How long should my sermons be when I preach?

 I find many pastors, especially younger ones, are regularly wrestling with this question.  The pressure to answer can be self-imposed, or forced by those in your church who complain your sermons are too long.  The problem is there does not seem to be one right answer.  The answer to this question largely depends on the kind of pastor you are, the quality of preacher you are, and the kind of congregation you serve.  In light of this, here are a few principles that might help you answer this question in your particular context.

A pastor should determine the length of a sermon…

1) Based on where your people are, not where you think they should be.  We should always challenge our folks to grow.  Yet, I hear of many pastors preaching sermons at a length they know is overwhelming the majority of their congregation.  The reason…to push their people to be able to listen to God’s Word for the amount of time the pastor thinks they should be able to listen.  Push your congregation to grow, but not at the expense of exasperating them by trying to make them something they are not.  God must do that work.  Preach faithfully, but meet them where they are.  Let God mature them to that place as your preaching causes them to long for more of it. 

2) Based on how good and seasoned a preacher you are.  I fear so many of us who love the Puritans read that they preached 1 – 2 hour sermons and think, “Hey, I want to be like the Puritans.”  The problem is many men who want to preach an hour, are not good enough or seasoned enough to preach an hour…yet.  I realize we are treading in subjective waters. 

The point here is the necessity to honestly evaluate how good and seasoned you are as a preacher.  If you are in your first year of pastoring a church, your sermons should probably be shorter, more succinct, and simplier than you probably think or want.  If you are not able honestly to assess your preaching gifts and allow others to speak into your life to assess them with you, I believe you will have a difficult time determining what length your sermons should be that is most helpful to your congregation.

3) To leave your people longing for more, not less.  Every preacher has been there.  We can sense we are loosing our people and we still have 10 minutes left in the sermon.  We want to make sure we give adequate time to the preaching of God’s Word, but this principle to leave them longing for a bit more, is a good goal to pursue.  I would rather leave my people in a place where they wanted just a little more, verses exasperating them with too much.  Do not underestimate the discouragement that comes from someone who honestly desires a nice big glass of water and instead got the fire hose jammed down their throat.   

Remember, these are just principles.  Do not over analyze them.  Just take them and apply them in your context with your level of preaching experience.  Lastly, remember you are a shepherd of these people to whom you are preaching.  Think like a shepherd as you determine the length of your sermons.  Push them to grow.  Nurture them where they are now.  Then, trust that God will use his Word and your efforts to find that balance every pastor should seek.

Posted in Preaching, Training for Ministry
35 comments on “How long should my sermons be when I preach?
  1. Kevin says:

    Can you now write a post on the best way to send this to our pastors? That would be extremely helpful.

  2. Anon says:

    It’s easier to deliver a 1-2 hour Puritan sermon. Much more time-consuming to compress the same content into a great 15 minute impromptu message.

    “It usually takes more than three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech.”
    -Mark Twain

  3. Curt says:

    I remember hearing Bob Russell, former Senior Minister of Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, Kentucky, use this formula for determining the length of a sermon:
    1. The minister should rate themselves on a scale of 1 – 10 (with 10 being excellent).
    2. Subtract one from that number (because most ministers/preachers have an inflated view of how good they really are).
    3. Multiply that number by 5 (that’s the number of minutes a sermon should be).
    Example: Rate myself a 7 – 1 = 6 x 5 = 30 minutes

    I still like and would agree with that – but I’m also almost to the point that I think we should subtract 2 from the original number because it seems like the guys I listen to think they’re a lot better than they really are.

    • kris says:

      and where exactly did bob russell find that formula, it isnt in my bible. and the sermon isnt about how good the preacher is it is about how good God is , now let me see bob put a formula on that

      • Ralph says:

        Kris,
        You miss the point… if the congregation tunes the pastor out after 30 minutes, how much have they heard? and more importantly, how much will they remember?
        Which are you most likely to re-tell, a short story that really grabs you or a long borring story that you can’t remember all the parts to cause it was so long?
        I’ve seen guys preaching at the top of their lungs on a street corner. people come and go and the guy continues… has anyone noticed? listened? understood? changed? nope. The key is communication. If we were to use your bible measure then as long as every preacher is preaching from the bible they would all be very good and could preach for hours?
        PS. there are a lot of things that are not addressed in the bible…

  4. Kyle says:

    While I am in no way equating preaching with entertainment, your last point is one that is always a great gauge of how good a concert is – at the 2-hour mark (1/2 hour mark for sermons), am I wishing it were longer or wondering when it will end?

