About Me

What Happened To The 20-Minute Sermon?

I was slightly taken aback when one of our church members – a friend and supporter of mine – joked to her husband that she listens to me 40-minutes every Sunday. Trust me, no one knows better than I do when I stray over my allotted time. In fairness, my sermons are typically about 30-minutes, not 40. A co-worker complained to me once that a particular sermon was 38-minutes (I could tell she had only checked the time stamp on the podcast and hadn’t listened to it. There was more recorded than the sermon and she hadn’t been in worship to hear it the first time. That sermon was 30-minutes). However, she was right in that my sermons are longer than (1) I was trained to make them, (2) have typically preached them in the past and (3) than I grew up hearing others preach their sermons.

What’s more, I’m not the only one who is preaching longer. I examined the podcasts I listen to weekly and began paying attention to the length of the sermons.  I also paid closer attention to the communicators I watch online in the early hours of Sunday morning. In addition, I talked to local preachers and perused all types of church websites and I  noticed something: Hardly anyone preaches 20-minutes sermons anymore! As a matter of fact, recently we had  a family join our congregation only to leave a month later. When I encountered the husband one morning in BestBuy, he reluctantly confessed he left because of “the teaching.” Surprised by his bluntness, I stepped back. He continued, “Sorry, Pastor, It just wasn’t enough. I need an hour of teaching; 50-minutes at least.” Oddly, while attention spans in America may be getting shorter, sermons are getting longer. And there are 4 reasons why!

1. Biblical Illiteracy. When Rochelle and I came to Northern California we wanted to break out of the Bible Belt. We got all that and more. In the last 3 years we’ve had folks ask us if Abram and Abraham were the same person. Someone else asked who the “Lamb” is in reference to songs we sing. We’ve been asked a hosts of questions we had answered for us in VBS as kids. It is an honor to introduce new people to the scriptures. We can never fault people for not knowing the basic narrative of the Bible, but it does mean that during the preaching event, nothing can be taken for granted. Each week preachers have to cover more of the narrative than they used to because many in the congregation don’t know it. This is especially true out of the Bible Belt and for churches growing with lots of non-churched people.

2. Children’s Ministry. In my childhood church there was no such thing as children’s ministry. And no one envisioned children’s church and the plethora of fun teaching environments my kids enjoy. That meant that as I fidgeted in church, my mom and dad had to control and/or entertain me. In this environment, the preacher received tacit (and overt) signals to stand up, speak up and shut up  — quickly. With kids outside of the preaching event and experiencing specialized programs that need quite a bit of time themselves, there is more opportunity to teach – and longer. When I was young, worship services were one-hour, now I don’t know a church that’s less than an hour and a half, and many are two hours. As a matter of fact, our children’s minster recently told me that a slew of the programs available to purchase are now in 2-hour formats.

3. Better Presentations. Sermons are more entertaining and interesting than ever. When I was a kid all my preachers had in their arsenal was the Holy Spirit and their personal rhetorical skills. Nowadays, there are videos, feature songs, props, object lessons, dance teams, dramas, etc…. Preachers can use the full weaponry of their creativity and because churches are now filled with adults who came of age in modern-day youth ministry, audiences are used to and expect engaging, visual presentations.

4. No Sunday Night Services. Again, when I was young, we worshipped on Sunday morning & Sunday night. That meant there were more opportunities for teaching in the life of the church. Let’s face it, most folks in our churches only have the weekly sermon for spiritual formation and education. Of course, it shouldn’t be that way, but it is…for most! Increasing the sermon a few minutes helps make up what used to be standard.

The miraculous part is that many of the churches with longer sermons — think Francis Chan, Tim Keller, Rob Bell and Andy Stanley (all who go a MINIMUM of 40 minutes) — are growing. These pastors, and many much lesser known churches, are growing and impacting their communities. Longer sermons seem to be a trend…and I think, within reason it’s good.

