How Long Should a Sermon Be?
How long should a sermon be?
Dr. Lee Brand is Dean of and Professor of Preaching at Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary, in Memphis, TN.
A recent study by the Pew Research Center has garnered much attention concerning the length of sermons. This study begs the question, “How much time does one allot for the preaching of a sermon?” Amid the questioning and chatter, where do we turn for answers and guidance to build a Christ-honoring, Bible-based preaching ministry?
I believe that the most significant point of reference for the Christian preacher is Jesus. He’s the authority over life and its various expressions and exercises, even preaching. Looking prayerfully to the “Author and Perfecter of our faith,” I believe that three fundamental truths frame the Christian way of thinking, preparing, and proclaiming concerning preaching.
First, there is the conviction that God has spoken. All of Christian preaching builds upon the foundational truth of Genesis. Here, we encounter the One God who speaks. He engineers all of Creation with His spoken word. This same God works in redemption history by calling men, filling them with His Word, and sending them forth to preach. Peter Adam made a significant assertion in Speaking God’s Word that we speak because God has spoken. This conviction about preaching is the theological bedrock of the Christian exercise of proclamation.
Second, we must deal with the complexity of the passage that we aim to preach. When we move from the foundation of preaching to the various functions thereof, we now confront the immediate idea of how we approach any particular passage. The following thoughts presume that the preacher has prayed and allowed the Lord to direct him to a specific biblical text. Entering that text, he must now grapple with the overall complexity of the passage. The complexity or simplicity of the passage will now command the study, development, and delivery of the message. If the passage is relatively simple, the preacher will spend more time working through how to convey the biblical truth than he will spend trying to understand it. Either way, the passage itself will drive the various sermon components preparation and proclamation.
Finally, the preacher needs to understand the capacity of his audience. By capacity, I mean the audiences’ ability to understand the biblical truth and focus on it while it’s preached. An audience’s capacity sets the necessary parameters for the depth and duration of the message.
As the discussion flows regarding the length of sermons, I believe that genuine reflection on the audience’s capacity is a necessary consideration. Why would any presenter of information, including a preacher, set forth a presentation beyond the audience’s ability to understand or beyond that audience’s ability to focus? The goal of preaching on a strictly human level is for the proclaimed truth to be understood and on a divine level for God to be glorified. Can God be glorified if His Word, at least on some level, is not understood? Can His Word be best understood if we preach sermons beyond the people’s capacity? Therefore, sermon depth and sermon length are issues best addressed with a heart for the Lord and the hearer. Such an understanding makes it impossible to set an arbitrary time constraint on a message. However, this understanding necessitates a presentation that is limited to some degree to accommodate the capacity of all people.
It is my sincere hope that the previous thoughts will encourage us to approach the discipline of preaching with a more profound dependence upon the God who calls and a greater appreciation for the audience who hears.