Three Views on How Long a Sermon Should Be

What is the trend? Are church members and church leaders saying sermons should be longer or shorter? The answer is “yes.”

If my answer is confusing, I understand. But the reality is there are two major trends taking place related to sermon length. I have been following these trends through anecdotal information and social media polls for three years. There are growing numbers of respondents who believe sermons should be longer. There are also growing numbers of respondents who believe sermons should be shorter. And there aren’t many people in the middle of those two divergent views.

By the way, there is a smaller, but consistent, number that feel the pastor should preach “as long or short as God leads” with no constraints at all. That view is the third of the three perspectives.

I am reticent to put my numbers in statistical percentages since my social media polls of the past three years are not scientific. Since numbers, however, can provide greater clarity, I list them here with the caveat that the accuracy is definitely not precise.

  1. 41%: Sermons should be shorter, in the 20 to 30 minute range. These respondents see a cultural barrier related to short attention spans. Any sermon over 30 minutes, they say, does not connect with the typical mind of today, especially in Western culture. We, therefore, must keep the message shorter and pack more information into a relatively brief time period.
  2. 37%: Sermons should be longer, in the 35 to 55 minute range. A solid exposition of Scripture, this perspective argues, cannot be done in just a few minutes. The sermon is the central part of the worship service, and the time allocated should be significant. We do a disservice to the Word of God when we move toward shorter sermons.
  3. 9%: There should be no time constraints on the pastor’s sermons. The pastor should have a sermon length that is only subject to the leading of the Holy Spirit. Anything else lacks sensitivity to God’s work and involvement.

Obviously, if you add the numbers, another 13% had a variety of responses that fit none of the categories. By way, some of the responses in my most recent social media poll and in previous polls advocated sermon lengths from 8 minutes to 75 minutes. We church members definitely are not in full agreement on these issues.

What do you think of the two trends moving in opposite directions? One group is advocating longer sermons; the other group embraces the shorter sermon. Let me hear your thoughts on this issue.

Posted on July 30, 2014

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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  • The longest sermons I have heard have also been the most shallow with the preacher just rambling on and on. There’s nothing worse than listening to a 50 min sermon that could have been preached in 5.

    As a pastor who values expository preaching I never time my sermons as I prepare. I preach until I have fully communicated the text. However, it usually ends up being 25 to 30 mln.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Thanks Adam!

    • “As a pastor who values expository preaching I never time my sermons as I prepare. I preach until I have fully communicated the text.”

      I love it and agree. If that’s 15 minutes, it is 15 minutes. If it is 50, it is 50. If we can cut out fat, we cut it out. But we sure don’t want to cut out the nutrients! I wonder to what extent peoples’ issues with sermon length are dictated by depth of sermon as opposed to a fundamental understanding of worship.

  • I think this is more reflective of having a Christian Worldview vs. not. Of having an understanding of the Word of God as actually being God’s Word vs. some speech an entertainer gets up and performs on Sunday. Of having a knowledge of the historical background of the worship service. Point number two appears to be both right and wrong. Traditionally speaking, the sermon is “A” central part of the worship service. One of two central parts, with the Eucharist/Communion/Lord’s Supper as the other, co-equal part. We’ve gotten away with that, and when we have, most churches have not added any significant second central part of the service, so the service has become singing and preaching.

    Scientifically speaking, sermons play a significant part of the discipleship of our minds (cf. “Rewiring Your Preaching: How the Brain Processes Sermons” by Richard H. Cox.). The short answer is, preaching can rewire one’s brain.

    I’m assuming that the proponents of shorter sermons are also those who tend to cater to the “seeker” crowd. But if preaching really is God’s message to His people, can we really cut it off to fit our desires? I believe the question should be: “Is the Church changed to fit culture, or does the Church seek to change and influence culture?”

    As far as the three views go, I’m somewhere in the middle of the second and third view, and whole-heartedly reject view number one on many of the areas I’ve just articulated above. I am someone with a short attention span, but that is a barrier I have to fight to overcome. You better believe if my wife is reading a love letter she’s written to me and it takes her awhile to do so, I’m listening to the whole thing.

    Thom, here’s a question I’d love to see the answer to: “How long should the whole service be?” And a second one could be “What aspect of the worship service is most meaningful to you?”

