding me of the content of the messages. Just food for thought.

    • Especially on Wednesday nights I see a lot of pastors who are literally killing their congregations with the length of their lessons or sermons. People are exhausted from their daily work routine and being at work that day and then they have to sit there and listen to a pastor go on for a good hour.
      If you can’t teach your lesson in 30 minutes something is not right. Less is more. Preachers remember, people have a life outside of church. You making them punch drunk every week doesn’t help

    • Steve is right. there is no doubt of a decline in expository preaching. Especially if you are living in an area where mega-church trends prevail. Expository preaching is almost “banned” because it does not fit in with the culture.

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