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 enjoy expository preaching. Yet the church needs to be willing to evaluate it’s maturity. A wise pastor and congregation will see the necessity for what they need to be teach in light of personal growth, in CHRIST, the great commission requires mature disciples to carry out it’s command. Most importantly to the issue is teaching CHRIST deity, sovereignty, lordship, needing the head of the church itself for wisdom to walk in the Spirit, discerning as the apostles the mind CHRIST. Directional living is God’s plan for any church. I think this mindset is called evangelism.

  • It’s been my experience that many sermons that last 45+ minutes could easily cut that time in half through prayerful editing. This is not to say that longer sermons are bad sermons, but I can think of any number of longer sermons that were “first drafts” instead of sermons that had been honed and edited so that scarcely more than the best of the message’s very essence remained. For me, I agree with Noah Lukeman’s assessmenrt when he wrote ““Personally, I am always more impressed by simplicity, clarity; it is the mark of a writer who knows his subject well and is secure enough not to ‘lay it on’ in the telling. Aim for complexity of thought, not expression.” Just because a sermon is short doesn’t mean it isn’t holy. Just because the preacher uses big words doesn’t mean he knows what he’s talking about. Just because he uses little sentences doesn’t mean he’s not conveying some very big ideas. The sermon’s content should render the sermon’s length to be inconsequential when all is said and done.

  • I’m a reformed dude. Fully committed to expositional preaching. Over 10+ years of preaching right out of seminary, here’s the conclusions I came to.

    1. I am not john piper.
    2. I am not matt chandler.
    3. I am not mark driscoll.
    4. I can preach a deep sermon in 30-35 minutes and not be milk toast or a sell out.
    5. I preached 50+ minutes often to either satisfy my ego, or to tickle reformed ears that were proud of a church that had looong expositional sermons.
    6. I preached 50+ minutes sermons because I was not disciplined enough to cut the fat and ask what my people needed to hear, were able to hear.

    To the young pastors out there, unless you are matt chandler, keep it under 40. I think I would have seen more people go from immature to mature Christians if I had kept the sermon length at a more reasonable time for this cultures attention span and level of biblical literacy.