    Of course, part of the problem is that we don’t really know what it means to be the Church (until we read “I Am A Church Member” 😉 ), and then with that, what a worship service really is. I’ll be eagerly awaiting your future book publication: “I am a worshiper!”

    • Thom Rainer says on

      What humbles me is to read responses like this one that are better than my post. By the way, my next book is not too far from the topic you noted. Thank you.

    • Does spiritual formation really happen in the context of the church sermon though? Is that even possible or reasonable to expect in the 21st century, when you can have such a vast wealth of Christian knowledge at your fingertips on your phone or tablet (far more than even the above average professional minister did even perhaps as recently as 100 years ago)?

      • Richard Cox’s book says “yes!”

        Also, that “vast wealth of Christian knowledge” is being compared by those called of God for, amongst other very important aspects, to convey His Word to His people in a relevant way. We can’t, nor shouldn’t, discount that God really is the one speaking in a sermon–assuming a pastor takes the calling seriously and has a first-rate spiritual life.

        To be honest, I much prefer the small group and one-on-one mentoring settings for spiritual formation. And I lean heavier towards outside-of-the-worship service-evangelistic preaching as the type of preaching we’re supposed to be doing.

        But if we’re going to have sermons, at least we should look at them and value them correctly. And Cox’s research in the area of neurobiology suggests they do. Otherwise, have solid homilies as part of the worship service and then place a strong emphasis on discipleship groups (I’d say with at least two meetings/person/wk). But the important thing in my opinion is that we remember the purpose of the worship service. That it has balance. And that it reflects the nature of the worship service. Prayer and God’s Word are it’s tapestry, first of all. Whether there is a sermon or more of a homily, I won’t make that argument.

        My main point is that how we experience the preaching of God’s Word, as part of the worship service, depends on whether our worldview is fundamentally Christian, and whether our understanding of the worship service is rooted in Christian tradition or self-entertainment.

    • “I’m assuming that the proponents of shorter sermons are also those who tend to cater to the “seeker” crowd.”

      I think you would be surprised. Some Of the best homilies I have heard have been 10-14 minutes. By best I mean the ones that got me to think about what was said and try to put it to use in everyday life. These priests weren’t catering to the seeker crowd. They all preached some really tough sermons based on the example of Jesus and knowing human nature at the same time.

      This may have been why the confession was said a bit louder that Sunday.

      • I believe that great homilies can be preached in a short amount of time. I am not saying that.

        What I perceived to be the foundational basis for the argument of the first view was that it was rooted in catering the inspired Word of God through the inspired chosen instrument of God (the preacher) to the people, as opposed to placing an expectation of the people to change because of what they are experiencing. That is, when we say “These respondents see a cultural barrier related to short attention spans,” I read this not as a matter of being cogent and concise, but as simply a matter of time. As if, we’re giving God an allotted time of one day a week at which He may communicate to us. And He should be happy to get it. Almost like we have the audacity to give Him “visitation” rights. To me, that is an issue of a fundamental misunderstanding of the Body of Christ, the event of Worship, and a Christian Worldview.

        If a cogent and concise sermon or homily can be written much shorter while still conveying God’s inspired words for His people, great. All I’m saying is that our own short attention spans should not be the focus. Faithfully conveying what He wants to say should.

        Also, because there are so many variables in a congregation, what may seem as unnecessary to some may be quite necessary in the conveying of God’s Word to a varied people group. You might immediately grasp an analogy. Some of us can naturally produce an application to a sermon. Others of us need it articulated. Some of us are abstract thinkers, some concrete. Men and women experience sermons differently. Some of us have different “listening styles”: ethos vs logos vs pathos. Many of us are at different “grace stages,” and so need to hear something that hits on various progressions of the Christian walk. My point is simply that when our style of listening or learning has been addressed, we may then decide everything else is filler or meaningless. It may well be. But it also may be meant for someone who learns or hears differently than you or me….

      • You wrote: “As if, we’re giving God an allotted time of one day a week at which He may communicate to us. And He should be happy to get it. Almost like we have the audacity to give Him “visitation” rights.”