  5. Sam says:

    While not suggesting that every pastor’s wife should be subjected to this (nor that every pastor wants to take this from his wife), my wife has generously and graciously taken to timing the various parts of my sermons. She will share and critique where I took too long (usually in the introductions) or where I did not spend enough time (usually in the 2nd or 3rd point); where I overshared, whether in an illustration or background info or whatever; and she always shares with me from her own notes, which is extremely helpful. This kind of “view from the pew” is the best kind of feedback. If not your wife, then a trusted brother or elder or deacon will go a long way in helping you get a handle on this. Often it’s not about the total time that you take to preach, but the rythm that you have when you go from point to point from beginning to end. Imagine reading a book with no indentations and paragraphs.

  6. John S says:

    as for point #1, if it is a typical church won’t you have people at all different stages in their walk? Some mature, some newborn and everywhere between? so that one doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. (as an aside i don’t think it’s good when sermons are typicallly ‘topical’ – based on where the pastor thinks his people ‘are at’. This amounts to cherry picking and neglects swaths of God’s Word. Please preach through books of the Bible pastors)!

    I think there is a law of diminishing returns but it’s much longer than the popular 20 mintues. We can watch movies and football games for 2 or more hours like it’s nothing, why not God’s Word? You have to consider Sunday School teaches and others who are serving while you preach too.

    I prefer a pastor who teaches whatever the Scripture says, tackles the simplest or most difficult doctrines as Scripture dictates, yet does so in an accesible way that even say a teenager could understand. Speak like the regular people speak. This has to do with skill in communicating (ie a preaching or teaching gift) not so much with time. Our pastors usually preach 45 minutes to an hour, I don’t find myself bored, or looking at the clock and they are not superpreachers but good.

    • briancroft says:

      This post is assuming a pastor is preaching through books of the Bible to which I am completelty committed. The point is to do expositional preaching, yet trying to find that balance with the mature and immature within the congregation.

    • MTL says:

      Do you get a 30min halftime? (football game) Do you have nice chairs, surrond sound, and 3-D ? (movies) There is nothing wrong with a 15 min sermon to and hour sermon, but 1 1/2 to 2 hours is pushing it. People tweet, facebook, and eat/drink during sporting events and they do the same during movies. What a person does in a wooden pew cannot be really compared to what a person does in a recliner. 30 to 45 min is about all the attention span most folks have. You have a few that can hang for 2 hours, but they are not the norm. Not to mention the article is correct that most preachers are not able to preach that long and keep it from sounding like their reading comentary.

    • John,
      I really like what you said about speaking in a way that a teenager would understand. I think that is much better than trying to impress the congregation with how much Greek and Hebrew you know…
      Regarding the “2-hour” thing, I agree that most can watch a 2-hour movie (or a 3-hour ballgame.) However, people take bathroom/snack breaks during those also! 🙂 So we need to be careful about saying we should preach that long. Also, the Puritan era was also marked with a LOT of legalism and “status” religious observance, so anyone admitting they didn’t want to listen to two hours would be accused of being less than Christian.

    • Mike says:

      Thanks for your input brother. I agree. Let the text, properly “blocked” and exposed, dictate the time. I sometimes feel that I might be preaching long, and so I have a tendency to speed up a little, or leave out some. It often depends on what time I get into the pulpit. If I get in the pulpit later than usual, that’s when I start to be concerned about the length of the sermon. When those times “happen,” I have learned that I was more conscious of the clock than the majority of our folks. We start worship at 11 and normally end around 12:30 to 12:45. And people stay around afterwards and visit.

  7. Rob Morton says:

    I appreciate point one. I think congregations grow and change, and this needs to be accounted for by any preacher. Presently, our congregation has many young families with pre-schoolers. I can preach for about 30 minutes before serious fidgeting begins by the young kids – then of course mums and dads become distracted. So, as a matter of love for the parents, we aim to preach under 30 minutes. Of course, as the people grow older the sermons may grow longer.

    Good post.

    • briancroft says:

      Good comment. You can have the same situation with elderly folks also. We have hard, unpadded, wodden pews that make it hard for old backs to sit long. That is a factor for us in just how long our services are as well as the fidgeting children for us.