    my .02

  • Sherwood Haisty, Jr. says on

    The shorter trends in sermon length are reflective of a diminished view of Scripture and an increase in pragmatic thinking as a result of church growth methodology. It is truly a sign of the times and reflect of the low state of things today in Evangelicalism at large and in particularly the SBC. There are several points that should be made here. #1. There is a big difference in values of those in attendance. The lost do not love the Word but in fact the natural man cannot receive the things of the Spirit of God for they are indeed foolishness to him and neither can he know them. Pastors who tailor their weekly sermons to appease the lost are in fact in sin. Evangelism is done all week, though an text and a sermon may be evangelistic in nature and the pastor should boldly proclaim the Gospel from the pulpit and call sinners to repent, he must remember that feeding the flock is a part of weekly cooperate worship and failing to do for the sake of catering to the unsaved is dereliction of duty. On the same lines, there are sadly a great number no doubt in our churches that are not regenerate. The SBC has been very guilty of sloppy evangelism for years with people told to pray the sinner’s prayer and so forth that has resulted in false converts in the church. We have had a generation that has been evangelized by appealing to the lost to add Jesus to their life to make their life more meaningful and full of purpose and without calling sinners to forsake their life in repentance and self denial taking up the cross. This has resulted in a “me” generation in the church of immature believers who are consumers rather than self denying disciples. So we have churches with a lot of false converts in some cases and a lot of coddled people on the other hand. With this, is there any wonder that our congregants often despise long sermons. We have had a generation of preachers too who have been will to shorten their sermons for practical reasons. It is what many of the masses want. It demands far less prep time to preach shorter sermons and to preach less often by canceling Sunday evening preaching and mid week preaching. These latter trends I think correspond as well. So that is one point. Also I would say that there is a big difference in what many think is exposition, and what really is expositional preaching. This can be stated as follows. There is big difference in sequential exposition through a book, and random attempts at exposition from one text to another. There is a big difference in preaching from a book of the Bible and preaching line by line through a book of the Bible. There is also a big difference between mere exposition from an English translation, and the employment of the exegetical method as a discipline to produce solid in depth exposition based study of syntax and discourse analysis in the original languages of Greek and Hebrew plus rich research in background material from studies in the ANE and archaeology. There is a big difference in working up a sermon with a cute outline and giving the preparation of the sermon all the hard efforts of scholarship and precision that a high and lofty view of the text requires. Without taking time here to address all of these contrast above, I would say that in seems apparent that a lot of guys who speak favorably (it is fashionable now days) of expository preaching and claim to do expository preaching in fact don’t and have either not been properly trained or have grown lax in the riggers and hard work required or do not have sufficient high view of Scripture to motivate to labor and grow in their capacity after seminary. This is a real issue. Pastors sadly are put under other pressures too that interfere with valuable time that is required. On top of this the efforts and pains in the study can go under appreciated by a congregation who doesn’t have a proper appetite and things to lowly of the Bible. So the pastor can become discouraged if he is not careful. Shorter sermon length is a part of this decline. On the other hand, it truly is pretty much impossible to rightly even begin to unpack a normal pericope in the short amount of time some advocate. To preach regularly for 30 min or under 30 min is in my estimation is nothing short of flat irresponsible with one takes into consideration the valued treasure of truth of the Word of God we say we hold dear. Brothers the SBC is suffering from a low casual attitude regarding Scripture. It is true of our people in many cases and true of our preachers too. Do a survey and find out what percent of the people read their Bibles faithfully everyday. Do a survey to discover how many hours reading of Scripture and study of the Word is done and see if there is any correlation to that and the church members attitude toward sermon length. Do a survey on if the church member listens to sermons by others on cd or the web during the week or reads other biblical solid teaching and see if there is a correlation to that members attitude toward sermon length. You will likely find that those church members who are hungry and who feed themselves in the Word daily, and who supplement the teaching of the Word on Sunday with other sermons from quality Bible teachers on the radio or on line throughout the week and read good books through out the week that those people can’t get enough on Sunday if the preacher spreads out a good Bible expositional feast. These are the true sheep who are healthy and hungry. Other sheep may be sick or may be wolves. The seeker-friendly churches by their very nature heard in many wolves with the attractive services designed for wolves rather than God. Their is a correlation to sermon length and a high view of Scripture. The sheep love the Word, others loath it. With that I should add another lament. Sadly our SBC seminaries are not to my limited knowledge helping things. The shorter sermon is encouraged if not expected in some cases according again to my limited knowledge. That is reflective of the pragmatic trends of the day. The worst sin it seems the preacher can commit is to preach too long. If you preach an hour you are crazy seems to be the attitude. It is true that we shouldn’t bore people and poor sermon is not better if it is longer. But a truly good faith attempt to explain the Word of God in context with proper fair amount of time given to deal with context and introductory matters, to expound on the actual layout and movement of the text and deal faithfully with at least a portion of the text along with a proper necessary short but clear illustrations as needed and clarifying explanation along with conclusion with at least some implications or applications of the text should be norm. This takes time. The real question is not if 20 or 30 min is long enough or if an hour is too long but if an hour is truly long enough. People have to be taught and grow in their ability to concentrate and focus. It is true that TV and the lack of reading has ruined the American mind and the normal attention span, but who says that the church is to mirror the world. It make time to reform a church but a goal the appetite and digestive ability should be considered. Those who find their minds wonder should show deference to those who are writing notes and eating a full plate full. IIf I came over to your house for Sunday dinner after church and your wife loaded my plate down with more than I could eat, I wouldn’t scold her. I would eat what I could and enjoy it and appreciate her efforts and generosity. However, when it comes to sitting in church, it is a sin to make a person actually have to sit still in church for too long a period even if others are being blessed. We have a real problem regarding the perspective many of our people have on worship, on the Word, on preaching, and on what the Christian life is all about anyway. We have cultivated a Burger King consumer generation of church members who want to have it their way and our churches have little spiritual influence and power in our nation and we wonder why.

    • I’m not necessarily a fan of shorter sermons, but I am a big believer in keeping blog comments short and to the point (hint! hint!).

    • AGWorshipLeader says on

      I don’t agree at all that the desire for brevity in preaching comes from a lack of reverence or hunger for the meat of the Word of God but from poor preaching skill and preparation. In the church I attend, I would desire a shorter sermon 20-25 minutes as opposed to the planned 35 which always turns into 45-50. After the opening scripture text is read, I find myself frequently reading on past the “opening text” because the Word of God is rich and full and thought provoking while the pastor delivering the sermon series downloaded from the internet is in fact, not. That is another topic for another day, but I would get more out of a straight reading of the scripture over the whole story than have to listen to someone follow a pdf outline on their tablet or ipad that seems insincere.

  • I had been asked to preach off and on in various churches and youth groups for about 8 years and I’m currently approaching 2 years on pastoral staff of a church here in Wichita, Kansas where I preach once a quarter or more. I was advised from the beginning by a mentor that if you can’t make your point in 20 minutes, you can’t make your point.

    That’s a general statement, and in my opinion all aspects of a sermon should filter through the Holy Spirit. With that at the forefront, I do tend to keep it under 30 minutes, but I’m sure I’ve gone over by the leading of the Holy Spirit and He has certainly honored that.

    Have a great day!

  • I’m the youth pastor at a church <200 and when I speak to the full congregation, I try to keep my message between 25-35 minutes and when I speak to teens, I try to keep it under 25 most of the time.

  • John Bordeau says on

    I don’t buy that the culture is geared towards shorter attention spans. Movies are 2-3 hours now. TV shows are going 1-2 hours instead of 30 minutes. Ball games go on for hours. I’ve never once heard a complaint about those time spans when the people enjoyed what they were watching. It’s only the ones who have no interest who complain about the length. My theory is, we have not enough people who are truly listening to the Holy Spirit and not enough pastors relying on the Holy Spirit. I’ve personally sat through sermons of a wide variety of lengths. And, of the ones that God used as a great turning point in my life, one of those sermons was over 3 hours long!! Most of the others were between 45 minutes and 90 minutes. When you enter into the presence of God, no amount of time matters.