        That’s an interesting perception. I’ve never thought of it as giving God an allotted time of one day a week to communicate with me because I communicate with Him constantly. And I never have perceived the sermons as some special visitation because I believe He is with me all the time. Not all those who listen to the sermon on a Sunday perceive the sermon in that way. It’s more of an exhortation, a lesson, or, if needed, correction for me than a once-weekly appointment with Him. The sermon is just one part of my personal walk with Him and my knowledge of Him. The rest for me comes from my own study and prayer time. However, I suppose if someone only gets fed on Sunday it could be that way. But it’s not that way for me.

    • A shorter sermon is not necessarily a weaker or inferior sermon. All the same criticisms that can be attributed to the short sermon can be charged to longer ones.

      The point is what is the purpose of a Sunday morning worship service? When it is all about the sermon, there is something wrong. When people do not think the Sunday service was “good” when what they really mean is the sermon wasn’t “good,” there is a problem. We are conditioned to correlate “going to church” with listening to the sermon. I have a hard time seeing this model and mindset in the New Testament.

      • Keith, I whole-heartedly agree with everything you said. Please see my other responses for further clarification.

        Shortly, the answer given for why sermons should be shorter was not rooted in the cogency and conciseness of a sermon, but was instead rooted in cultural norms and expectations. That is, what I want. What I like. What I’m comfortable with: “These respondents see a cultural barrier related to short attention spans.” Note that that does not mention the respondents seeing a barrier because sermons are shallow or unnecessarily wordy.

      • There are church services that are sermon centered and there are those that are Eucharist centered. I think the focus of the service needs to be on the latter and the reading from the Bible.

      • It is my understanding that historically speaking, both had equal weight/focus until the past few hundred years, when the view of the Eucharist “evolved” in protestant denominations to be nothing more than a remembrance. I agree that the Eucharist needs to reclaim its spot of being worthy of focus. I tend to sway towards the line of thinking you’ve expressed, but I’ve also had it engrained in me to know that traditionally, both the preaching of God’s Word and the Eucharist were co-equally weighted aspects that the service centered around.

        If the service is Word-saturated and if the church has a great, intentional focus on discipleship, I could easily live with that. Of course, the elephant in the room is what expression use for partaking of the elements? I prefer something that considers the fullness of the early church and incorporates the various expressions encompassed by what is meant by all of the terms we use: Eucharist, Communion, the Lord’s Supper. I prefer that being in the shape of a shared community meal.

    • destiny says on

      Sorry but its not about the length of time but the quality of the sermon. If a preacher is rambling on or going off topic because they are trying to take up a certain amount of time, the sermon loses effectiveness and becomes an instrument of ego rather than ministry. Also, the reason why Christians gather is to FELLOWSHIP firstly and then encourage each other to live right. This is done through worship, prayers, testimonies, communion, and preaching. Preaching is only one aspect of the gathering and its main goal should be to encourage the congregation to live right continue in the faith, not confuse them or bore them to death.

  • Maybe it just depends on the preacher? I would bet that some of the respondents have pastors that are more gifted at preaching shorter sermons but are trying to fit a “mold” based on their favorite preacher (MacArthur, Dever) and so they go longer. Other respondents may have a pastor who is forced to preach shorter sermons due to tradition, time constraints in the service, etc. but these listeners enjoy the sermon and want him to preach longer! I just think some pastors can make a long sermon work because they are organized, clear, and full of good content. Others are not so gifted and a long sermon is because they’re rambling!

  • In my 25 years of preaching, I’ve never actually timed my sermons. It usually works out to be 25 or 30 minutes. Truth it I preach ’til I’m done.

  • Thom, I wonder how much the ability of the preacher that respondents hear most often plays into the desired length. Don’t know how you can factor that in but I have to think it has some impact.. Additionally, I think the idea that the western mind attention span is shortening has some serious drawbacks. Millions of people sitting through 3 hour Lord of the Rings movies, or millions of NASCAR fans watching cars turn left for two hours would seem to say we will pay attention for long periods to things we are interested in, no matter how long they drag on.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Excellent points.

      • Brian Mathis says on

        Actually people pay more for a ball game or a movie than the average church member pays in tithes. The real excitement is when the game goes into overtime or extra innings. So I have to agree if its something they connect with they will stay till the very end.

