How many times have you heard, jokingly, “Well, if the preacher hadn’t been so longwinded . . ?”
I tell people all the time, “Time goes by so fast when you’re standing in the pulpit and so slow when you’re sitting in the pew!” I know, I’ve been on both sides! It raises the question, though: How many minutes should your sermon last?
Sermons in Scripture
Actual sermons in Scripture run both ends of the spectrum. Perhaps the greatest sermon ever preached, the Sermon on the Mount, was less than 12 minutes (Matt. 5-7). Peter’s sermon at Pentecost was less than 3 minutes and 3,000 souls were saved (Acts 2). If Hebrews is a sermon, as some suggest, it would have lasted about 40 minutes. On the other hand, Paul once “prolonged his speech until midnight” in Troas (Acts 20:7). One young man fell asleep in a windowsill and fell three stories to his apparent death, Eutychus. One preacher said, “You’d-a-cussed (Eu-ty-chus), too, if Paul preached that long!”
The point is this: sermons in Scripture vary in length. What’s more, it seems they took their audience and setting into account. We probably should, too. After all, no one (we hope) would preach a 3-hour Puritan-style sermon to preschoolers.
Is the Strength in the Length?
John Calvin didn’t think so. Commenting on 1 Corinthians 14:29, where Paul limits (to three) the number of prophets allowed to speak, Calvin states, “Paul considered what the weakness of men could bear.”1John Calvin, Commentary on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians, vol. 1, trans. by John Pringle (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, reprinted 2005), 460. Calvin’s own sermons, when read aloud, typically range anywhere from 8 minutes to 60 minutes. Luther, likewise, famously is quoted, “Some plague the people with too long sermons; for the faculty of listening is a tender thing, and soon becomes weary and satiated.”
This is not to suggest longer sermons are less effective or that shorter sermons are preferred. It is only to observe this: sermon length in Scripture and throughout church history varied. Therefore, we cannot say the “strength is in the length.”
Neil Postman wrote a fascinating little volume entitled, Amusing Ourselves to Death.2Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death (New York, New York: Penguin Group, 1986). It’s a book about the American person’s diminishing attention span. We are bombarded with thousands of pieces of information daily: billboards, advertisements, street signs, text messages, radio ads, etc. Open your computer and ads pop up every 5-10 seconds. Television scenes change every 3-4 seconds. You tap your phone every 2-3 seconds. All of this trains the brain to jump constantly. It has had an effect. People today have trouble looking you in the eye, much less enduring a 90-minute sermon. They are accustomed to a blitzkrieg of information bombarding them from all angles. As technology has advanced, attention spans have decreased. Postman’s thesis, essentially, was this: The only remedy to shortened attention spans is more lecture-style exposition.
We sympathize with Postman’s point. At the same time, we wonder—with the sermon in particular—if this should be a wholescale, immediate change or more of a gradual turning of the ship. After all, most of society—even those faithful congregation members—have been reared on sound-bytes, sports highlights, and cheeky tweets: No one watches a 9-inning baseball game anymore when they can pull-up the highlights on their cell phone. Unless you have been homeschooled (and we are thankful for those who had/have that blessing), then a 2 to 3-hour Puritanesque sermon may be asking too much today. Jesus certainly didn’t demand that of His listeners on the mount (Matt. 5-7) or at the beach (Matt. 13). Yet, Paul did (albeit, to an entirely different audience), and at least one faithful listener was unable to endure (Acts 20).
We wonder how helpful it is when others browbeat listeners for their inability endure 60+ minute messages. Perhaps we should recognize: (1) most of us are not gifted orators like Spurgeon; (2) our inefficient use of time is not the listener’s fault; and, (3) our listeners’ brains can take only so much divine truth in one sitting.
God revealed all truth progressively, not all in one sitting. Preachers often reveal all truth in one sitting, not progressively. We wonder why.
One of my favorite preachers on earth is in a small town in Alabama. Few have heard his name, Tom Hannah. His messages typically run about 20 minutes, but they are packed with powerful, poignant, passionate gospel truth. Another of my favorite preachers is in California. Many have heard his name, John MacArthur. His messages typically run about 60 minutes, but they, too, are packed with powerful, poignant, passionate gospel truth. Both have recognized their giftedness and exercise it appropriately.
What, exactly, are we suggesting? We are suggesting there can be strength in length, and we are suggesting (with Luther and Calvin) there can be strength in brevity.
Yet, is the number of minutes the primary concern? . . .
We think not, and we will suggest why in the next article.