    As a pastor, I tend to have a good mix of expository and topical preaching (often in the same sermon, with a point to never take a verse or passage out of context). And, I just let the Holy Spirit do what He’s going to do. Sometimes it’s 20-25 minutes. Other times, it’s 60-75 minutes. But, I always try to just get out of the way and allow God to work. And regardless of length, I don’t think I’ve ever gotten a single complaint about the length.

    I heard a saying once. If you leave the service saying “what a preacher!”, you’ve missed it. If you leave saying, “what a savior!”, you got it right.

  • Timon Keller says on

    This is a fascinating topic. I have, unexpectedly, had the responsibility of preaching over the last 4 months and sermon length is something I have thought a lot about. I don’t want to bore the people, but I also want to ensure that the text is well-explained and applicable to life.
    I have come to the conclusion that I want to take the text seriously. If I lightly look at the text, what am I modeling to the congregation? Sometimes I finish in 30 minutes, sometimes 50. It depends on the text and how the Spirit has led me in preparation and the day of.
    I understand the argument of culture dictating length. But, ultimately my opinion is that this is faulty. I am currently preaching through the book of Malachi and I have been amazed how my 5 and 7 year old BOYS not only sit through the lengthy sermons, but also have a general understanding of the details of the text and points of application! My oldest was sick this past Sunday and had to stay home. He and my wife read the sermon text together and briefly discussed it. He told her he was sad that he COULDN’T be at church to hear the sermon because he was enjoying the series so much.
    I share this not to brag on my kid (at this point I am not convinced he’s even a Christian) or my preaching ability (I have so many ways I need to improve), but rather to show that we should not be too easily swayed by the culture. If my energetic boys can sit through the sermon and draw understanding and application, I think adults can manage it too. I wonder if it’s just a matter of attitude?!?
    I do think that some preachers are just bad: they don’t really follow the text, they aren’t focused, they make outrageous statements, they are monotone, they’re hard to follow, etc. In that case, I believe the church leadership should encourage him to improve and offer constructive criticism so that he can be better aware of things that are being well-received and things that weren’t so good. Preaching is important and the preacher should be accountable for what he says and how he says it. I don’t think that the length of the sermon is something to be a major source of contention between pastor and congregation.
    My opinions, for what they’re worth…thanks, Dr. Rainer, for offering a forum to pose interesting topics and allow people to engage in discussion to learn from one another!

  • From a layperson’s perspective a sermon inspired by the Holy Spirit touches the lives of those in attendance. It can be 25 or 45 minutes. When the Spirit is moving you don’t really think about time. When the Spirit is not moving 25 minutes can seem like an hour. The second perspective I see are
    those that sometimes preach 2 sermons. The sermon from the pulpit and then another 10 to 15 minute sermon from the floor at the invitation time. And often that sermon removes from your mind the first sermon. They don’t tie together. I’m not talking about talking through an invitation, I’m talking about going off into another subject. It can quench the spirit. May God bless our pastors!

    • Great point about the “second sermon”! I’ve seen many preachers go off on a tangent like that even after the invitation has concluded. In my opinion, it serves absolutely no purpose. When you’ve finished your sermon and the invitation, wrap it up and let the people go home!

  • Numerous good observations regarding the critical nature of communicating the message to effectively reach your audience. Preacher or not, if people stop listening to you … you can’t communicate to them ANY message. Jay is correct when he asks, “…when did preaching a message become about the pastor and not about Jesus?” We must be communicating Jesus in the most effective manner to the congregation in our community’s context. 20 minutes or 40 minutes. What’s effective for greatest impact.

    I am reminded of a book I recently read which would benefit most preachers. It’s the book “BRIEF: Make a bigger impact by saying less” by Joseph McCormack, (c)2014. It’s loaded with great principles for targeted communication.

    Thanks again Thom for more good food for thought … and action.

  • Thom,

    As a pastor this is certainly a trend that is being seen in churches. I have been able to get away on one weekend every quarter to go and visit other churches, this has been great. I have seen more of the 28 minute sermons then ever before. I think that some of this is greatly dependent upon the purpose of the churches weekend service. If you are trying to reach the unchurched then 20-28 minutes is more then enough time. If you are a more seasoned church and the majority of your congregation has that established relationship with Jesus 45-55 minutes is not to much at all. As I have been in various churches it is pretty easy to see what the point of the weekend service is. We have to remember that the unchurched are looking for milk we cannot expect them to digest steak. We also have to have a time built into the week that those who are ready for the steak can have it.
    I think pastors have to stop being afraid that they are not preaching long enough, when did preaching a message become about the pastor and not about Jesus? I can given quality sermons that give people one thing to walk away with and it sticks. The days are fading that people remember 3,4,5 or 6 different points to focus on. People have real life questions and they are looking for step-by-step instructions on how to do that. That is what we need to be willing to offer. I am afraid that after reading some of these other responses Pastors are failing to look at themselves and see what they can change to better the growth of the church. We all must determine the point of our Weekend services and Midweek programs.

    Pastor, Jay

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