  8. Marty Duren says:

    At my last pastorate, which was 11.5 years, I made a point to not preach longer than God had given me something to say. On more than one occasion that meant closing my Bible and ending my sermon before I had planned to end. With that as a goal, no one ever complained on those rarest of occasions when I went 50 minutes or an hour, nor did I lose them in the effort. 35-40 minutes seemed to be the norm.

    Anyone with a goal of preaching sermons 1-2 hours long probably has an inflated view of themselves already, and I include the Puritans in that. There is no sermon in the Bible that takes 1 hour to read including the sermons of Jesus. If He didn’t need all day to make a point, I seriously doubt that today’s preachers have made a good one after longer than 60 minutes either.

    Too many preachers, I fear, aren’t preaching an hour to make their point. Their preaching an hour trying to find one.

    • MTL says:

      Well said. I enjoyed the article and this is the best reply.

    • Greg says:

      How can you possibly know that Jesus never preached a sermon for more than 1 hour? In fact doesn’t the times where the crowd stayed so long that they required a meal indicate Jesus must have spoken for many, many hours?

    • steeve says:

      Point well said. I wouldn’t propose a 11/2-2hr preaching when one understands the point they want to put forward.

  9. Ken Lupton says:

    Good article Brian! I will pass this along in my Pastor’s Update and on Twitter and Facebook

  10. JUAN CORDOVA says:

    I like to reach in series; because i feel one sermon on any topic is not enough. I usually preach for 1 hour.

  11. Terry Walton says:

    1) What’s the point?
    2) Is it the point of the text?
    3) Is the point clear?
    4) Quality over Quantity!

  12. Adam says:

    Perhaps it’s wise to let John Stott speak to us: “No hard and fast rules can be laid down about the length of sermons, except perhaps that ten minutes are too short and forty minutes too long. It has been wisely said that every sermon should ‘seem like twenty minutes’, even if it is actually longer. On arrival at a new church a preacher will be well advised to begin by giving the congregation what they have been accustomed to. Gradually, however, as the Word of God quickens their appetite, they will ask for more.” – Between Two Worlds, page 294.

  13. henry says:

    Speaking style is very important in my opinion. Preachers who are able to speak directly in a conversational style with very little reference to notes seem to hold listeners attention for about twice as long (or more) as those who read or closely follow a prepared text.

    • Tim says:

      And yet I heard a guest-preacher last Sunday who read his sermon for 30 minutes and captivated everyone with his substance and style. Go figure.

      Cheers,
      Tim

  14. I like your principles, but I think you have left out something. Length of a sermon should also have something to do with the length of the biblical passage you are preaching about. I realize that some pastors do topical messages and add way too many verses.

    The error I have seen too often is a pastor who preaches a fraction of a parable. That happens all the time with the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). Some pastors stop at verse 24, which shears off part of the story. It’s fine to preach the parable as two sermons, but telling part of the story is unwise and runs the risk of distorting the point Jesus was making.

    -Barry

  15. Rob says:

    Thank you for this article. Your point on the man and the gift is very important. I am use to 1 hour sermons or more but they are typically by gifted men who are seasoned. At times they have gone over an hour and it seems like they have only gone for 10 minutes. Where as men who have tried to imitate but don’t have the ability have gone too long for their ability which I have sat under as well. There is one more point to add and that is regarding the Spirit and his attendance to the Word preached. And I believe that also has a lot to do with how the material has affected the man who is delivering it. Is he gripped by it? Has he known God’s help. Obviously there is still the practical involved with this as well. JC Ryle has a lecture I believe on delivering sermons and one point he brings out is regarding simplicity. He talks about his early pastorate to farmers and how they could easily fall asleep in the Pew. How to make the content simple and yet profound. Some men are very gifted and others become better with experience over time. How to properly assess the gift is best done by others and not yourself. Of course if your church video tapes you it is a great idea to watch yourself and get a clearer picture of yourself in the pulpit. It may truly amaze you. Of course we should pray for our pastors that God would meet them in the study and meet them in the pulpit and meet the people as well and of course we have the duty as the hearers to say as Samuel said, speak Lord for thy servant heareth.