    • destiny says on

      You cannot compare sermons to movies/sports games. Movies and sports are VISUAL mediums that are created for the purpose of ENTERTAINMENT, sermons are not. A better comparison would be a lecture at a university, granted some pastors can be very ‘animated’ and lively when they preach. However, the sermon/ lecture comparison is more accurate because they have similar purposes (dispersing information and educating on how to do/accomplish a certain goal). In general, people lose interest once the speaker is no longer interesting. I know its a hit to alot of pastor’s ego, but its not about the congregation’s lack of desire to hear the Word of God. If that was the case, we wouldn’t even try to go to church service at all. If the message incoherent and inconsistent, or pastor ill prepared and rambling, you can’t expect people to force themselves to pay attention just to make you feel better.

  • Fred Smith says on

    Sometimes it takes 45 minutes to deliver 30 minutes of content because we want to elaborate on the illustrations. We want to make them “alive” and “engaging”. Illustrations are just that and should get to the point quickly. It should be “A boy was fishing one morning when. . .” not “It was a warm sunny day and a young boy decided, as young boys will, to pick up his pole and a can of worms and head to his favorite fishing hole, a pretty little brook with. . .” I hear preachers do this all the time and it only distracts rather than engages.

  • Sometimes I find my sermons are too long because I have not crafted them well. When I have not taken the time to edit and arrange the content, I can sometimes take 45 minutes to deliver 30 minutes worth of content.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      I recently spoke with Alistair Begg, and his words were identical to yours.

    • Mark Dance says on

      That has been my personal experience as well. I have about 30 minutes worth of content, regardless of how long I preach.

      • I try not to go longer than 30 min. because I start losing the middle age bracket if I do go longer. I feel like 20 min. is a little short, but my all time favorite preacher at Tennessee Temple preached for 5 min.!! You got that message…but my wife hated it because she’s an hour sermon lover.
        We are also gearing up for multiple services
        which will require timed services like most larger churches have been required to adopt. I’ve found that if my congregation can take one major point home and apply it, my presentation has been a success. You must preach on point and not compromise the truth of scripture! Blessings!

    • Todd, I can appreciate your honesty and can relate. Thom, it’s hard to think of a guy like Alistair Begg preaching too long. At least if he rambles, there’s a nice accent to listen to!

      When I haven’t done the necessary study work beforehand, I find that my concision suffers at the hands of rambling. In my experience, how well the audience tolerates a lengthy sermon is highly dependent on the quality of the product. If I run up there with a great, but not well reasoned and studied though, I *always* ramble and pay much closer attention to the clock. The idea being along the lines of “Oh my! It only took ten minutes….what do I do now??? Just keep going!!!”

      While the argument has been made that the culture is crafted for 30 attention spans, I don’t feel it’s entirely fair. The age of the sitcom has been over for some time and most adult-aged shows are longer in length.

      Most movies are 90-120 minutes.
      Prime time television shows rest heavily at an hour in length.
      Plays, 2-3 hours.
      Lectures at universities, 45-75 minutes.
      Sporting events 2-4 hours.
      What modern video game demands any less than an hour of commitment per setting?
      Recitals, 1-2 hours.

      …aside from Spongebob and a few other silly shows that the kids watch, I’m not sure we have a good case to say we are preconditioned to the short spans.

      Rather, I wonder if maybe the rich investment in plot, character, and story development that we see in modern TV shows, movies, and video games has raised the bar for the traditional sermon. When men (like myself) display a lackluster performance because we have not shared the Bible with a greater handle on its richness and development, how else would our people respond?

      • Isaac, I actually went to a “story-telling” workshop to help develop the skills to which you refer. Sermons that move the hearer forward–and upward–are engaging and appealing to all ages. Sermons that are a series of 3-5 unrelated vignettes don’t move the hearers at all, in any direction. As you rightly point out, if the points of the sermon help the hearer reach a “goal,” they will remain engaged for much longer than 25-35 minutes.

        With that said, I still aim at a 23-27 minute sermon. Why? Because we have a lot of older members who still expect everything to be wrapped up in an hour. Our younger folks, not so much. As long as we have a Nursery and a Children’s Worship for their kids, they can stay attentive way longer than our older members.

      • Thanks for the affirmation, David!

        Crafting a sermon that well sure makes me dig deep!

