How long should a pastor preach?

I had an interesting conversation yesterday that reminded me this question needs to be addressed.  I find many pastors, especially younger ones, are regularly wrestling with this question.  They should be.  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 evaluate honestly 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 simpler than you probably think or want.  If you are not able honestly to evaluate your preaching gifts and you do not 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 Oversight of Souls, Preaching
18 comments on “How long should a pastor preach?
  1. Jeramie Rinne says:

    Helpful article, Brian. I tell younger preachers that they should aim for about 30 minutes. A lot of seminarians have the exegetical and theological skills to generate content for a longer sermon. But they often lack the rhetorical skills and ability to stay on a main point that is required to help an average congregation stay engaged for a longer sermon. Preaching shorter sermons forces them to get to the main point and not get lost on rabbit trails. Once they know how to do that well, they can increase sermon length effectively. Beware of thinking that a longer sermon is by definition more faithful, more effective or more expositional. In the church I would rather preach 5 words with the congregation understanding than 10,000 words that lose the people. Or something like that . . .

  2. Jeff Downs says:

    Some good thoughts. This is where a manuscript “may” help. If I write a sermon that is 14 pt. font, double-spaced, at 10 pages, I know I am at about 30 minutes (not necessarily read it).

  3. Random Lutheran says:

    Say what you have to say and be done with it. Eight minutes? Great! Fifteen? Great! Thirty? Great! And: don’t make more than one run at the landing strip that veers off for another run. Preach the text; preach Christ to the people.

  4. These are good thoughts! I’m all about preaching to challenge the people. They can be called up to something a little higher/meatier than they’re used to.

    But…we can always remember that our people aren’t reading theology all week we might be. They need something direct. Too many times, I’m tempted to slip into being a wannabe professor.

    For me personally, I like to stick to 35 minutes give or take. I find that if it takes me longer, I either didn’t have a good grasp on what I was to say or I should have had two messages in stead of one. No need to say it all in one go! I don’t use a manuscript but I know how much point form notes will be about 35 minutes.

  5. Brian B. says:

    With regard to point 1, any preacher who thinks my ability to listen to a long sermon is a sign of my faithfulness or the depth of my faith needs to go back to seminary and start over. There are many evidences of the quality of our faith mentioned in scripture, but I don’t recall any of them being related to the ability to sit still and listen for a long period of time.

    To assume that the ability to sit through a long sermon is a demonstration of faith is to completely disregard what any educator will tell you about learning styles. Different people learn through different media. Some are auditory and can sit for a long time and learn a lot. But there are others who are visual learners. It doesn’t matter how long they hear something, it won’t get through unless they can look at it for themselves. And then there are the kinetic learners who learn through activity. I’m not suggesting I have the secret to reaching each group in a gathered church assembly, but we at least have to recognize that our audiences are not monolithic.

    There are obviously instances in scripture where sermons/teaching went on for long periods and there is nothing wrong with that. But the ability to listen for a long time is not a measure of maturity and any preacher who thinks that needs to study some more.

    • Gabriel says:

      I’m sorry…you lost me. That was a long paragraph with words. Could you post a video of you acting it out? I learn best through charades.

      The point is God gave us mouths and ears and wonderful minds that each think many different way. Some of us need to discipline ourselves to use them better. Dealing with a lack of focus when listening by simply accepting that you’re not a listener is foolish.

    • Random Lutheran says:

      Brian B.’s comment is well taken. All preachers ought not forget that Paul killed a man with a long sermon.

  6. Kraig says:

    I have found that what some preachers (regardless of experience) communicate in 40 minutes could have been communicated in half that time. To use a pilot analogy… While it is easy to fly a plane, it takes skill to take-off and land effectively. I have heard much time wasted in take-off and landing. Brothers, get the plane off the ground, and when you reach your destination, land it.

  7. Thanks for the article. I am a young church planting pastor who has struggled with this for more than two years now. I have a follow up question to this thought, if our churches are making disciples, there will always be baby Christians in the congregation. But along side of them will be the disciple-makers who have a greater retention (and desire) for the meat of the word. Which group do you “gauge” for length of sermons?

    • Brian Croft says:

      Great question. You need to find the balance for both, but don’t equate length with meat necessarily. It is about giving them the best steak in a reasonable amount of time. Push yourself to determine how do I give the meat in the most clear, succinct manner? For example, 30 minutes for a good preacher is plenty of time to give some meat, yet reasonable to keep a baby Christian’s attention longing for the word.

  8. Alex Philip says:

    Point number three is also a good reminder for visitation.

  9. Less is more says:

    The best sermon I ever heard preached – (the one that was most transformational, for me) was 20 minutes long. Twenty years later I can remember it in detail.

    Too many pastors over-preach.

    Less is more

  10. Rob Kennedy says:

    Preach with unction, preach with passion, preach with fire, and the people will burn with you not against you.

  11. Mike says:

    Long sermons (50+ minutes), to me, often make the speaker look arrogant. I lose respect for those guys.

  12. Eric says:

    I read once that no matter how long you preach, it should always feel like 20 minutes to your listeners.

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