  16. Jim Dalla Villa says:

    Let’s look at this information first before I answer the question. The study for listening and retention states that the average listener forgets 50% of what they hear after 1 hour and 88% after 2 days. The length of the sermon is not as important as the listener’s retention of the information that is being delivered. Therefore, the longer the sermon, the more the pastor has to repeat the few key points he wants to instill into the listener’s mind so the listener will apply those points to their daily life. This is effective through word pictures, emotional stories, etc. that many of the seasoned preachers already know how to deliver. You see, it doesn’t matter how long the sermon is, but what will be remembered 2 days, 2 weeks, 2 months, or 2 years from now. The famous speech from Winston Churchill……

    Best Motivational Cadence – Winston Churchill, Harrow 1941
    “Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never – in nothing, great or small, large or petty – never give in, except to convictions of honor and good sense. Never yield to force. Never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.”
    (From the internet: The Top Ten All-Time Best Graduation Speeches
    By Matthew Demmer)

  17. Becky says:

    First I want to say that I am saved.

    I am so very thankful that the Lord is in my life and that I have that blessed hope and peace that only comes from Him.

    I have talked with family members and other individuals that are not part of my church that I attend about this subject . Seems like just about everybody thinks Preachers speak to long.

    It is hard to invite others if you are not comfortable yourself.

    I am 63 and have attended church most of my life. I don’t think I have ever attended a church where preachers don’t speak a long time.

    After about 20 minutes I am ready to go.

    I think you loose individuals if you speak to long.

    I know it takes a pastor a lot of time to prepare their sermons.

    I play the organ for my church. When I am preparing a special for a service it takes me longer to prepare it then to actually play it.

  18. Joe B. Tiucheimal says:

    I need help on how to preach, and what type of scriptures that I can preach to my church each Sunday. Where do I learn the meaning of each scriptures?

  19. Mike Horn says:

    In the mid 1950s I remember seeing in my grandfather’s papers a printed research article on sermon length and congregational retention.
    I don’t remember where the research was done but the methodology seemed sound.

    The conclusion was that there was a steep drop-off in congregational retention of the points presented in the sermon after about a twenty-minute threshold.

    Does anybody know where the research was done?

    I suspect proponents of both longer and shorter sermons challenged the methodology; dismissing the results out-of-hand. Perhaps the generations reared on Sesame Street would have a shorter attention threshold.

  20. moral compass says:

    Heard this (paraphrased): If you want me to preach for a few minutes, I’ll be ready next week. If you want be to preach for half an hour, I’ll be ready tomorrow. If you want me to preach for an hour, I’m ready right now.

    • tiger says:

      “Preach, don’t teach”. If you keep that goal in mind, then you won’t have a problem. a sermon is NOT a bible study! a sermon is NOT your opportunity to do an in-depth study… it IS an opportunity to connect their hearts to their head and equip them with life lessons that they can draw on when faced with a decision. if they can quickly recall the sermon then you have done a good job. but if they have to take awhile to cover all 10 of the points you made in your sermon, well… you’ve lost them. Keep you number of points to 2 or 3. anymore than that and you’ve lost them.
      for me, personally, sitting in a pew… more than 35 minutes and if you are not the best preacher around and I’m thinking about what I’ve got going later on. heard one time… judge yourself as a speaker 1 to 10… 10 being the best… then subtract at least one(no one is as good as they think) then multiply that number by 5 and that’s how many minutes you should speak. think you’re a 7… (which is really a 6) times 5 minute=30 minutes.(notice that even a 10 only speaks for 50 minutes) plenty of time to “preach and reach” in 30 minutes and the listener is still fresh and will remember what they have heard.

  21. Becky says:

    First I want to say that I am saved and very thankful that I have this hope and the peace of the Lord being in my life.

    I know as for me most of the time when a preacher goes longer then 20 minutes. I am ready to go. I have talked this over several times with family and individuals that is not connected with my church. They all have the same opinion. They think Pastors are long winded.

    I have prayed about this wandering am I wrong or is this a truth Preachers need to think on and pray about.

    God Bless

10 Pings/Trackbacks for "How long should my sermons be when I preach?"
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  6. […] Croft gives us three great guidelines: 1) Based on where your people are, not where you think they should […]

  7. […] How long should my sermons be when I preach? – Brian fleshes out three principles: (1) it should be based on where our people are, not where we think they should be; (2) it should be based on how good and seasoned a preacher you are; (3) it should leave your people long for more, not less. Great advice. Read the entire article! […]

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