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You Probably Preach Too Long

Preachers, learn with me from the following story. It was related to me by a mature Christian man with whom I chatted on a recent flight. He was explaining why he hadn’t settled into a well known preacher’s church despite living in the area for several years. He summarized the problem by quoting his wife’s assessment of a sermon after a particularly long service:

“For the first 20 minutes, I was sure I’d never heard such sound preaching. For the next 20 minutes, I thought he should probably wrap it up. For the final 20 minutes, I started to hate the man.”

Hilarious. But also instructive, especially for a guy like me whose sermons regularly go 50-plus minutes. Be careful about assuming that your longwindedness is a virtue. I’m not arguing for sermonettes, mind you, but 45 minutes should be more than enough time to explain a passage thoroughly and make appropriate applications. Occasionally you may need more time, but I’d not make it a habit.

Preaching an hour is easy. In my experience, it takes more work to preach a meaty and efficient message, not less. But if we’re convinced that what we’re saying is eternally important, we should make sure we’re not saying it in such a way that the last third of it is merely endured. After all, we want our hearers to be thinking of the text, not praying for our demise.

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24 Responses

  1. reiterating takes a lot of time!

  2. That last paragraph is worth its weight in gold. Really great wisdom. I’m a young preacher. I used to think I was good at preaching. Now, not so much. So much to learn. SO, SO much room for improvement. I appreciate your post and thoughts here. Encouraging and challenging. What a great mix! God bless.

  3. The problem is not with the preachers, it is with the Corinthian Christians sitting in the pews! Can I get an Amen? (It is hard to pick it up in the post, but I said that in a gravely, conviction-filled voice)

  4. You liberal!!! … Next thing you know you are going to be writing your own music …

    If you weren’t out gallavanting around the countryside, you wouldn’t be getting advice from these ne’er-do-wells trying to ruin the church.

    Paul preached till some guy fell out the window and died. As proponents of the regulative principle, how can we do less?

  5. I have sat through sermons that are an hour plus and didn’t realize they were longer than 30 minutes. However, I have also sat through sermons that were 30 minutes and thought they were 25 minutes too long. Much of it depends on whether the amount of time is justified by the text and subject and whether or not the person is taking too long to say what he is saying.
    Sadly, I find I too often err on the side of taking longer than the topic demands.

  6. The mind can only absorb what the seat can endure.

  7. I listened to the new 9Marks interview today. It was interesting to hear Dever explain how he doubled his sermon length to 60+ minutes after preaching in South Africa and hearing encouragement from believers there to preach longer.

  8. Chris,

    I logged into my google reader tonight and noticed that the college student who slept through Bible study tonight had shared this piece. Ouch.

  9. Lol Dave. :) If it makes you feel any better, “Mouse” is from TCBC…

  10. “How long should you preach? It depends on how good you are.” – John Maxwell.

    I once heard Bob Russell give a formula for preaching. He told a room full of preachers to rate themselves (in their minds) on a scale of 1 to 10. Then he said, “Whatever the number is, subtract two” (all of us overestimate our abilities). Then multiply that number by 5. That formula would suggest that even the very best (a “10”) should only preach 40 minutes (10-2×5=40). Of course there are exceptions to this rule. And some sermons do require more time. But very few preachers can hold the attention of a congregation for more than 30 minutes or so. And for those of us who preach every week, we get another shot next week. And those who say, “sermonettes are preached by preacherettes and produce Christianettes” usually are pummeling their people with their long-windedness.

  11. Yeah, everybody thinks they’re the exception because they’re so riveting. :)

    Ben, I appreciate what Dever is saying. I’ve listened to long sermons from guys like Dever and Minnick for years, easily and with profit. They’re exceptionally gifted, but most of us need to be more careful than we are, I imagine, not cutting essential content, but saying things better and thus more briefly. And even those few who are as gifted as the men I mentioned may find that they accomplish more in 45 minutes than 55, 65, or 75.

  12. I’m happy to say that my sermons are 35 min on average! Of course the main reason for that is we have a time limit when we have to be out of our meeting place! In all seriousness, having that time deadline has helped me be more concise and precise with my preaching, hopefully to the benefit of my hearers.

  13. Uh, Pastor Anderson, have you counted how many sermons Dr. Barrett has on sermonaudio that are 45 minutes or less? :-) If a man is soundly expositing the truth of God’s Word and helping me apply it to my life, he’s more than welcome to keep going! I’ll squirm or change positions if I need to.

    It is interesting to me how easy it is for us to sit still for an hour or hours at a time when we want to (especially if we are being entertained). I wonder if the issue lies far more in the thinking of us hearers than in the length of sermons being preached. Maybe we need to listen to Dr. Barrett’s “Take Heed How Ye Hear” again?

  14. Lyn, +1 to that.

    I’ll happily concede that a pastor needs to perceive what will be most helpful to the sort of flock he pastors, but a couple observations:

    1. Preachers who gravitate towards a high level of extemporaneity tend to be less economical and more repetitive, and more difficult to listen to. Preachers who are more precise and efficient tend to be easier for me to listen to. This might involve heavier notes (without being so tied to a manuscript that it becomes an academic lecture), or it might merely require more advance rehearsal.

