Three Major Trends in Sermon Length

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!

Posted on January 26, 2015

With nearly 40 years of ministry experience, Thom Rainer has spent a lifetime committed to the growth and health of local churches across North America.
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  • I believe that every preacher needs to know how long they can preach for, while holding the attention of their listeners. Then cut that back by 5 minutes. Let the congregation think they could have listened to the preacher longer – rather then wishing they stopped and wound up 20 minutes earlier.

    I like how the 3rd point gives permission to be short if needed. There are times, we need to allow the word of God to make its own point, without expounding on it. It could well be all that is needed to be said is “Jesus wept,” and the preacher sits down.

  • Not much on here about whether long sermons or short sermons are better at leading people to Christ. If the “culture” is driving shorter sermons is n some churches, maybe it is because they want to reach lost people and lead them to Christ. If I can get a co-worker to come to church by saying “Hey, come with me. We’ll be out in under an hour and then I’ll take you to lunch at…”, I’m not really worried about people who think the service is too short. They can find a church that better suits their needs and leave the service with a great feeling of piety for their endurance..

    While there is only one way to heaven, there are a lot of different churches to meet a lot of different needs.

  • We’re there any specific findings or differences in sermon/homily length noted for sacramental/liturgical denominations like Episcopal, Lutheran, Orthodox, etc.?

  • Thanks Thom. Although not tied to, the length of my sermon manuscript generally dictates the length of sermon (3,200 words = 28-30 minutes). So, perhaps another question needs to be asked, does note choice dictate sermon length i.e. is it fair to say that those with a more sparse outline tend to preach longer?

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Fascinating question.

      • I use to write out a nearly full manuscript for sermons, which would take me somewhere between 25-30 min to get through. However, I was close to reading my notes, which isn’t great for oral communication. As I got more confident, I began to speak extemporaneously more, which actually did lengthen the time it took to preach the same notes. I still aim for 28-30 min, but prepare shorter notes so that it winds up about the right length.

    • I always write a full manuscript, read over it several times, and then deliver it without notes. This gives the sermon an extemporaneous quality without getting too far off track. I’m not saying that’s the best approach for everyone, but it works pretty well for me.

  • Bad preaching needs to go! There are way too many un-gifted preachers in pulpits today who do not deserve even 1 minute in the pulpit. So I can see why some have a hard time tolerating their sermons length. But for those who are truly gifted and called,
    I think the whole rational for reducing a sermon to 20-28 minutes, based on “the culture” is a slippery slope. Since when do we let “culture” dictate how to do Church? Especially when it comes to preaching the Word of God! Reducing the message to a shorter attention spanned people who can’t concentrate long enough, is none other than dumbing it down. This is pitiful! Shouldn’t we try to raise the bar and bring people up to a higher standard?! This is the Word of God we’re talking about, not a TV show. This being the largest “trend” in the Church today doesn’t surprise me really. Look at the state of the American Church. Very sad.

  • Have pastored 5 churches each being very different from the other. The first two expected a 20/30 minutes (rural). Third, 30 minutes to an hour message was expected( agricultural community)Fourth, much larger context w/ multiple services 23-25 minute maximum (urban). Fifth and current context over 25 minutes and they begin to squirm (suburban).
    Topical, single point, energetic (preach like you believe it), mostly memorized sermons in my experience captures the hearers. Reading, long, boring, messages keeps people at home.
    Thanks Thom for this post.

  • It does seem that shortened attention spans are the rule for this generation. I wonder how to interpret other data, like why college professors don’t keep lectures 20-28 minutes or why movies seem to have gotten much longer in length. Looks like not everything today needs to be kept short.

  • It’s more important than ever to keep people engaged meaningfully. It’s difficult for a pastor to gauge his congregation’s attention span. There’s such a wide range of cognitive abilities. Depending on people’s learning styles, will depend on who prefers a long sermon versus a shorter one. It would be a fascinating study. Auditory learners will attend more readily to a longer sermon. But visual learners will be bored about 10 minutes into the sermon. Same with kinesthetic learners. If you have a congregation full of athletes (kinesthetic-learning folks) it’s going to be difficult for them to sit longer than 30 minutes. Auditory learners make up about 30% of the population. Kinesthetic learners are 10%. Visual learners are 60%.

    Then again, nothing can influence a congregation more than the anointing of the Holy Spirit. That’s the most important element of a good sermon. Prepare as if it’s all up to you, and pray as if it’s all up to God. And really, it’s the Holy Spirit Who draws.

    I’m a visual learner. I do best if you engage me visually. That includes how animated the speaker is.

    I’m also particularly annoyed when a speaker repeats themselves. But that’s because I learn more readily than other people. Again, it has to do with the cognitive level of the congregant. Some learners need to have points reinforced. But there’s a creative way to do that that doesn’t bore the audience.

    Another pet peeve of mine is a preacher who preaches just to hear himself preach.

    In my view, it’s always best to leave the congregants wanting more instead of, “boy am I glad that’s over.”

  • I admit to spending a great deal of time studying sermons. I have an entire shelf in my library dedicated to the art of preaching. I’ve listened to hundreds if not thousands of sermons from various preachers with various backgrounds. And I’ve concluded that few sermons can justify being longer than 30 minutes.

    Most messages that extend past 30 minutes begin to get circular. They repeat themselves even if they pick another side to kick the dead horse. And the once blazing hot sermon fizzles out. Only some of the most exceptional preachers I’ve met have been able to navigate through the turbulent waters past thirty minutes well. It’s just incredibly hard and time consuming.

    I’m not saying never go past thirty minutes. But be justified if you do!

  • Craig Giddens says on

    … if you’re listening to a truly great sermon you won’t care how long it takes … I have been blessed to have heard a few of these …

  • Clark Dunlap says on

    Interesting info. So for your stats, put me down at around 35 min. per sermon. Usually expository, though occasionally topical. (Of course after 20 minutes I’m just groping for words trying to stay in the pulpit till 11:55 because I have nothing better to do. Not.) 😉

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