How long should a sermon be?

40 minutes?  20?  Somewhere in the middle?

In “Lectures to my Students,” Charles Spurgeon wrote this: “In order to maintain attention, avoid being too long. An old preacher used to say to a young man who preached an hour, ‘My dear friend, I do not care what else you preach about, but I wish you would always preach about forty minutes.’ We ought seldom to go much beyond that — forty minutes, or say, three-quarters of an hour. If a fellow cannot say all he has to say in that time, when will he say it?”

So is 40 minutes the right length?  Or should a sermon be more like a TED talk…coming in at 18 minutes? A preacher and a church member might give two dramatically different answers to this question.

But here’s the real answer:  A sermon should be as short as necessary.

The goal of a sermon is not to fill the time but to encourage people to follow Jesus.  So why do so many messages come across like lengthy wandering?  Why are preachers tempted to throw in more content and make messages longer?

Here are five thoughts.

1.  Don’t be afraid of leaving something out.

If you are afraid of offending someone, or of leaving out a viable argument, you are just filling your messages with disclaimers and alternative perspectives. If you’re preaching a message on grace, you want to make sure people don’t think that grace is a license to sin, so you try to cover it all.

In the process, you bury a simple idea in a sea of words.

If you have something to say, it’s not improved with more verses or paragraphs.  You don’t have to provide disclaimers for six different groups of people.

2.  Don’t choose topics that are too broad.

Many topics are far too grand for one sermon.

But instead of narrowing your focus, a lot of pastors try to cover everything in one message.  What should take three or four weeks ends up becoming one very confusing (and very long) message.

More information does not make a better presentation.  In fact, the opposite is usually true.  Shorter is usually better.  A narrower focus will lead to a clearer outcome.

Your job is to take a topic and make it simple and actionable, not cover everything.

3.  Don’t talk for the sake of talking.

A lot of presentations are too long because the person delivering it likes to talk. After all, preachers are paid to talk. You don’t want brevity in a message to turn into scarcity of paycheck.

But the length of your message is not any real indication of how good it really is. The length of your talk measured in minutes is not the same thing as how long your talk feels to your audience. Take a short walk through history and you’ll notice that some of the world’s most impactful speeches were short.

Just because you like to talk doesn’t mean everyone needs to listen.

4.  Don’t talk more if you’re unprepared.

Blaise Pascal once wrote in a letter, “I have only made this letter longer because I have not had the time to make it shorter.”  He knew brevity that leads to clarity takes work.

Too many sermons are longer than necessary because the preacher  is not prepared. The stage is not the place to think out loud or form your thoughts. Preparation should lead to more succinct messages, not longer ones.

The opportunity to speak comes with a responsibility to prepare. This takes hard work, focus and time.  You can rely on passion and talent, but speaking from that place is a well that will run dry.

5.  Some preachers believe longer messages are more faithful to the Bible.

In preaching, you have two goals – to be faithful to the text and to impact the hearts of people. Sermon prep should start with the Scripture. And your message needs to be God’s truth rather than your opinion.

But don’t make the mistake of thinking it’s length that makes you faithful to the text. Shorter messages can also honor God’s Word. Just because a message is longer doesn’t mean it’s deeper, more meaty, or more faithful to the text.

So how long should a sermon be?  As short as necessary to honor God and inspire people to follow him.

The goal is not to fill the time, but to change lives.

So What’s Next?

Feel like your church should be growing, but it’s not? From someone who used to be a pastor and church planter, I know it can be frustrating.

Ultimately, church growth is up to God. But are we doing everything we can to ensure our church is healthy? How do we overcome the barriers we feel are in front of us?

We know you care deeply about leading a healthy growing church because it means leading more people to Jesus. As a result we created a free guide to breaking barriers that will bring clarity and help begin to alleviate your frustrations.

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