A View from the Pew: How Long Should the Sermon Last?

I’m a preacher’s kid with two preacher brothers. I’ve grown up around preachers and spent 10 years of my professional career working in close proximity to preachers at the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

One of my favorite jokes I heard during these formational experiences goes something like this:
“Do you know what it means when a preacher takes off his watch and sets it on the pulpit at the start of a sermon? Absolutely nothing.”

Preachers are known to have a loose relationship with time. The cliche is that they don’t know the limits of their audience’s ability to hear them. The spiritual and esoteric considerations of their ministry overshadow the more practical realities of their parishioners’ attention span, comfort, and interest.

And who can blame preachers? After all, they have prayerfully and thoughtfully constructed a sermon that they believe the Lord has laid on their heart to deliver to the congregation gathered that day. The highest priority is given to the transmission of the content, and for many preachers, the view is “a sermon lasts as long as it lasts.”

Pew Research found in 2019 that the average length of a sermon in a Christian church was 37 minutes. I don’t know the ideal length, and I’m not about to prescribe one. All I can say is that for 51 years I have been listening to sermons, and the longer a preacher talked the less I could absorb.

While I firmly believe in the Spirit’s leading to speak a word for the Lord, I also believe that with a little effort and an acknowledgment of the listeners’ perspective, the pastor can convey what the Spirit is leading them to say in fewer words.

I’m a communicator by training. In nearly every college journalism course I was reintroduced to communications theory: There is an encoder who encodes a message. There is a decoder who receives the message. There is a medium by which the message is delivered. There is noise through which the message must travel to reach the decoder. And there is feedback from the decoder back to the encoder to confirm receipt of the message.

This applies to preaching. The act of sermon preparation is the encoding. Preaching is the medium. Members of the congregation are the decoders. The noise? Sometimes that’s actual noise, like mobile phones ringing, feedback or interference in the sound system, or crying babies.

Most often, the noise is in the heads of the congregation. It’s all the distractions they bring with them into worship. It’s the grocery list, cares and concerns of the week, anxieties over current challenges, or anticipation of the sumptuous Sunday lunch awaiting them after church.

Feedback should be the most obvious and outwardly visible piece of the communications equation when applied to preaching. It takes the form of smiling and nodding, a verbal “Amen!”, and even applause in some faith traditions. Or on the opposite end of the response spectrum, feedback could be a blank stare, puzzled look, or nodding off.

I subscribe to the proverb “less is more.” I believe it’s a bit of an overreach to get your audience to remember three points. If you can convey one meaningful thought that sticks with them, you’ve accomplished something special.

It’s hard for preachers to feel they are adequately doing their job if they preach less. They feel they are shortchanging the congregation if the sermon is too short, like the church isn’t getting its money’s worth, to borrow a crass, commercial concept.

In doing their jobs, preachers condition their churches to either respond to or tune out their sermons. Admittedly, both the encoders and decoders have work to do in this equation. Preachers can work to make their sermons more focused and to the point, less scattered, and less focused on their favorite new Greek word. Parishioners can work to increase their ability to focus, training themselves to listen intently and prayerfully and not give in to the sound bite and distracted cultural norms of today.

As a pew sitter, this is my advice to preachers: Say what God gave you to say as engagingly and memorably as you know how, then sit down. Leave it to the Holy Spirit to do the rest.

And before you think I’m being self-righteous, let me acknowledge these principles apply to writers, too. So in the words of Forrest Gump, that’s all I have to say about that.

Lance Wallace is a Baptist layperson and member of Parkway Baptist Church in Johns Creek, GA. He earns a living in higher education communications and writes a blog at newsouthessays.com.

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