The challenge for preachers is to maximize the time. If you’re not a gifted communicator, cut back. If you are, continue to master your craft. It matters less how much time you take, what matters is the time you waste.

What’s happening in your community? Are sermons better? Longer? More Engaging? How can your preacher help you experience God through the presentation of God’s word?

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  • Sean,
    I agree that the sermon has transitioned from preaching to teaching. That burden necessitates time. Also, not everyone had your and my experience. I frequently hear about the 1 or 2 hour sermons that were common back in the day. I’ve been told that my 30 minute messages are “brief!”

    • Sean

      That really means they’re good. I went about 33 minutes when I was at your place, I think.

  • There have been a couple of times when I’ve looked at my message that I’ve prepared and thought, “It’s too short. I need to add more stuff.” Almost like l was being paid by the minute.

    To me the length of the sermon should be determined by how long it takes to communicate the desired message. A well-developed image that sticks with the hearers could be embedded in a 12 minute sermon. A explanation of what Jesus is talking about in Mark 13 is going to take at least an hour.

  • Deanna Love

    Having been taught that 20 minutes is the attention span of the average listener, Bill preached 20 minute sermons; however, one elderly man in Winnipeg called them “sermonettes.” I noticed that as Bill got older his sermons became longer. I’m not sure why, but maybe he had more to say on the subject. I really don’t remember that anyone complained. My young nephew from Austin used to time Bill’s sermons and compare the time to that of his minister in Austin — the shorter one was the winner. There is a huge church in my town that plans 45 minutes of “worship,” singing, etc., and 45 minutes of preaching. Preach on, Brother Sean, and don’t worry about the clock — well, be sure you get to the cafeteria ahead of the Baptists.

    • Sean

      Bill could do more in 20 minutes than most folks could do in 2 days, Deanna. There’s not a week that goes by when I don’t ask myself, “Where is the cross in this sermon?” – one of my central takeaways from Bill’s book. Bill preaching and writing transformed a generation.

  • I was listening to a podcast a while back from some guys associated with the Acts 29 church planting network, and one of the observations they made was that the churches growing the most and the quickest in their particular network were made up of preachers preaching longer messages (most around an hour).

    Perhaps this generation is hungry for “meatier” teaching?

    Good insights, Sean. Appreciate the post.

    • Sean

      Isn’t that interesting, Wes. I’m not tooting my own horn, but no one complains when I go long – except the folks teaching kids. I do sense a hunger – a deep hunger – for more immersion in the word. I listen to Tim Keller and Andy Stanley a great deal these days. Those guys are 40-minutes minimum and rarely do I think, “OK, time to wrap it up.” Churches of Christ seem really dedicated to 20-minutes. I wonder if we’re doing ourselves a disservice.

  • Pingback: Help Your Preacher Preach Better #3 (5 Strategies to “Getting” the Sermon) | The Palmer Perspective()

  • It probably goes without saying, but a lot of this depends on what tradition one is from. I regularly preach sermons between 15 & 20 minutes, usually hitting right at the 18 minute mark (I’m an Episcopal priest BTW, but I grew up Southern Baptist). I can say that I preach longer than most of my peers, who usually have 5-10 minute homilies. In the past I’ve had people from Baptist backgrounds say “I was just getting into it and you stopped” and a few from Methodist and Roman Catholic backgrounds accuse me of preaching like a Baptist.

    I think you’re spot on about the need for more biblical background in sermons these days, and I certainly have that in my sermons regularly. In working with a lay preacher in our congregation who is a graduate of Gordon Conwell, who once preached for 45 minutes in one of our services (the fact that he wasn’t killed speaks to his skill), I made the point that liturgical preaching provides an opportunity to make one solid point, and if folks go away remembering that point, you’ve accomplished your goal. And generally I think that is what accounts for differences in length between my sermons and those of preachers from evangelical backgrounds that I listen to. A great example of this is Rob Bell’s “Gourd of the Lord” sermon. I really like it, but in listening to it, I counted the equivalent of three sermons in my context.