        And I find myself stuck in that 30-35 minute range. Any shorter (even if the context doesn’t demand it to be longer) and I feel uncomfortable so I usually add more content. For some reason it feels better to make a 25 minute sermon 30 minutes long…probably my own preconditioning. I could get started earlier and preach longer, but even those who wouldn’t mind me going past the noon bell still seem to have their attention spans drop off.

        With all that said, I typically prepare enough information to preach however long their attention span will allow. With the content I bring into the pulpit each week, I could easily deliver 45-50 minutes each time, but I tailor it down depending on when services start and however long the music portion lasts.

        After giving it some thought, I may have to recant my statement about 30 minute attention spans. When churches train their members to expect any particular sort of format or length, they may have trouble shaking loose. (Think 3 songs, an offering, and a special)

      • Wish I knew exactly what this meant: Sermons that move the hearer forward–and upward–are engaging and appealing to all ages.

  • Good debate. I would agree that a well prepared expository message can be delivered in 30 minutes. In most cases if the message is over 30 minutes, the preacher is presenting too much information and perhaps the message should be broken into multiple sermons. Of course, I also believe one should preach for transformation and not merely information and this does put a bias bend to my view.

  • This has been my experience in asking our staff and elders the same question. I am curious whether you have noticed any demographic divides in the respondent’s answers? It seems the younger demographic leans towards longer in my church, while older staff and elders lean towards shorter.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Great question, Whitney. I don’t have the answer, but you may have motivated me to find out.

      • I’m a music guy, but we don’t do the 25-minute song set. Still, I’ve been told by the WMU director (on WMU Emphasis day) that we need to sing less so that people can leave on time. The excuse I was given was some people have to eat every few hours for their blood sugar, so I should craft the service to get out at 12 (not 12:15) so that they don’t have an emergency. My response was that they should have a simple snack between Sunday School and service so they don’t have to worry about it.
        You can see that to her the message was important and in order to keep the time the music should be cut. I appreciate that and am always cognizant of the fact that music is not a service in itself. I also have a gifted preacher that (to me) makes it feel like he just began even though it’s been 40 minutes.

    • Whitney, my experience is the same is yours. I find it ironic since, as Thom pointed out, one of the arguments for shorter sermons is that people today (especially younger people) have short attention spans and wont’ listen to long sermons. Yet, in reality, it’s the younger people who want the longer sermons! This has bee the case at my church where the older members push me to keep my sermons close to 20 minutes while the younger people are happy when I go 40 minutes.

  • I think a lot has to do with whether the preacher uses an outline or a written sermon. The outline can make for a longer sermon if the preacher does not realize what time it is. I write in the hard sciences fairly often and know that no reviewer wants to read fluff. It is “cut to the chase.” Too many long sermons would make 2 or 3 short ones with one beneficial take home message in each. The longer they go, the less that is remembered by the individual congregants.

    I like the famed 11-minute homily. However, they are usually 12-15 min.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Interesting observations, Mark.

    • Kelly Wiley says on

      Wow Mark you favor a 11 minute homily or sermon. You hint that even 12 to 15 is a bit too long. Why is it we can watch a hour and a half movie or watch a 2 to 3 hour ball game and love it but a sermon must be short? We live in a nation in moral and spiritual decay because almost everything is more important than God and His Word. Most Americans are over weight but have no hunger for the Word of God. There are pastors who might give a five minute sermon but are so boring it seems like an hour and there are pastors who preach for an hour but it seems like only five minutes because they are so good. Maybe some pastors should do a better job. Historically no revival has ever happened without strong bible based life changing sermons. John MacArthur was once asked why the church he pastored had 4 sermons every Sunday. His reply was because there wasn’t enough time for 5 sermons. A church which hungers for the Word of God and has a pastor who knows the most important element of his ministry is preaching the Word and spends the time in the study to do a great job needs to be the norm not the rare exception as it is today. I know a pastor who was fired because he didn’t spend 40 plus hours a week visiting like the last pastor the church had. They told him his sermons had too much bible content. I know another church that loved their pastor because his sermons were 15 minutes with little bible content. The people there were starving but they sadly didn’t even know it. Maybe some churches die because the pastor bores them to death. Maybe some churches die because the don’t want life changing sermons but want to be entertained. Maybe great preachers can’t find a church that wants them. Are you hungry Mark.? Scripture says we are to desire God’s word more than food. Are you starving Mark and don’t even know it?