    2. In light of other conversations, preachers who are doing more big picture biblical-theological work and penetrating application are often easier for me to listen to for a long time than guys who are absorbed with showing me all their work or chasing every possible dependent clause and prepositional phrase.

  15. Well if you can’t listen to John MacArthur, John Piper and Charles Stanly for and hour then you are not a mature Christian.

  16. Yes, but we are not talking about us (the mature readers of this blog) listening to those pulpit giants. We are talking about the average church member listening to regular folks like us.

  17. All,

    I’m really not intending to justify lazy listeners. Pay attention, regardless of length. Think. Focus.

    But, speaking to pastors, I think we’re not careful enough about how long we preach. I’m not, and for years I considered it a strength. I preach long, TCBC listens long. Good for us. But it’s occurred to me, in part because I’ve heard even the best of preachers go so long that it hurt their ministry on that occasion, that sometimes my length can be due to the sort of laziness we’re condemning in hearers. It takes work to be concise. Yet, I’ve found that on the rare occasions when I’ve been forced to preach for 30 minutes, I’ve been more effective, not less.

    As far as solving the problem, I usually get in trouble late in a message (even the longest ones) because I’ve been too slow or chatty or repetitive early on. So when the sermon should be climaxing, I’m having to jettison cargo. It’s a bad habit and I’m working on addressing it. You might, too. All I’m saying. :)

  18. Agreed, Mike. Some guys like Dever and Piper and Minnick and Barrett can hold attention for a very long time. Most of us can’t—despite our opinions to the contrary. :)

  19. I’m not sure I agree with the “I can’t do what big-name pastor x does because he is extraordinarily gifted and I’m not” philosophy. If you have the gift of teaching, something that every pastor ought to have, then you should be able to hold your audience for longer than 30 minutes. I’m not saying you have to preach for an hour, but the issue really shouldn’t be the clock, it should be “how can I most effectively communicate this passage to my congregation.” Normal, everyday pastors can hold their people as long as they need to if they have content and passion. Content takes hard work in preparation and passion comes from prayer and believing this is God’s word for us today and that it is critical, life-changing, and imperative that we get it, believe it, and obey it. In other words, it is simply the outworking of this principle from freshman speech class: “The effective speaker has a message to deliver, has a definite purpose in giving that message, and is consumed with the necessity of getting that message across and accomplishing that purpose.”

    The beauty of this is that anyone can do that. You don’t have to be a Minnick, Doran, Dever, Piper, or whoever. You just have to be you. Yes, we can all do better, and better may be shorter (I don’t disagree with that), but shorter isn’t always better.

    If a person normally preaches an hour but includes 15 minutes of fluff, then by all means cut that out and preach shorter. Some people can be overly analytical, too, taking too long to deal with a side issue or grammatical point. We can jettison that stuff. And, really, we don’t need to hear last week’s sermon preached all over again in the first 15-20 minutes of this week’s message. Review just enough to get us up to speed, but do your best to make the on-ramp short. I’m all for perfecting one’s craft so that you are as effective as possible but I’d much rather have a guy go long who is long because he has content and passion to deliver that content, than to sit through fluff that is short, or to be so bound to an artificial standard that content, quality, and significance are sacrificed.

    Just my thoughts, from someone in the pew.

  20. Makes perfect sense, Andy. Thanks.

  21. There’s two kinds of long-winded preaching: 1) that which is the result of a man with much to say; and 2) that which is the result of a man who has not figured out what to say.

    To the former I say, preach on! To the latter I ask, “Why must we sit here while you stammer on hoping to find your point?”

    Preaching is not supposed to be extemporaneous brain-storming, but that’s the way I’ve seen some long-winded preachers treat it. It’s as if the more they talk, the more chance they’ll have of stumbling upon something good to say. I’ve seen preachers do this time and again.

  22. The pastor at the church I just moved away from is perhaps the most intelligent man I have met (and I was a math major in college!) and, though he does not do a verse-by-verse exposition through a book of the bible (btw, neither did Spurgeon) I’m pretty sure he prepares his basic series and sermon outlines months in advance …. and he preaches for only 20 minutes!

    Granted, he also memorizes/’internalizes’ everything every time he steps up to speak, sermon, prayer meeting, group bible study, so perhaps 20 minutes is all he can stuff in his head for one time, but oh it is a good 20 minutes.

  23. Thanks for this, Chris. I’ve heard many messages where I’ve thought to myself “I understood the concept you’re trying to explain TEN MINUTES ago – move on and DO something with it!”

    Anybody can beat around the bush. Knowing what to do with the boar once it’s been caught – that takes skill. (I think I’ve kept my metaphor straight…)

  24. […] than any preachers of my acquaintance, limited his sermons to 40-45 minutes. This reminds me of this, only […]

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