    • Wow! 5-10 minutes. While many people in my tradition complain about long sermons, if they were that short, folks would get pretty upset about “not getting their monies worth.” I can pull off a really short one every once in a while, but I think my folks expect 20-25 minutes minimum. Jody, how do you tink sermon length is affecting your tradition?

  • I preach a little less than every other week, and I often find myself preaching a little longer than our older pulpit minister, mostly because of the way I preach. I try to be really intentional about making sure the sermon is going somewhere, instead of offering bits of wisdom (anyway, I’m 23, I don’t have many bits wisdom). I’ve found a sermon with a plot takes longer to develop than having an intro & concl with a few points in the middle. Maybe it’s because we still have our children in services or because we still have a second round in the evening, but if I go 30, I can almost guarantee I’ll get some comments about it being too long. Though I have noticed the same kind of trend nationally. We’re just not there.

  • I usually run about 25-35 minutes and fortunately I never hear any complaints about that. My own hunch tells me that the length doesn’t matter as long as something substantial is being spoken. On the other hand, if a preacher is just riding a favorite hobby horse, chasing a needless rabbit trail, sharing a very superficial story, or (and this one is very important) telling too many stories that begin with “I”…then the sermon becomes rather boring to me.

    Grace and Peace,

    Rex

  • Trey

    Admittedly, this comes from an educator, not a preacher, so take with a grain of salt.

    If we’ve transitioned into a season where preaching is as much about teaching as it is about preaching, then our methods of communicating that message in an educational manner have not kept up.

    Preaching engages the ears. Better preaching engages the eyes and the ears. Very few, and I mean very few, sermons engage the attender in a kinesthetic way. If it’s about teaching now, then there has to be a stronger communal experience and less one-way communication. What can I touch? What can I move? Where can I walk? Who can I talk to?

    The liturgical traditions understand this in a unique way–the Eucharist is the focal point of communal experience. The Eucharist is a “full body” experience rather than just a hearing of the Word.

    I can enjoy a 40-minute educational experience and remember better than 50% of it if it’s done exceptionally well. A 30 minute sermon where the preacher speaks and I listen? I’ll be doing well to remember one idea.

    • Well said, Trey. I don’t want preaching to become teaching. I struggle with how to combine high homiletics and a easily grasp-able message.

  • Max Chance

    I wonder if it has anything to do with the focus on Narrative, as you mentioned a few days ago. I’m not saying everyone is focusing on that… it would be great if that was the case. But in the world of screenwriting, from which I borrow liberally for ideas/virtues of narrative presentation, they always say, “don’t worry about length, just tell your story.” If you’re doing Austin Powers, you don’t need 3 hours (-a little of that goes a long way!). If you’re doing Dances With Wolves… well, even the theatrical cut of that was beyond 3 hours, and you’re hard pressed to find it on disc these days (the 234 minute version seems to be prevailing over the 181m). The difference in that context is obvious. I don’t remember ever feeling restless in Wolves because it told a lean, engaging story throughout. Whereas, in other overly-long movies, ones that drifted from the narrative core, we either leave, fall asleep, or change the channel. Maybe there should be an appropriate fluctuation in sermons, given the length, or ‘meat,’ of the narrative chosen for the day. If we’ve made the ‘point,’ we know it (hopefully) and the listener knows it (certainly). When that’s done, however long it takes, we sit. The screenwriting community also says, “cut to the chase!” …and effective communicators know how to do that. Should we focus on trying to standardize a time slot, or just see to it that we tell our story? I preach for a small church, where no one cares if this week it’s 27 min, the next week it’s 43m. Thank God! I would drive a Children’s Minister bonkers!

  • I can remember many years ago a simple statement that has beenpart of my preparation ever since.

    “There is only one thing worse than taking 40 minutes to preach a 15 minute sermon, and that is to take 15 minutes to preach a 40 minute sermon”

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