      • King Vitamin says on

        I get more out of the children’s sermon (usually 5-7 min) than the real message. It is simple to understand but the message is always there, be kind to one another, treat others as you would want to be treated, praying to God, etc. With the traditional sermon, say 30 minutes, there are no commercials and no breaks, and most of the delivery is comatose. If God is so exciting and fresh, why does the pastor speak in monotone?

  • It’s possible the trends indicate differing views on the means of spiritual formation. I’d bet those who favor longer sermons also see spiritual formation primarily as cognitive while those favoring shorter messages see discipleship more as a relational process. It would be interesting to note the trend by denominational/theological affiliation.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      We will continue to dig deeper on the topic. Thanks, Lawrence.

      • jake mitchell says on

        relationships are every thing

      • A dear mentor of mine once said, “sermonettes produce Christianettes.” Make of that what you will. My hunch, however, is that there are more ramblers and “rabbit chasers” in pulpits today than serious homileticians who truly have the gift of communication and many who have the curse of excessive ego. On that basis alone, I’d risk inspiring a few Christianettes rather than dealing “death by overworked and under-prepared words.”

      • I’m a pastor and I actually enjoy preaching and listening to longer sermons (30-45 mins) that delve deeply into context, background, Biblical Languages, etc.
        But in regards to “sermonettes producing Christianettes” didn’t Jesus also preach sermonette’s in the parables? And didn’t he also give lengthy sermons, sometimes lasting 3 days?
        I would argue that the key to preaching is knowing your audience, knowing yourself, and knowing your Bible. With these considerations, we should be well-rounded, instead of staunchly long or short preachers.

      • So true! Jesus himself didn’t have one set way of preaching or teaching. I think it’s so important that we don’t lock ourselves in a box of preconceived ideas of how others believe a preacher should preach. We must cater to the audience. I have spoken to both youth and adults on many occasions. I can tell you from the little experience I have, I would not speak the same content or length to the youth that I would speak to the adults.

      • Hersh (or is it Harsh) says on

        Whether it’s 3 minutes or 3 days… it needs to be LORD led, NOT ego/pride driven! When it is… the people will listen.

        Hersh (Pew polisher)

      • Hi Thom.
        It may be ages since a post to this blog. I wonder what sermon length was up to, say, around 1800. And why. I know electronics and transportation says a lot. But why should it? We are the same. Just sayin’. Thanks. God bless.

    • Love this comment! Very insightful. Gonna pocket this one.

    • Brothers, we’re putting far too much analysis into this, and we’re not looking at what’s trending in the religious-social church of today.

      1) Do not preach everything you’ve learned in seminary in one sermon. Totally unnecessary. Your listeners won’t remember more than 10% anyway. You should have learned THAT in seminary.

      2) Stick to the subject matter and stop chasing every rabbit that runs across your brain. Irrelevancy is a sermon killer!
      3) To be precise, you have to be concise. Snipers don’t hunt with shotguns… they use precision equipment that is guaranteed to get the job done the first time the trigger is pulled. Far too many preacher are far too wordy.

      4) What makes TV or radio preachers popular is their time limitation. They have 20-30 minutes to open, make their point, and close. “But what about the leading of the Holy Spirit?” Listen, MY Holy Spirit and I have an agreement: He helps me in prep time and in delivery. He’s a perfect gentleman and has mercy on those sitting in front of my pulpit. When you see your people begin to squirm in their seats, you’re at least 10 minutes past the shut off point. Give them something to remember and use through out the week, because most of these people you will not see for a week. Give them something that will stick to their spiritual ribs for the next 6 days.

      5) Trust in God to heal your people every service. Healings are gone from the church. Ask God to help you with the faith to bring healings back. Open you sermon with a healing service like I do. When people see the lame walk, the blind see, the mute speak, the deaf hear, and people freed from demonic oppression and possession, they will certainly pay very close to your 20 minute sermon. They won’t miss a future service our of fear they’re going to miss something new.

    • Jim Kimbrell says on

      I see this is an old blog. I think people cannot pay attention for more than 10 minutes. I think a short sermon, 10 minutes is long enough

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